Site & Legal Overhaul

Running this site for the last year and a half has exposed us to a whole world of legal issues that appear to be little known in the architecture community. We started this project because it was hard to find images of authentic, diverse people, doing the kind of everyday (and sometimes not-so-everyday) things that renderings require. As a result, we took a guerrilla approach to finding and cutting out images, and have always been up front about the fact that we don't have the rights to most of the images on the site. As it turns out, even we weren't aware of all of the legal facets of using cutout figures in architectural rendering.

Before we go any further, it's important to put in a little legal disclaimer, because that's the kind of world we live in: this is not legal advice, in the strict sense of that term. This is based on personal research (here's one good site to check out), and off-the-record conversations with legal professionals. In other words, this is what we believe, but you should consult your own lawyer before using anything off of this site. Got it? Good, read on. 

Basically there are two things you need to be aware of when using images found online. The first, and most obvious, is copyright. Whoever took that photo owns the rights to it. Period. In most cases they don't even have to register it, the copyright is implicit. Accordingly, if you use that image - or a portion of that image - without their permission, you're violating the law. Now, fair use laws outline a number of uses in which it's actually okay to violate their copyright. These are a bit ambiguous, but generally educational and strictly non-commercial uses fall under fair use. So, if you're cutting out images to use on a school project, you're probably within operating with fair use and don't need to worry about the copyright. If you're a firm using these images for your own work, or for competitions, or really anything where you're trying to get paid you most certainly do need to worry about the copyright. 

This is one of the big red flags we've come across regarding rendering practices in the field of architecture: renderings are almost always considered commercial use. They are a form of advertising. Whether you're showing them to a client, using them for a competition, putting them on your website, or getting them published on Dezeen, they are almost certainly going to be ruled commercial or advertising use, which means you are operating outside of fair use and subject to the strictest interpretation of copyright laws. Unfortunately for all of us, they aren't legally considered art, and don't get special treatment. 

So what's to stop us from going out and taking our own photographs of people on the street, cutting those out, and using them in our renderings or on this site? That's where the right to someone's likeness comes in, or "right to publicity" depending on the state. Basically, each of us has a certain degree of ownership over our own likeness. There are certain exceptions, and you give up certain rights by going out in public. For instance, in most cases, if you take a photo of someone on the street, you can legally sell that image as a portrait. You can also sell almost any image taken in a public space for "editorial use", which usually means to a newspaper or magazine for specific journalistic purposes. This is again where fair use comes in, and our understanding is that someone's likeness can be used without explicit permission if it is for educational, non-commercial use.

But what you can't do under any circumstances, is use someone's likeness for "commercial" or advertising purposes without their consent. This is what keeps Coca-Cola from using images of people drinking Coke on the street in their ad campaigns. Instead, they have to pay models large sums of money for the privilege of using their likeness. 

As outlined above, this is what architects should be doing also. Using someone's likeness to promote design services is very much a commercial use. This means that even if you receive permission from the copyright owner of an image (or you own the copyright yourself), you still need the person featured to sign a model release granting you permission to use their likeness in a commercial context.

If this all seems like a lot of new information, it's because few people in the architectural community seem to be aware of these regulations, and the vast majority of cutout sites either don't have own the copyright, don't have model releases, or both. That's a pretty big deal given the extent to which even large architecture firms tend to get their cutout figures from these sites. There's not a lot of precedent for this kind of lawsuit in architecture, but given the money involved in the design and construction of a building, even minor damages could amount to a very large sum.

So, what should you do? First, if you can afford it, check with a legal professional. Second, figure out where your cutouts are coming from and make sure you're getting permission to use both the copyright and the likeness in the image. If you're not, find a better resource, or get comfortable with the legal risk. 

Okay, now for our bit. What have we done? We don't want to take these images offline. There's a clear need for increased diversity in architectural representation, and we want to help people achieve that in their renderings, and engage with those issues in a deeper way. But we also want to provide an options for non-students. As such, we've reorganized around three galleries featuring modified versions of the same images:

  1. "Cutouts" - this is our new landing page, and our working title for the style. These are images that have been stylized in such a way that we've rendered the individual unidentifiable, while still preserving a distinct aesthetic. This gets us around the issue of likeness, and puts us squarely into the legal grey area of whether this constitutes enough modification of the original image to be considered fair use. Our position is that it does, which would make it legal for commercial use. You should, however, make your own judgment before using these images (unfortunately the Shepard Fairey case doesn't shed a whole lot of light on the issue).
  2. "Silhouettes" - these are straightforward, and even more clear cut than the previous category. We believe these are well within fair use laws, and should be usable in all commercial work. 
  3. "Originals" - and so, finally, we arrive back at our original images. These are still available, but tucked away behind an additional level of acknowledgment that they are intended for educational and otherwise non-commercial use only. Use very much at your own risk. 

We've also taken down the "submit" and "tags" pages, for reasons that we'll go into in another post. For now, let us know what you think about the change at

On Quality

One of the difficult parts of curating a site like this is maintaining a standard of quality. This is difficult primarily for two related reasons, (1) it can be difficult to find high-quality images of specific people doing specific activities, so we sometimes have to compromise on quality, and (2) cut out people in renderings get used at different scales and resolutions, so it isn't always necessary for a cutout to be high resolution. In many cases, the right person at a lower quality is preferable to the wrong one at a higher quality.

To this end, we're introducing categories as a new feature, additional menu options on the navigation bar. Our two immediately available categories are "New", so you can quickly see the most recent content added to the site, and "High-Resolution", for when you're doing a particularly large rendering, or need to place someone in the foreground. The addition of an HD category gives us the freedom to include in the database interesting images that don't meet the highest standard of quality. 

The third category that we will hopefully be adding to the site in the near future is "Commercial", which will allow you to quickly filter the database to show images that are either public domain, commercially licensed under the creative commons, or that we otherwise have the rights to distribute for commercial use. 

As always, send feedback to, and be sure to contribute your own images using the submit page. Nonscandinavia gets stronger with user involvement, so send those images our way!

Are Renderings Means or Ends?

There's a question we've run into that has to do with the extent to which architectural renderings track reality. Obviously, the way most renderings are currently populated, there is a lack of correlation between the homogeneity of the rendered demographic and the actual racial demographics of many of the areas being represented. The correction of that imbalance is one of the fundamental aims of this project. 

But what about economic representation? In addition to being mostly young and white, the stereotypical entourage person also tends to appear wealthy and fashionable. It's the classic advertising strategy of showing happy, beautiful, well-off people in order to sell a product, or in this case, a design. But in many of the locations in which those designs are supposed to be manifested, the population isn't wealthy at all. The use of exclusively trendy individuals in a rendering for a low-income site constitutes an intellectual gentrification that frames the project in a significant way before real gentrification ever starts to take hold. 

It's not clear that the opposite approach is right either though. To populate renderings with low-income, even homeless individuals feels in some ways like a resignation to the existing economic inequality that belies architecture's transformative potential. The issue turns on the notion of whether renderings are meant to be a kind of utopian vision for the future, or whether they instead constitute a discrete step toward that greater aspiration. Different projects probably take different approaches, but it's important that we recognize the message we're sending with our representational decisions.

Our goal is to expand this collection of images to encompass a range of economic realities, ages, body types, etc., while recognizing that these diverse traits can be used in both productive and damaging ways. An unconsidered use of a homeless person in a rendering, or the use thereof for the purpose of establishing a more gritty, real aesthetic might be insensitive or even outright offensive if the project doesn't conceptually and normatively engage issues of homelessness. 

But ultimately, in order to address real issues, architecture has to recognize and represent them. Not every project can - or should - address every issue, but our intention here is to provide student architects with a range of possibilities that allow for thoughtful representation of real people. As always, this is meant to be an ongoing dialogue, so please express your thoughts below, or by sending us an email!

The Trouble With Tagging People

There's an inherent contradiction in the intentions of this project. On one hand, we want to break down stereotypes and outdated notions of representation, to be more inclusive and less judgmental. On the other hand, entourage people are inherently stereotypical because we're forced to judge them solely on appearance. This gives rise to the first problem we've encountered: do you overtag or undertag? 

Tagging too much can start to feel pretty uncomfortable. How fine grained are the distinctions? "Asian" or "Chinese"? What about "Laotian"? Can you be sure based on one image? Even if you're right, will other people know? What would you search for? Should you tag someone as "fat" or "plus-sized"? Or is there an even better term we can use? Can we start shaping people's judgments based on the tags we're using and the search terms we're popularizing?

The alternative is to tag too little, perhaps only by activity. This is probably the most equitable solution for the future, but it also perpetuates the latent racism of those who claim to be race blind. Somehow when no one thinks about race in renderings, everyone winds up white. And if you're doing a project in, say, the South Bronx, which is 60% Latino and 39% Black, the exclusion of people of color from project renderings amounts to projections of mass displacement and gentrification. Whether or not you think that's likely, do you think it's right?

For NONSCANDINAVIA we're tentatively going with the approach of overtagging, because we believe these issues have to be faced consciously and head on. The goal is essentially to tag people in a hierarchy of specificity, beginning with the most general and honing in with as much detail as we know to be true. Here's our basic tag template:

  1. Activity: Walking, Sitting, Talking...
  2. Mood: Happy, Angry, Sad...
  3. Accessories: Phone, Bag, Shovel...
  4. Gender: Woman, Man, Non-Binary...
  5. Race/Ethnicity: Asian, Indonesian, Balinese...
  6. Age: Child, Middle Age, Older...
  7. Season: Summer, Winter...
  8. Miscellaneous: Anything else...

Some of these things are are visually apparent in a given image, and will be tagged accordingly. Others - like nationality, religion, or sexuality - aren't always apparent, and are often prone to conjecture. We'll only be tagging these non-visual traits based on known information, such as narrative text that accompanies certain images in their original context, known individuals, etc. The issue really is how specific do we want to get, and how comfortable are we resorting to appearance-based stereotypes as metrics for classification?

We don't have all the answers, but our general approach is to tag what seems relevant using terms that are respectful. The tag template is an attempt to break down those criteria in a reproducible way that will create a searchable archive. The tag cloud page lets people see all of the terms we're using, sized based on frequency of use, which gives us a good way of maintaining balance and transparency. 

This process is ongoing and open-source, so if you've got ideas, let's hear them. Comment below to make it public or email to express your opinion privately.