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.


Here beauty flows

Here beauty flows

At first I didn’t understand why they were calling me. They had everything. Storylines, a corporate identity, an inspiration guide, 3D visuals, an image bank. Then I looked more closely. I saw distance everywhere. Scientific detachment. Objectivity. As can be expected of scientists. But if you want to captivate audiences then you need stories. Closeness. Intimacy even.

How do you accomplish that?


1 Do not overwhelm

For starters, by not overwhelming the reader. Stories made for visitors are shorter and much more visual. Actually, nothing new. I said, let me make drawings. Primarily because the Zeeland and Flemish geology is all but invisible in photos. The landscape is quite subtle here, no volcanoes or glaciers or cliffs, but silt and peat and terrain relief of only half a meter. Illustrations solve that.

2 Getting very close to the subject.

You would want to replace the scientific distance with first-hand information. Seeing the place through the eyes of someone who is always in the landscape. Not difficult: I suggested selecting and interviewing users of the landscape, such as farmers, rangers and ecologists. On location, not via Zoom of course. Great fun to do, you immediately gather intriguing observations.

3 Being with the subject for a long time.

To know which picture is the best, and what you want to represent in a drawing, and then to decide what the soul of the landscape is, you just have to go there. I suggested visiting all the places in the Geopark on foot. Really on foot, not by parking next to it first. I’ll bring my little tent.

The client was convinced.

And I was motivated, eager to start. Only someone very close to the subject can make something valuable. Although I imagine that walking 593 kilometers is not the only way. It is my way.

May the reader decide to visit the Geopark.
I hope the stories convince him to.
Because once you are in the landscape, you are sold.

Geopark Scheldt Delta website

My instagram reels about this project are also fun to check out.

Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

‘Here beauty flows’ brochure, English translation and back cover

Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

The inside cover includes a map of all geological sites

Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

The drawings contain very un-geological details, such as this man with cap, who does not like being on the beach.


Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

One edition is bound with a cahier stitch.

Hard work, this project. The 6 hikes I took in the fall of 2022. 600km visiting most of the 40 geological sites.

Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

The booklet contains 12 stories and 12 drawings. Below each drawing is a ‘tourist text’.

Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

I experimented a bit with different eras in 1 drawing. This is only done in 1 drawing. The clay mining at Boom is the origin story of the landscape.


Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

The cabbages of the Noë brothers near Sint-Margriete in the Meetjesland are in the picture, along with the Escholtzia they grow for tinctures.

Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

Each story has a “navigation thingy” where reference is made to the Geopark locations, numbered on the overview map.

Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

In the same style as the landscape drawings, there are block diagrams on geology and geomorphology. It doesn’t get any simpler than this.

Reclamation, accretion and embankment explained with a kind of maps.

Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

The block diagrams are accompanied by a very short text referring to the locations.


Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

Most of the photos were taken by me while on the road in the landscape. From really close up. Most “official” landscape photos about the geology of the area are very nice, but often they give “overview,” or try to show the whole, and that doesn’t work so well, I think.

Beautiful images about geology, and fascinating text

There is also an English translation.

Geology determines what people do in a landscape.

With Soan Lang Ie (IVN hostess of the landscape) along Het Zwin near Cadzand. An interview about sea buckthorns, sea fennel and cyclists rushing on.


Stories for visitors. If you want to show people geology, you will have to do more than recite the facts. What you need is a story, and beautiful images. Geology defines what people do in a landscape.

6 walks totaling 600 kilometers resulted in 12 stories and 12 drawings. Those drawings go from sketch (choosing location and choosing what you see there) to researching source material, to final result. The view as shown in the drawing can’t be seen like that in reality. But that is precisely the power of drawings. Visual stories for visitors are engaging, not scientifically correct.


Nice image about geology

Sometimes the first sketch is in a different place, and with a different subject. On the left the Kalkense Meersen near Schellebelle, later it became a peat pit in the paleomeander of Berlare, because that is where the focus of the story is. Middle: The first style I chose was woodcut. I gouged out (digitally, but by hand) all the white. That style did not fall well, so it was honed (right) into the successor to Japanese woodcuts, the clear line. Sort of.

Stories for visitors. If you want to show people geology, you will have to do more than recite the facts. What you need is a story, and beautiful images. Geology defines what people do in a landscape.

The very first visual style was even simpler, really a woodcut with few print runs, bright colors and overprinting inks. Foraging spoonbills in a tidal channel in the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe take all the attention. The one on the right is a bit more neutral, with the ship less prominent, but the banks of the gullies (the geological share) much better in view.


Stories for visitors. If you want to show people geology, you will have to do more than recite the facts. What you need is a story, and beautiful images. Geology defines what people do in a landscape.

Yerseke. On the left there is still a cut between below and above water, but that trick has been abolished (only 1 drawing with an inset remains). Center the earlier woodcut style, right the more plain line and much fresher colors. My goodness such a lot of work. Very impossible point of view, by the way. You can’t see IN the oyster pits from anywhere near the floodline of course 😉


Stories for visitors. Beautiful images about geology. Geological maps and impressions. A geography book, actually.

Then there is a section in the booklet explaining all the geological phenomena involved in the area. Here, writing was especially a chore: how could I explain Quaternary geology and geomorphology in 16 x 50 words?
The drawings are block diagrams, sections and views, in roughly the style of the large drawings. For harmony and a hint of comprehensibility (in the booklet, of course, all parts are labeled).


Stories for visitors. If you want to show people geology, you will have to do more than recite the facts. What you need is a story, and beautiful images.

Really, seeing everything up close, and smelling, and feeling, is essential. (Tidal mudflat near Sint-Annaland, Tholen)


Stories for visitors. If you want to show people geology, you will have to do more than recite the facts. What you need is a story, and beautiful images.

Camping at De Wachtsluis near Cadzand. Good conversation with the farmers. I did all the visiting of Geopark sites on foot. Makes you see more. Brought the tent, wonderful isn’t it?

Beautiful imagery and fascinating stories about geology.

Very tempting: showing what it looked like 4,000 and 1,500 years ago. But only in the NL part have measurements been made, and even then, how would you convert information about soil types into something of a landscape image? An important message for scientists: better not call these maps, people would think they are accurate. Better call these impressions. (They would have been 45×45 mm in the booklet)


Stories for visitors. If you want to show people geology, you will have to do more than recite the facts. What you need is a story, and beautiful images. Geological maps and impressions

A spin-off: three maps for Zonneland magazine, for children. 12,000 years ago and 1,500 years ago. In such a magazine, the maps immediately feel like impressions, not accurate maps. For children, my fictional Flemish country is allowed to be drawn. (Based on all kinds of studies)


Stories for visitors. If you want to show people geology, you will have to do more than recite the facts. What you need is a story, and beautiful images.

Of course, I had to watch out for an overly Dutch focus. But Flanders, and especially the banks of the Scheldt, are so interesting, I became a fan. Flemish correctors did their best to keep things Flemish. Freshwater tides and so on. Those visual stories for visitors must, of course, appeal to Flemish people as well.

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.