The transformation of content

The transformation of content

I would love get rid of an annoyance I have as an editor.

I walk through an exhibition and see two separate things: form and content. The form is fun, with walls and displays and exhibits and interactive stuff. But the form has nothing to do with the content. The designers pasted the content.

You can trace the content back to it’s origin document or a database. You can also see that the structure of the information stems from the system of historians or researchers.

I don’t understand how this can be, this disconnection between creators and thinkers.
All I know is that in the production process this causes enormous misery. It costs money and content people will be dissatisfied. The reader experiences the exhibition as loose sand.

The solution is clear: transform the content into exhibition-ready content. Content should not come directly from the pen of experts, but through the pen of an editor.

But I can’t put that to paper just now.

I dare not claim anything about it.
But I am sure:
this could be better.

How do you conquer a mountain of information?

How do you conquer a mountain of information?

Communications people want to captivate the reader. They will succeed only if they conquer the mountain of information that the experts bring. The diplomatic, incisive outsider they hire for this purpose has two arrows in his bow:“start with the form” and “the concept”.

The concept: the thread to which the content conforms

The point is to find a connection between all the individual parts. These are often very specific, somewhere deep in the caverns of a field of expertise. The concept you’re looking for for the exhibition or book is a lot closer to the audience. A good concept connects the private (the personal or subject-specific) with the general, which is recognizable, and translatable. This way, everything, even the craziest subtopic, gets its place.

Example: unify 28 topics from 8 providers

True story. The 28 topics are diverse issues taking place around the Afsluitdijk. Fish migration, an experiment with tidal energy, storm surges on the IJsselmeer, materials for lining dikes, the inventive work of engineer Lely.

Disaster – action – rest

What do you see when you look from a distance? If you lump the 28 topics together for a moment? Over the centuries, the same thing always happens: a natural disaster occurs (a flood, a storm), after which clever people think up something to deal with it (a dike, a pumping station), followed by a period of calm, repentance even (we lower the dike, make a hole in it for the fish). Until another disaster presents itself. Disaster – action – rest. Something like that.

New connections

The concept creates new connections in the exhibition: all the water works from all centuries come together, Lely and his predecessors and successors, and all the things we started doing when the storms were too long ago. In a hall, it works even more strongly: the visitor is free to walk around, but an intuitive walking direction has emerged. An axis. The exhibition begins with a bang (a movie theater with a huge storm), continues with an intimate setting (the wooden office of engineer Lely) and ends with a wide panorama over the Wadden Sea.


A concept is not an iron law; it is the impetus by which everything falls into place. It shows a route to a workable solution. (Many designers pimp the concept until it is a huge system, with all kinds of rules that you must never break. Thus they create a new mountain, which must be conquered again).

Sunk cost

The client had already promised all kinds of stakeholders a movie, an interactive table or a fun play object. And one writer had already written an expository text on all 28 topics. It became a matter of sunk cost: we have already promised and done so much, we are going to go through with it. I’ll say no more.

Starting with the gadgets – no matter how hip they are – is thoughtless.
Allowing the raw copy from all stakeholders to be leading is also a sure road to chaos.

In my experience at least.

A nice example (from a long time ago)

Scientists at the Huygens Institute are working on digital infrastructure. That means they organize and tag all kinds of documents (old manuscripts, maps) in such a way as to create a network of documents and all related research.

If you want to make something visual for this, you have to get away from the technical terms as fast as you can. Visitors to a symposium walked past towers of connected wooden documents, which they took apart after the symposium and took home. The client was tremendously satisfied.


Click on the image to go to the video (it opens in new window, and Vimeo wants to set a cookie)


Another great example

Troje, an agency that leads organisational change, wrote a book, “work in progress”. It’s about the power of improvisation.
The design rests on a super-simple concept: we improvise all the images. I did that by inviting a group of people and having them do all kinds of things. Games, dressing up and painting on large pieces of paper. The images in the book were created through the method the book promotes. Form and content are one. Totally disparate images started to fit together.

See, that’s what I mean.

exhibition concept exhibition concept

The activist designer?

The activist designer?

In the design magazine Dude, Jeroen Junte, design journalist, made a strong statement. Bottom line: designers consider themselves the right person to solve the Brexit, the climate problem and the refugee problem. But their paper plans and TED-talk puffery often yield no more than a giggly response from the audience. The designer is better off taking the modest role of team player, alongside scientists, for example, Jeroen believes. Design as a sidekick of science.

I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Out of pure self-interest, of course.

By the grace of

I don’t have any awards, and I’m not on a TEDx stage. But “being a team player alongside scientists,” I can tell you everything about that.

An example: the world problem of AMR (antimicrobial resistance).
Jayasree Iyer, executive director of the Access to Medicine Foundation explained crisply why it is a problem, and what we need to do about it. Not with slick “storytelling,” but underpinned by years of in-depth research. She held up the result: the 2018 Antimicrobial Resistance Benchmark.

“Wow, what a report [the foundation] has made. Packed with info, but also aesthetically pleasing, it made me want to read the whole 184 pages in one go. “*

For this powerwoman and her organization, I poured the findings, charts, tables and many footnotes into a form. Together with a strong communications department, web builders and subcontractors. Together? Rather “by the grace of,” because design can only succeed in serving the reader if the writers edit, the web guys keep their code clean and the researchers come and explain their data.**

Typography, lesson 1

Reliability is the most important asset that Access to Medicine Foundation has. Arranging and serving up their knowledge in such a way that it is accessible and increases reliability is the goal. I took (and got) the time to show what typography and strict sizing contribute to that. They bring readability and order. From there, a certain aesthetic emerges.
I say things like, “when you want readers to see what belongs together, remove white. When you want them to separate two things, add white”. Typography, lesson 1 paragraph 1. Omit a dimension from a graph, replace absolute numbers with percentages. Get rid of logarithmic scales.


With dozens of such interventions, something is built that in no way resembles a brilliant creative burst. But it does what design should do: be effective. It makes opinion leaders reach for this report if they want to do something about antibiotic resistance.
It is precisely the best-founded plans, the most scientifically solid ideas that need a good form.
Without form, an idea cannot travel.
Are you a designer and want to improve the world? Go put your effort where it has the most impact.


*a quote from an opinion leader from the AMR field.
** The entire team understood that good design would do their business good. That didn’t come naturally, of course. We worked together for nine years.

Servant design

All-brief message, visual chic, with the Executive Director.

Transforming knowledge into an exhibition

Transforming knowledge into an exhibition

When you need to explain something, real things work better than text. Dinosaurs, for example, you’d want to see how big they are. An model of a building looks a lot finer than an animation. A movie about farming in 1900, just put the scythe next to it. Maybe it smells of a greasy polishing cloth. But if you’re designing an exhibition, your content has some requirements to fulfill.

Communicating with citizens

Government communication would like to see citizens “bumping into information” at city hall or on the street when they go to renew their passports. This kind of visitor has something better to do than read. Too bad that all government communications has a page as its basic form. And if you make those pages 3 meters high and put them in a room, they are still pages. Is there a better argument for avoiding information than a piece of text in a public space?

“Yikes, they want me to read.”

And my goodness, how fickle and easily distracted that visitor is! Everything is more important than the text at hand, the phone, other people, the queue number you got.

Those visitors must be seduced. Because you’re convinced he or she will find your message interesting (whether that’s true, we’ll talk about that later).

Playing with material

If the issue is spatial, for example, a new urban district, a factory or a dike, why not also make the solution spatial? The more senses the better, it seems. Spatial is truer than flat, rough is truer than smooth. Big is more real than small. Color, material, light, movement, sound. There is a whole arsenal of resources. Once you have objects, materials, color and light, you can start playing, and start making the visitor play.
Playing is fun.

The transformation

What experts and curators come up with, is endless text. It doesn’t work. But what part of the content can be transformed into a game? With what image, shape or color does the visitor get the importance of message? And what information do you label secondary because it is too complicated or abstract? That’s a job an exhibit builder can’t do for you. For that, you need an editor who has experience with exhibitions.


Here are a few examples of spatial “explanations” of urban issues. Of course, these projects were created with an entire team, from sketch to construction, maintenance and transportation to the next location. If you call me for something like this, I will do the transformation of the content and bring in a very good exhibition designer as well as an experienced builder for the execution. You didn’t think I would do this kind of thing alone, do you?

Adults playing in an exhibition. See, they are open to some information.

knowledge exhibition editorial content

Abstract concepts about sustainability can be portrayed with real things.

exhibition design editing content

Exhibition on sustainable communities. The ministry’s request was we want maps of the Netherlands, with the municipalities highlighted. My answer was an arrangement of icons, built from sustainable materials, depicting all the measures with real things. The exhibition is a nice design, but content editing is an preparation.


exhibition design editing content

An exhibition about the Sustainable City of 2040, imagined as a pavilion, with an exterior of architectural drawings and an interior with 5 images of the future and a voice over.


exhibition design content

Inside the pavilion, you are in a private space together with the future. Atelier Rijksbouwmeester / Ministry of VROM.


Accompanying the pavilion is a book, which interweaves 5 interviews with 5 plans by 5 architectural firms. So the exhibition design is preceded by attentive editing. The heavy content is available, but not in the exhibition, which takes care of the big picture only.


knowledge exhibition editorial content

Combine a mode of transportation with what you want to do and see your sustainable options. (Environmental Education Center Nieuwegein)


exhibition design content

All concepts translated into tangible objects.




knowledge exhibition editorial content

Climate as Opportunity, five lecterns on five topics, where you can dive into the matter.

knowledge exhibition editorial content

Top scientist explains to minister how ‘room for the river’ works.




Information with a friendly face

Information with a friendly face

You can shorten and delete until information is very compact. But you can also create a book so charming that readers will sit up and take notice. The pagecount might run up, as long as editing and design helps keep it readable and recognizable.

An example: the craftsman-enthusiast

Louis Kat is an extraordinary man. Immensely specialized. He spends his life honing his knowledge on 1 subject: wine.
He traveled endlessly to France to seek out the right winery. Days of tasting and taking notes to come home with the right wine.

Wijnkoperij Okhuysen, the company he grew, is 150 years old. The story of your business is told best in a book. That is the right form. Still. A book doesn’t fill itself; you need a plan for that.
(Or actually it does fill itself, with all that stuff from the archives. A typical jubilee book tells “everything,” and that’s only fun for friends and family.)

A decision is needed. An answer to the question “what kind of book should this be?

A decision against chaos

Enough clues. The Okhuysen company was built on the travels of Monsieur Louis. We put those travels first and centre. Travel stories are a distinct genre, guidebooks a distinct form. Wine regions are a familiar structure, and each region has recognizable specifics to guide the wine buyer. The plan is ready. It ends all hesitation. All content you thought “should that be in there?” is dropped, or fit in seamlessly. With this plan, the impression of overload, of going in all directions has disappeared. Swapped for a pleasant order. And within the travel stories there appears to be enough variety to never bore the reader. And then there is Mr. Kat himself. He said “I can see my readers just opening the book in the evening, in a nice chair, with a good glass of wine.

“I see it as my text.”

Mr. Kat started writing. From his memory and from old notebooks. A hell of a job. Editing we did together, an intimate process. What happened at the book level (a clear decision) repeats itself at this lower level: ‘what is each individual story about?’ An unexpected encounter, a stroke of luck, a tough fight for that one winemaker’s attention? Having decided that, you can delete, and clarify. The writer was clear about my editing: “I read it as my text, but at the same time greatly admire how you condensed it and summarized redundant information elsewhere. My compliments!”

To bring the book to the present, I visited 25 wine estates to take pictures of the landscape and cellars. The photos and contemporary maps make it clear: you can just go there by following the Route du Soleil.

I failed on 1 point (I’ll do better for you!): the text correction of the hundreds of wonderful French and Spanish place, person and wine names, I didn’t see that coming. Fortunately, team Okhuysen was able to free up time. Saved!

Most important for experts and book designers?

Quiet, prolonged closeness to your subject. Together.
This is how the book gets a soul.

book design expert beautiful

Monsieur Louis, an expert’s book on finding the best wine.


For photography, I visited 25 wine estates. Here at Guffens, where tradition and stainless steel go together.

book design expert beautiful

An index of 600 names of winemakers, wines and fields.

Superb vineyards in Bandol.


book design expert beautiful

After a double page with a photo of the region, each chapter of the book opens with a map and an introduction.




book design expert beautiful

Map insets, when the vineyard visited was part of a large area.


book design expert beautiful

All kinds of options for the pages were tested.

This was not the last project where I found myself in the landscape around sunrise.

At work in Spain, Rueda.

The activist designer?

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.