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 😉