Rendering styles for your design project

People love photorealistic renderings. The lighting, the reflections, the lifelike materials and objects create an emotional reaction and can help to sell a design. But are they always the best option?

Photorealism can be costly because of the time needed to produce high quality images, so that’s clearly a factor in choosing a rendering style. It can also be ineffective since it tends to be viewed with a sense of permanence to a design, which during earlier phases of a project is not wanted.

As a designer you’re likely trying to communicate specific information to your audience as you move through your design process. Renderings are one of your most important tools so it’s important that they reflect where you are in that process. And this means that ideally they should illustrate the parts of your design that you’re ready to show while at the same time omitting the details that you’re not. So, your early conceptual ideas may be rendered in a sketch-like appearance to communicate their broadness and somewhat disposable nature. Then, as your design ideas evolve and solidify, the renderings can also evolve to include details like colors, material choices and more accurate size and spatial  relationships. Photorealism can be reserved for use at critical points in the project, for example when you’re trying to get final design approval from a client or when you need lifelike images for sales and marketing campaigns.

The beauty of working and rendering in 3D is that not only are 3D models created based on your place in the design process, but they evolve with it. And at any point in time, renderings can be made in whatever style is appropriate, and from any angle or vantage point.

Let’s take a look at variety of rendering styles, including many simpler and less costly choices that can be used with great effect during different phases of a project. 


Sketches are perfect for early conceptual work. They are quick to create and they convey a message of “this is just an idea”. Digital sketches can be produced styles in styles that range from napkin-like scribble to shaded black & white drawings.


Another great choice for conceptual work, these have more of a refined appearance than sketches. Objects and shadows can be shown for effect while the images still maintain an overall schematic appearance. These are a great option when you want to show progress past the “sketchy” phase but are not ready to include details like colors and finish materials.


Stylized renderings mimic artistic techniques such as watercolor and can be very effective when included in presentations and promotional materials. They are great for conceptual ideas, particularly for 2-dimensional views like elevations, floor plans, and even section views, which can often be very uninteresting and even confusing to many people.


These are similar to the monochromatic renderings above, but include added colors, finish materials and perhaps more 3D detail. Great for late conceptual work as well as in the design development phase, they let your audience visualize your design in a more of an end state while still giving the impression that the design is not finished yet.


Photorealism is produced by simulating lighting effects, environment, material properties and 3-dimensional detail. A significant amount of time is often needed to achieve ultra-photorealistic images. However, by limiting the amount of detail and refinement, a “basic” level of photorealism is achievable while still staying within the budget constraints of most projects. This is a great strategy when photorealism is needed to gain approvals or sell designs. The level of photorealism can be progressively increased by investing more time and effort into the creation process.