From abstract to relatable

From abstract to relatable

‘Think of the groundwater as little containers filled with water,’ an engineer told me. Those containers, that’s a relatable image. It is not strictly true, but – unlike groundwater – one can see it and talk about it. This is how you make your work relatable. How those containers fill up, dry out, get connected and measured is what groundwater level management is about. Easy.

Those containers, that’s the world in which everything takes place.

Among engineers, it’s called water level management networks. That is an abstraction. It’s for internal use, and for spec sheets and policy documents.

What does an idea look like? The visual metaphor

For products it’s simple, you just visualize them. Services and ideas are different, they’re often articulated in abstractions, such as “network” or “innovative”. If you manage to replace those abstractions with an everyday image, if you manage to capture an idea in a single visual metaphor, you’re on your way. Then the abstractions have become relatable.

Another example. A large government organization. ‘A problem in the field has its equivalent inside the organization. It is handed over, all the way through the organization until it’s solved,” I heard a client say. Case-based workflow, he calls it. What does that look like? Something that moves through the organization. Maybe a balloon with a tray attached to it where documents go in, on their way to a desk. That’s where someone takes something out, and puts something in. The balloon can go anywhere, so the work can be done anywhere. (Now, a few years later, a drone would be more accurate, but it lacks the playfulness of the balloon.)

First, see if it works

After finding the visual metaphor, you can determine what can be told with it, and what not. To keep the content from bloating, I personally prefer to start with the voice-over. In a one-minute animation, one can fit ten lines of text. This forces everyone to be concise. Then, if you just record the voice-over and paste it under a sketch movie, you can immediately see if it works before you spend money on the actual animation.

To the animation studio

Now that the message has taken a visual form, and the script has been tested, you can go to an animation studio. A good animator will really move the visual ideas forward. Most animation studios say they also do the preliminary work. I don’t think that’s right. To find the short message in an organization that is not used to finding it, you have to be a solid discussion partner in terms of content.

The end result will be beautiful.

A side note. The question “is there a need for an animation, how do we deploy it?”, you must answer first. That one is for the communications consultants, the marketing people, the content strategist.
The questions that follow, “What’s the shortest story on this subject?” and “How do we get the abstractions out?”, those are for me. Without the answer to those questions, you can’t make an animation. Animation studios usually don’t answer those questions.

Or did I say that already?

clear visuals for engineers

Outline of the visual metaphor. You don’t put the house in a wet place, you don’t put the tree that needs water in a dry place. The mole is the Wareco mascot, who knows more about all things underground than any engineer.

clear visuals for engineers

The container metaphor tested for explaining active drainage/groundwater level management.


clear visuals for engineers

Text labels to point things out in the visuals/animation.

Storyboard. Here you can clearly see how little text fits into an animation. If you want clear visuals for engineers, a lot of meaning has to be converted to images.


clear visuals for engineers

The containers can also be a model of a city. It’s on the table, so to speak, with people and processes around it.

clear visuals for engineers


Click on the image for the video. This plays in a new window (Vimeo would like to set a cookie, which you can reject).