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  • Writer's pictureM. Huijgen

Reading the Bigger Picture

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

TXT Maytal Huijgen | IMGS Maytal Huijgen

[about visual break-down for complex content]

"Sapiens", by Yuval Noah Harari
The cover of part 3 in the Dutch version of "Sapiens", by Yuval Noah Harari

Accessing Complex Texts.

Due to their complexity, grand concepts such as Aristotle's "Virtue Ethics" and Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" were never popular readings. Such publications, often presented in a book format, lay out visions in the fields of physics, morality and economics concerning humanity as a whole.

As the world is becoming smaller, seeing and understanding the connections, relations and interactions between multiple factors is becoming crucial to our lives on this planet.

Getting people to read those concepts has become even a greater challenge nowadays. Such publications are not easy reads and we live in times where people got accustomed to reading short and specific. People need to be lured into thinking in complex terms.

So how can the new digital reading experience aid in making those big ideas more accessible? How can we take complex texts such as Thomas Piketty's conceptions of financial inequalities or Yuval Noah Harari's forecast on human development, and by rethinking their digital output allow more people to understand the bigger picture?

Netflix's documentary series "Explained"
Netflix's documentary series "Explained" is presenting complex ideas through short videos of 15-30 minutes | Recently lounged "100 Humans - Life's Questions answered"

Visual Texts.

Processing texts into visual presentation has been established in many fields of information sharing. We are very familiar with fiction-books being processed to movies and scientific terms being animated for a simpler understanding. These are great ways to process and present the essence of an idea, but it does not allow access to the complete vision.

"Reading involves the production of an “inner voice” that is intended to enhance attention, suggesting that careful reading is not an automatic process, but occurs when we attentively process what we are reading." Clicktale Research

The first output of every idea begins with words. Every TV show, rock concert or museum exhibition was conceived textually. The text format is unique because it allows the reader to interpret the idea in their manner. Moving to the digital platform should not mean processing the text to other outputs, but using editorial design tools and digital features to create a simplified, instructive reading experience.

Interacting with Texts.

Putting grand ideas into a readable story is an author's art. But while the textual process of writing the story builds up gradually through research, data collecting, editing and proofing, the presentation of the content many times ends up in a templated manner that pays too little attention to the details in the content.

on top: screenshots from the e-version of "Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari | below: a model for scrollable frame instead of a table, showing the same data | the interaction gets the reader more involved in the content

In a digital-born output, the content can attract the reader for involvement. Using common features such as scroll, swipe and open-close can create an immediate, subtle interaction between the reader and the content.

Instead of flipping through, those interactive features allow a pause in the skimming of the texts and better absorption of the content.

Another issue deriving from the print-to-e-pub solution is the automated scattering of the information. In print, the content will be monitored to make sure all relevant information is displayed correctly. The default arrangement of the e-pub files does not allow this control. When designing content for mobile devices, the arrangement of the information should be re-considered and re-ordered accordingly.

4 "pages" in the electronic "Sapiens" become 1 interactive page in a digital-born output

Interaction gets the reader more involved with the content and therefore makes it more memorable. It is possible to go even further and add some hands-on learning methods such as questions to the reader at the end of each chapter, allowing them to process the meaning of the texts even further.

Texts in Motion.

It is very common in news and magazines to pull out key phrases from the text and highlight them. The design would usually use different styles of typography, to attract the reader gradually into the longer, more complex text.

In digital platforms, such solutions can be elevated by adding motion to selected texts. Parts of text presented as a playful motion output create an immediate attraction and almost guarantee receiving attention.

Motion text out "Sapiens"
A text out "Sapiens", picked out and represented in motion


To every text, there is a context, a meaning that relates it to historical events, social behaviours or cultural conventions. A great way to relate readers to complex content is by linking it to current events and situation.

Two examples of digital tools to link information are adding remarks and opening discussions. Remarks can appear in the form of commentaries added by the author, an editor or by readers. The remarks can be added as "footnotes" or as videos of interviews, for example. Those enrichments can provide the reader with an extra understanding of the content.

NY Times' active comments section
NY Times' active comments section on tablet and mobile | allowing open comments or edited only is an author's choice

Discussions can include an either open or closed "book club", allowing a conversation on the relevancy of the topic. Such a platform can enable the readers with the option to communicate and process the texts in the relevancy of today.

"The real antidote to epidemic is not segregation, but rather cooperation." Yuval Noah Harari on the current Coronavirus epidemic for TIME Magazine

Maintaining the relevancy of complex texts can benefit not only in new sales but truly create a larger group of people reading the bigger picture.

A Short Note on How Short

@Blinkist is an app delivering "Key takeaways from the world’s best nonfiction books in text and audio" (from their site). I tested it for its free week (personally, I subscribe only when a monthly payment is available). Here are my short remarks regarding it:

  1. The concept is clear.

  2. The design is friendly.

  3. "Sapiens" in 14 "pages" is very much like the the Harry Potter movies - its okay, but if you read the books you know how much is left out and you miss it. Plus, it needs the complete book to be based upon (see the GOT fiasco).

  4. I enjoyed the audio pieces with @SethGodin. Two minutes on motivational topics can be translated quite easily to just one sentence. For example: Writers Block = self censorship. Just write, practice will get you better. Well, it did get me to add this post (:

My long-time dream project is to re-design "Sapiens" to a mobile-experience. @yuvalnoahharari, are you in?

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