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.