How to show something that doesn’t exist yet?

How to show something that doesn’t exist yet?

Things from the past, but especially fictional things that are in the future, people love talking about those. Everyone then lets their imagination run wild. And everyone sees something different in their minds eye. So if you have a project or idea that is about past or future, it is helpful make a drawing of it. This will benefit the discussion.

How to go about when showing something that doesn’t exist?

You have to come up with an imaginary image. Not quite imaginary, of course. If you draw a Holocene river, you have contemporary examples from Iceland. If you need to show a non-existent building, cut and paste all kinds of examples together. Or you might ask Midjourney or another AI to come up with something.

Colliding images

So, the image generating part is not a problem. It sets off a discussion.
“Oh, in my head Harry Potter was always much smaller,” says a child who has been reading the books (eminently an activity that conjures up images in your head). An image can thus disrupt the free flow of the imagination. What your team member or client has in his mind may well clash with the image you present to him or her.

“Generic cars”

If you want to talk to a new customer about a logistics solution, you don’t want to show a picture of someone else’s factory. If you want to talk about cars, you need “generic cars,” not a Porsche 911. Because if the new customer responds with “I don’t have a car like that,” or “our area is different,” and then the conversation takes a wrong turn.

You want a drawing with only those features that cause the right discussion.

Small disclaimer: “precise people” may have a hard time with a fictional drawing. Engineers cannot think of a “generic car” or an “average factory”. Geologists always find a schematic drawing “too approximate”.
Big disclaimer: If you depict things schematically and leave out all kinds of phenomena from reality, you are manipulating. That’s a given, with any fictional drawing. But are you being ethical? Is it greenwashing? Do you picture something unachievable?

Still, the reader is prompted into thinking about your subject with this image. About how it things could be, how it could work.
Good visuals invite participation. And that is a great thing.

Let’s start making things up!

fictitious drawing

There is a relationship between energy yield from incident light and the orientation of houses. (Perhaps this is my best infographic, my simplest concoction)

fictitious drawing

Excavation in The Hague. The technical drawings that are already there, but you can’t explain anything to the average citizen using those. With these little drawings, you can. Leave out almost everything, and then break it down into sensible steps.

draw fictitious

Collage to show that much of the work on the Rijksmuseum happens underground.

fictitious drawing

Simple drawings to illustrate that rebuilding a lock rarely blocks traffic.

fictitious drawing

This is not a real house, of course. What should you be able to see (light, warm air) and what not (a lot).

fictitious drawing

Made-up island surrounded by estuaries, gradually gaining land. This cannot be done with a map or with a real area.

The visual metaphor

The visual metaphor

Let’s expand on animations. All those abstractions you’re bombarded with – think “onboarding” or “innovation” or “sustainability” – they need to be visualised. Groundwater level management is depicted with water trays, case-oriented work with balloons, and shifting warehouses in logistics is done on checkered paper. Those trays of water, balloons and checkered paper in animation are visual metaphors.

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is a tool in which you use a property of one thing to clarify another thing. So there are two things going on:
The topic: you don’t talk about it, but it is (actually) what it’s about.
The metaphor: You talk about this, but it’s not what it’s about.
A visual metaphor in an animation works the same as a textual one.

Nice, a familiar image

An animation without visual metaphors invites no one into its own incomprehensible world; an animation with visual metaphors crosses over into recognizability. If the visual metaphor is worked out into a stage, with props and actors you can use it endlessly.

What can be tackled with a visual metaphor

In the case of “case-oriented working,” the balloons flying around replace the invisible IT system. An abstraction you then thankfully don’t have to talk about. It is important that the balloons can perform the same tasks as the IT system, otherwise you cannot explain all aspects of the system with the balloons.
In my opinion, the important thing is that the balloons mimic the IT system in a seriously simplified way: they fly everywhere just like that, while real IT is hopelessly complicated. So the balloons need not explain what people do not need to know about the IT system.

How convenient.

The root cause of boring animations

Without a metaphor, the animation simply shows what you already know. Boring. What makes animations even more boring is that clients start with an A4 full of text. The videos are turned into an endless summing up of features. All the information is in text (logical, there are text people at the helm).

Start with the image.




Primal sketch of the organization as connected islands, with the customer at the counter on both sides, and the process in the middle. Hopefully the problem is solved by now.

… because quite a few problems come flying into the organization. Excuse me, cases.


Such a case begins with a citizen complaining, for example.


The complaint is processed by a staff member. She puts documents into the balloon.



Does the metaphor work? Yes, the “case” can also fly outside the organization, to a man in the field.

The metaphor also works when things break down: then an urgent, red, balloon is created.

The metaphor also works to emphasize the portability of things: you can change desks and take the balloon with you, or you can relieve someone, and take over her balloon.

animation metaphors

The joke, of course, is that there are also green balloons, they go automatically, no one has to be behind the desk for that and they can spend time on the red balloons.
Real IT systems are much more annoying to look at or hear about. Nice, a metaphor like that.

animation visual metaphor

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


animation metaphors

Primal sketch 2: calculating the position of warelhouses and devising routes between them is like playing with cars and boxes on a large checkered paper.


animation metaphors

You can also use this metaphor to explain all aspects of logistics.

… Until you’re at mega-scale.

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


animation metaphors

Groundwater level management as a “game” with trays of water that can be full, empty or leaky. Here they have sensors to measure them. The mole has a laptop.

animation metaphors

If you have seen the trays, you still see them when a city is put on top.

animation metaphors

The mole has a miner’s helmet. Which shines on details that are too small to be clearly visible in the scene. If you don’t want to keep changing scenes, or zoom very nervously, then you need something like this.

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



Illustrations: create a system one can build on

Illustrations: create a system one can build on

Commissioning just one illustration made is not very effective.
Working on a system of illustrations makes more sense if you know how illustration software works.

But, of course, the question from a communications department always starts like this: ‘we want to explain how this service works’ or ‘show what this solution looks like.’

1: Think of the reader.

Silly me saying that all the time. But in “normal” companies, the inventors, the engineers, are in charge. These are eager to show what they can do, and how clever that solution is. The reader wants to know “what does that do for me, that product of yours? Would you listen to the buyer, you end up with use cases. Recognizable situations. You can show those.

2: Think about how and where that reader views your image.

You create a hefty visual for the website. But for insta, or twitter, or a trade show, it may not be appropriate. For those channels, you soon come up with a specific section, preferably for one target audience at a time. The illustration assignment then becomes “create an illustration system that allows us to serve all channels”.
For motion graphics or animations, you need illustrations made up of separate components.

3: Think about what you would like to make later on

What you will need furhter on in the process, you don’t know yet. Still: wouldn’t it be helpful to have illustrations in a style and type that you can easily add to later? Then make sure you:
do not work in a specific resolution (create vector illustrations or 3D illustrations that you can later re-render)
do not work in a restrictive color palette (RGB, never CMYK)
don’t get stuck with a peculiar perspective (do everything either “flat,” or isometric, or pure 3D)
Details that are temporary (or fashionable) you want to be able to easily remove or change; work modularly.

The stage

I always illustrate systematically. You start building a little world, so to speak, as early as the first drawing. With each subsequent assignment, this little world continues to fill up with backgrounds, users, scenery, specific applications and newer versions of the products. Just until you can answer each new illustration request very quickly because you have the components on the shelf.

Oh, there’s another point 4:

4: Make sure the illustration method is transferable

Once the style is developed, you don’t want to be stuck with a designer or illustrator. Ideally, you want to be able to create your own expressions with the individual components, even if it’s only a text layer that you can change. It’s even better if style, size and color palette are fixed so that an in-house illustrator, or a cheaper illustrator externally, can toe the line.




illustrations system

Birds, constructed from loose limbs, for information panels.


illustrations system

Growing up godwit chicks through the months. For Natural Monuments.


illustrations system

Robot construction site. For Accerion/Unconstrained Robotics


illustrations system

Prefabricated commercial buildings-facades. For Ewals Cargo Care.

Sustainable roof components, for Cityroofs/Zoontjens.


illustrations system

Like a water board has a workshop, in Illustrator I have a yard full of separate illustrations that feed the system ;-). For information panels for a water board.





Easy for me to say

Easy for me to say

The green building industry is innovative. That means the technology has not yet been implemented, or only in a pilot project. That is usually a very specific building. Tricky to show to a new customer. He would rather see his own future plans depicted.

This is how simple illustrations work for project development.

What you want to talk about hasn’t been built yet, so if you want to show something you end up with a fictional building. And when you do have a fake building, draw it in such a way that your components can show their full potential.
Also, you can draw it in a way that it fits a specific audience, with specific needs. Handy!

Why not realistic 3D?

You can draw super-realistic 3D these days, but then you run into higher costs, and – much more importantly – everything is too precise. You want to leave everything you don’t know (yet) – or which is distracting anyway – out. You can’t do that with precise drawings. Therefore, a simple drawing style is best. The result looks nice and clear; it is obvious that it is fictional.

Easy to talk about, and that’s what’s needed in your first talks with a new client.


simple illustrations for project development and urban planning

Drawing showing different types of sustainable roofing and the components used.

simple illustrations for project development and urban planning

Fictional building showing that green roofs can and should be considered at every stage: design, construction, construction and operation.

simple illustrations for project development and urban planning animations

Animation for Cityroofs/Zoontjens telling all about sustainable roofing solutions with five target groups combined with five building types. Click on the image to view the video in a new window, at Vimeo.

Well, simple illustrations for project development could not be simpler: provider and client talk about solutions, looking at a building. Text labels and subtitles provide further explanation.

Building the 3D parts of the animation is briefed with sketches and a round of corrections.

Fictional building to discuss exactly the aspects of a particular green roof. Kind of residential/shopping center with parking garage and herring cart (which became Vietnamese spring rolls in the final movie).

simple illustrations for project development and urban planning

simple illustration for project development and civil engineering

Schematic representation of obstructions in Zaandam, occurring during lock reconstruction. (For BAM via Roel Stavorinus)

klaas van der veen - maps and plans

Yes, you can make it as complicated as you want, and impress. But for conversation, a simple drawing is better.