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.

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.