This is how to mobilize support

This is how to mobilize support

Making the world a better place. How do you contribute, as a scientist? You research a problem and discover a solution. You write everything down precisely in a report, with hefty tables and lots of footnotes. That gives you satisfaction and lots of citations.

But no audience.

Communications people want something very different. Those looking for juicy headlines with good images and short text. Infographics that do 1 thing at a time. Material to fill a mailing, a homepage or a tweet, and that’s how you reach supporters.

Careful scientists clash with communications people. Where I go, one of either group is always unhappy.

What if you saw all information as one thing? One unit, from raw data to conclusion. Not a separate report, nor a mailing, but “a thing” for effectively spreading an idea, a substantiated idea, which as yet has no particular form. In designer language, this is called medium-free thinking.

I see two questions:

1 What should we do to spread our idea?
2 What should we tell people to establish our authority?

The answer to question 1 is “something that works” (reaches the reader), the answer to question 2 is “something that is right” (convinces the reader). Those two things have to come together. The golden mean, of course, is “something you can easily send that is derived from something that is totally right. You send out a mailing or investor summary, you post an article on LinkedIn, and you tweet the best infographics. Always with a link to the full report.

Research > report > infographics

How does such a thing work. Two examples: the Access to Medicine Index and Superlist reports.

    0) The study. A hefty document that will not be sent out, except to some reviewers.
    1) The plank (old printing term for “all the pages in a row”). What topics should be covered in what order in a concise version of the report?
    2) What parts of it should be ready to use or send separately?
    3) What findings or insights were gained from the research?
    4) How do you make the findings fit for 1 tweet, 1 powerpoint slide or 1 video?
    5) Are there any findings that you can broadcast on specific occasions?
    6) Within the report: what is the distinction between raw data, filtered data, its interpretation by our experts and their opinion about it?
    7) Your tables and research data, do they have a public-friendly version? And is the web version different from the print version?

This already looks quite a bit like a communications strategy, or something else with -strategy behind it.

Chicken or egg?

You strategize and have meetings for a very long time, and only then start making things. I’ll tell you: the pages made will force you to adjust the strategy again. A much better option is to start making stuff right away. simultaneously, strategy forms, simply because everything you create raises questions. Does this work? Who exactly is it for? What exactly does it say?

The same goes for textual content: if you write that first and then create the assets, this written text will not fit will not work. With me, writing and design go hand in hand. Really much more efficient.

Most importantly?

You can show your report when you are on stage and everyone is watching.

(See photo in header: Jayashree Iyer with the 2018 Antimicrobial Resistance Benchmark at the World Economic Forum in Davos)




Questionmark Foundation collects data on supermarkets. What are supermarkets doing to move toward a sustainable food system? Little, it turns out, but something. And it will surprise you which supermarkets contribute the most. (


Superlist reports kick off with 1 spread with a summary and that single key infographic. The rest follows.

Each subtopic has its own chapter that again begins with a summary and a figure. All of these components are also available separately as social media stuff.


For Access to Medicine Foundation (which measures what Big Pharma is doing for access to medicine in poor countries) I made a huge pile of reports, slides and stuff for the media between 2012 and 2022.

research report infographics

Also with the Access to Medicine Index, the report starts with an Executive Summary, which contains everything + 1 central figure: The Index.


Did I say everything had to be short? Well, this is short for investors and decision makers. Any shorter and they won’t trust it and won’t read it. Of this typical page (called the report card) we have built increasingly sophisticated versions over the years. Of course, this data is also on web. However, on screen, it’s hard to get an overview and see details at the same time. On web, you can compare and filter the data by company and by item, though.

research report infographics

Radial diagrams in Antimicrobial Resistance Benchmark 2018. Exotic.

The briefest message, visual chic, with the Executive Director.

True story: ‘Klaas, can you design this page first so we can write?’ See, that makes sense. Writing first yields things that don’t fit, designing first gives the writers information about each component on the page: the length of the introduction, the size of the captions to the figure.
Pretty full, but nice and full, lots of info.


research report infographics

There is a separate version for investors: thin, yet with everything an investor wants to know. (Investors interested in the Access to Medicine Index represent $18 trillion in assets)


Image for newsletter header.

research report infographics

Each report contains between 50 and 300 figures, which can be prepared as a selection, with customized text, for web and socials.

Maps are also always needed: where is it, how many countries?

Reports on subtopics have different covers and format. The report on the right most closely resembles a scholarly article, which starts right on the cover.

research report infographics

Compact information can become super-high density. It looks like “wow, they know a lot,” but also like “gee, do I have to read all this? Depends on the readership if this works well.

research report infographics

Perhaps this is finest: 1 observation, explained and accompanied by a figure. Want to know more? Read more on the website or in the report.

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.

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).

On niche industry

On niche industry

I sometimes visit a company that is so ‘niche’ that it is hard for outsiders to determine what they actually do, what sets the company apart. They are that far away from common knowledge. The companies themselves know what they’re doing, of course, but they lack the words and images that make it clear to the outsider. Therefore, they need good visuals for marketing their innovations.

One example: robots in warehouses

Locating a robot on a shop floor can be done in many ways, each with its particular advantages and disadvantages. Accerion’s sensor does something deceptively simple: it compares what it sees below it with an image of the floor from its memory. The exact position of that image is known. I can clarify something like that with a drawing.

Why fictional situations are the best conversation starter

“We don’t build robots, but our customers buy them,” I heard. “And we’d like our customers to require the robot builders to put our sensor in.” What turns out: once customers have seen the benefits of the sensor for their own situation, they make that demand. That’s why we are going to draw those situations. For every kind of customer.

“That could be my warehouse.”

But the robots may not be of any recognizable brand. Of the settings with production lines and warehouses, every customer has to be able to say, “that could be my place”*. Fine if he goes on to say, “but with us it’s wider/more/different,” the conversation’s started anyway. That’s all your after. From that point onwards, the conversation will deepen, and will get to specifics soon enough.
And so it came about that I had to invent robots.
Beautiful right?

More on this type of illustration here

Visuals for marketing innovations

A fictitious situation at a client’s warehouse. You can use this drawing to explain to the customer everything about navigation, flexibility, etc, but the drawing is also suitable for reassurance (“oh, you also work for the automotive sector”) and to raise the right questions. With good visuals for marketing your innovations, you have a conversation.


Visuals to promote innovations

During a sketching session at the client’s place, and a round of sketching afterwards, we first figured out what situations needed to be depicted. And for me the question is ‘how to draw all that?’.

For example, should the drawings be in color? Or does the emphasis on navigation require little color?


Eventually, all robots became light blue, with a purple glow underneath to show a miracle happening. All “props,” roller tracks, shelves, people, barriers, are all light warm gray (for technical explanations) or gray on a dark blue gray (for customer situations)


Visuals to promote innovations

On top of the illustrations is a text layer, with titles and labels to point things out in the drawings. This is where text fills in the details and lowers the comlexity of the drawing. The purple “swoosh” behind the robots reveals the freedom of route choice on the fixed navigation grid.


Drawing for the sales people to explain how the sensor compares pieces of floor to images in memory (and makes new updates if the floor has gotten dirty!)

Visuals to promote innovations

Explaining how the factory hall is scanned, so that the robot always recognizes the floor, and knows where it is, even if you don’t completely set up the hall until later, or use only part of it. (Am I advertising now?)


Visuals to promote innovations

It doesn’t matter which pallet arrives when, you can place it in the right slot on the unloading sequence. Wow. That’s me entering the unknown. That’s a very attractive aspect of my job 😉


A lock with ten doors

A lock with ten doors

It’s like being back in class with one of those older history teachers. He explains how things are, exuding that you are stupid for not knowing. This is the tone of voice of many information panels.

When I travel, signs with a beautiful image of a cathedral’s ground form or a coalmines insides make me happy. Something I can’t see is revealed. The situation of 400 years ago or the way a defensive structure works, for example. With a concise text attached (but not too brief). An attractive image about heritage gives you exactly what you need to discover the value of it.


You would say: you can do so much more with digital tools. But they are invisible in the field. With an app you haven’t loaded yet, you drive past a place of interest; a panel actually alerts you to it. Besides, you would be on your phone again, and you pick it up 80 times a day already. (Many young people and seniors do not have an endless data plan, that also plays a role)

So a panel after all.

Rewarding the reader

With information that significantly advances the experience, complemented by a QR code (digital after all ;-)). With that, you can find an expert who tells you something, or a video of how it works. Then the board rewards the reader. It should. Otherwise the visitor won’t stop for the next panel, and he might become completely sign-weary: “What are all these ugly plastic prints with big logos doing in my beautiful landscape?”, he might think. Yes, I dare say: fancy design only creates noise.


The water system around Utrecht is harrowingly complicated, and citizens and tourists experience its operation (or maintenance work on it) on a daily basis. And it’s just nice to know what it’s all for. The example below is about the Waaiersluis in Gouda. A lock with very special doors, constructed in such a way that they can be operated against the power of rising water. Passersby and tourists often have to wait there, and the sign is located exactly at that spot. Close to the lock. So you can look around you and compare it with the panel to check what you’re looking at. And the other way round.

If I’m honest, there’s too much information on it.
But then again, my mission is not yet accomplished.
My best information panel I am yet to make.


You can read more about visitors, heritage and the stories about them here.

More on beautiful information panels, here.

information panel on heritage beautiful picture

Just a nice thing to look at, centered on the information panel about the National Monument the Waaiersluis in Gouda.


information panel on heritage beautiful picture

A job like this for me always starts with doing fieldwork. Let’s go there and speak to everyone involved. Funny: the technical guy from the water board (right) knows theory, but the Lock Master (with cap) knows practice. Moreover, you could have fun with him as he was full of anecdotes.


The most interesting part is stationary or underwater. But not in a drawing or animation....

A fan door at rest. The point of a Waaiersluis door is that it can be closed against the ebb or flow of the tide. Ordinary lock doors are pushed out of their frames when you try to close them against the current. The special doors are there at Gouda because the tide comes all this way inland. The lock is the most inland sea wall, so to speak.


information panel on heritage where the operation is explained with beautiful and fun images

The entire panel measures 90cm by 180cm and is quite an encyclopedia. But it is half the size of the old panel it replaces. The panel on the left describes the history and struggles surrounding the invention, then an explanation of how a lock works, then a map showing the importance of the lock, a diagram explaining all the different door heights, the operation of the doors and finally the operation of the pumping stations and fish passages.


The old panel. More text, and more explanation, but in a schoolmasterly way. A nice image about heritage reduces the chance of people developing ‘teacher-weariness’.


a heritage information panel answers basic questions. The answers make you look more closely.

Hefty diagram explaining all water heights and lock gate heights. Note how on the right the suburbs of Gouda are lower than even the lowest water level


Heritage information panel: nice image about the operation of a lock.

The operation of the locks was depicted straight from above on the old panel, now the drawing is isometric so layout and depths can be seen simultaneously. That’s easier to understand.


information panel on heritage beautiful picture

The operation of the special doors and fish passages is seen straight from above, though. You can easily relate this diagram to the large drawing in the center of the board. By the way, the website for the information board is


Just as a water board has a workshop, in Illustrator I have a yard full of individual parts 😉

Modern installations underneath heritage.

It is not difficult. If there is a whole system underground, just draw a picture of it. But one that is less complicated than the engineers’ drawing, of course.


beautiful image about heritage

On the final panel it looks like this: you see the mill with everything around it, with insets for the underground parts, depicted just a little larger, and with their own descriptions.