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 hdsr.co.uk/waaiersluis


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.


The black-tailed godwit and its information panels

The black-tailed godwit and its information panels

Farmers talk about crop yield. Birders talk about recognizing a species.
Now that pasture birds have been shown to have declined by at least 75% in numbers and farmers are barely left with an income even when production is higher than ever, farmers and birds are coming into the public eye. And that audience could use some knowledge, preferably in the field. That can be done, with beautiful information panels about the landscape, the birds and the farmers.
The Vogelbescherming (society for the protection of birds) – masters at combining photos of beautiful birds with depressing stories – asked me to devise information panels for a meadowland bird protection project in the Bovenkerkerpolder between Amstelveen and Uithoorn. Dairy farmers have set up their own dairy factory there, and the proceeds pay for measures that help meadowland birds. And that’s not exactly the only link between farmer and bird.

Harnessing the science

Knowledge about meadowland birds comes from many sources. Ecologists, biologists, water board people and the agricultural academia produce many a report full of jargon and statistics. The information is always created at one party, so even if a concerned citizen can read it at all, they will never see the whole picture.
So that’s my first task: to show the whole thing.
But is that from the perspective of bird conservation, or from that of farmers? You know what, I’ll start in the middle. By everyday concepts: grass, manure, open space and water. This way the reader is engaged. No barriers here. These simple themes form a base to fall back on. So the text can go on to introduce food chains, migration routes and mowing methods. All these different scientific fields are connected by the four basic themes.

The reader (both farmer and bird lover) hooks into a simple concept. Open space, manure, water and grass. Let’s go deeper.

Traditional nature information starts with an animal, a bird in this case, and puts that at the top. The farmer dangles somewhere at the bottom. In this project, the four simple concepts from the landscape give farmer and bird equal importance.

Actually, we are asking the visitor to determine his or her position on the matter. That’s really just politics. The Bird Conservancy wants the slide all the way to the right, and it will only succeed if farmers can see the point.

Using art

It would be crazy not to use the beauty of the birds in this story. They lend their charisma to the panels, and you can spot them from afar. An attractive panel promises that you are going to find out something worthwhile. There’s tension between the protagonists (the birds and the farmers): who gets it the way he wants it? What situation would you prefer, as a reader and visitor? Spatial information (about mowing, water levels or where the chicks move in case of danger) is explained through drawings. There’s bits of candy: flowers, insects, the labels attached to the illustrations and diagrams, the beautiful names the flowers have. All these drawings allow the text to be nice and short.

Showing the consequences

The information and drawings are recognizably “green,” but it is not the usual marketing with big logos on it. The Bird Conservancy says: our organization sees the other party as equals. Readers who are not conservationists are not deterred. But the first sentence of the panel on grass does say, “The milk is too cheap”. As far as I am concerned, this is a fact (I put this sentence on it and glad it was not deleted). The observation “what the farmer wants is at odds with what the bird needs” is specified here: “what the farmer wants is what the consumer asks of him.”
If the citizens believe that the birds should be protected, then they should prevent their internal consumers from buying the cheapest milk.

It’s nice to design beautiful information panels about landscape and nature for clients that address issues that are normally dismissed with “that’s just how the world works”. If you flatout show things how they are, how a problem comes into being, then everyone can see how they can help.
For starters, buy milk from the Farmers of Amstel.
Just because-it’s so delicious 😉

Beautiful information panels on landscape and nature

The panels are a kind of hybrid: text, infographics and illustrations fused together.

[caption id="attachment_8745" align="alignleft" width="2560"] To avoid putting new objects in the field, the signs are attached to an oak plank, which are mounted with brackets on the top edge of existing field gates.

Beautiful information panels on landscape and nature

Beautiful information panels about landscape and nature on field fences along the bike route. There is also a viewfinder, a viewpoint with information in three parts about bird migration to south, east and north.


Beautiful information panels on landscape and nature

In one corner of each sign a card and a milk carton with the reason for these signs: buy ‘meadowland bird milk’ to pay for the measures. Really tasty milk, of course.


Beautiful information panels on landscape and nature

Attaching signs to the viewfinder. Local businesses cut the boards, attached the signs and built the viewpoint. The panels themselves are made of dibond with a car-wrap sticker printed on a 6-color press. Marvellous soft gradients!


Beautiful information panels on landscape and nature, viewfinder Natuurmonumenten

Viewfinder in meadow bird landscape De Slaag, for Natuurmonumenten.

Beautiful information panels on landscape and nature

Previous series of signs on metal field gates in the Eemland region, for Natuurmonumenten.

No new objects in the landscape. That already makes a big difference.

Beautiful information panels on landscape and nature

All panels contain explanations, via supersized text and a diagrams. Here you can see how meadowland bird management actually harkens back to the conditions of the past, before large-scale livestock farming.


Beautiful information panels on landscape and nature

The birds depicted are not birds, they are really illustrations, with clean line and filled with patterns reminiscent of Japanese woodcut techniques.

Beautiful information panels on landscape and nature

On the viewfinder you will find at the top edge all the areas where birds migrate to from the Bovenkerkerpolder. This is an oystercatcher, who prefers not to go too far away.


Beautiful information panels on landscape and nature

Swans fly to the Pjasina Delta on the Taymir Peninsula in Siberia. In four stages!

Beautiful information panels on landscape and nature

Curlews do not fly north or south, but west to British wetlands.