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.