What to do when information is aloof, cold even?

What to do when information is aloof, cold even?

A writer sits at her computer. All the information at hand, online or in a stack of documents or books. Information from academic writers. Meanwhile, there is all kinds of consultation and participation, looking for consensus.
What will come out of this?Something all too neutral. Cold-hearted even. I pitch my tent on the edge of a vineyard or tidal area. A lot of fuss, somewhat romantic. But very close to the action.
What will this approach bring me?

Something that feels close.

Refuting presuppositions

In 2016 and 2017, I worked on a book about wine (read more here ), for which I visited 25 vineyards in France and Spain on foot. Often around sunrise or sunset. To do so, one has to make an appointment with the owners of the winery. You then chat with them, for example, when they drive you up the hill in their jeep. Such talk gives you all kinds of insights and refutes your presuppositions. You walk through the landscape, not with a booklet or a map but with a flesh-and-blood guide, full of local and superspecific knowledge. This puts the general knowledge that everyone has on their screens in a different light, it is complemented by stories, by intimacy and character.

Add pepper to taste

That’s how I discovered that interviewing other people who are close to the action all day is a great addition to my own research. It is the pepper that a drawing or a story needs. It takes some work, but the principle is simple.

That’s why I chose an approach that would provide intimacy for the visualization of Geopark Schelde Delta(here): visiting the locations on foot as well as talking to people who are working in the landscape on a daily basis.

Cultivating character

You know, something like that takes a lot of time. And money. You have to be a little smart about that. But designing in a studio with the Internet at hand does not provide enough proximity. A characterful end result must be cultivated.

What you need to tell about the landscape you don’t think up by staying inside.

wine languedoc storytelling intimacy character

Wine up close: harvest in the Languedoc, early in the morning.

stories intimacy character

With Soan Lan Ie looking at small and big things in the landscape along the Zwin, Zeeuws-Vlaanderen.


storytelling intimacy character

Interview with Jan Kruijse, seaweed harvester in Yerseke, for the brochure for the Geopark Schelde Delta.

stories intimacy character

With Nico de Haan, bird expert, and Rico van der Sloot, industrial designer, exploring for panels on meadow birds, for Natuurmonumenten.

Talking about image makes no sense

Talking about image makes no sense

‘I mean a kind of figurine, not Disney-like, but closer to our own style’

Talking about images is silly.

Everyone at the table has something different in their mind, and you need an enormous amount of words, pictorial, descriptive words, to make everyone’s ideas clear to everyone else.

If you want to talk about images, you have to collect images. Simply, with Google, or by taking pictures of an exhibit you do like, or using a movie still from Spiderman. Or by sketching.

Oh, you can’t draw?

All the better. A non-pretty sketch invites more participation than a professional sketch. It’s a thing with little people and houses, or a bunch of rectangles with words in them and arrows in between. It doesn’t have to be on an iPad Pro, it can be on that blank envelope over there. With the janitor’s bic, a sharpie is not necessary.


And then suddenly it’s a talking piece, or the briefing for the infographic creator, or proof that the compromise proposal that’s been agreed upon cannot work.
Moreover, it is a thing that invites. It’s just pen on paper, and so anyone can scribble something on it. Without logging in.
Yes, it’s okay to work in Miro, as long as you sketch.

Get rid of non-commitment

So I will bring paper and markers to our first meeting and start sketching as soon as you talk. The sketch immediately removes the non-committal. You talk directly about the sketch, realizing that your idea or plan is not quite right, thanks to the sketch. Then we’ll improve it until we get there.
Super effective.

talking about images

Talking about images: an outline for an animation. There are two players talking about a building. That building has features and specifications. A subtitle can be placed at the bottom of the screen.

talking about images

Folding sheet for a nature area. A lake, with a route around it, and information attached to it. So simple, it’s almost a pancake restaurant placemat.

talking about images

Sketch for National Geographic, about fish migration. So yes, there are fish, multiple species, and waterways, and blockages. There are also three types of solutions: a fish ladder, a lock with holes and a fish passage. Like that. Well we have all our ducks in a row.


Four signs about meadow birds, about eating, breeding, migrating and growing up. You immediately see what fits on it. The Word document (4240 words) can now be discarded by everyone.

talking about images

Also “talking about images”: a wall on which to track the progress of a sizable report. You can walk right over, talk about it together, and put an arrow somewhere.

Approaching from the opposite direction

Approaching from the opposite direction

“Normal” designers start with the Word document provided by the client. Usually this is a hefty document, with an academic form. This content describes (at worst) what experts want to say to other experts. Normal readers will not find what they want to know.
It takes a lot of effort to turn this into something that properly answers reader questions. On one A4, or 5 slides, or 10 pages, for journalists or administrators or citizens.


I think there is a misunderstanding. Designing is serving, true. But not serving the client with his Word document. Of course not. Both the designer and the client must ensure that their knowledge reaches the reader. You don’t do that by putting the expert’s entire bookcase on the reader’s doorstep. So get rid of the Word document. Its content is intended for peer consultation or as an inventory for communications people. Fine. But the form of that content is inappropriate for the outside world. The Word doc is the base, but it should claim the stage.

Therefore, I do not start with the supplied content. Don’t be alarmed, I read everything.

What I do is “reverse engineering”. Sometimes this is called “storyboarding,” outlining the structure of the story you want to tell. Then you start writing-while-designing.

Why is this course of action the right one?

Everything used to be printed. You could just add a page if you wanted to add more. Nowadays, all formats are strictly defined: a social media post, a powerpoint slide or a poster for on a bus shelter, the number of words on it, and what images is deemed fitting is restricted by (unwritten) laws. These are not only strong conventions, they are baked into the technology of global platforms.

The poster

An innocent example: the poster. Everyone knows, there’s a title on there, a place, a date, a nice recommendation and the artist’s name. There aren’t 100 words on a poster. In the Word document of the briefing there are. The first draft of the poster kills the Word document.
Does this also apply to scientific content? Yes it does. For example, a report page is an A4. Should it include a headline and a figure, then you are left with roughly 350 words for the text. You don’t add a whole A4 if you have 1 line too many. The form (the A4) and not the Word document is decisive.

It seems perfectly obvious to me.

Opposing scientists

I quite understand that for a moment scientists feel that I am tinkering with their content. It’s not like that. I only discard the form, the Word document. I keep the content. Just pretend that knowledge is a cloud, in heads. Once Word is started, knowledge takes shape. A very dominant shape, but the wrong one for your audience. I give knowledge an appearance that does work.

form content word

You have to serve so many channels these days, for very different readers, with different devices. Once you’ve established what you need, you see that the copy for a report might not work for an animation.


form content word

I don’t throw away content, I put it 1 click away. Like this jewelry web shop. On Instagram, they briefly give a nice idea of what types of piercings there are, and then you click on.

form content word