The Geometry of Giving

Modest as it may be, the donor panel symbolizes something critical; it represents the generosity of the person to whom the building or exhibit owes its existence. Once a neglected design genre, donor panel systems are now striking features in the public spaces of building lobbies. They have grown in sophistication along with the architecture around it. Digital systems respond to visitors interactions, beautiful sandblasted glass panels enhance the texture of a feature wall. Two examples shown below depict extremes of recognition, the Dell Children’s Medical Center in Texas by Fd2s Design Consultants is interactive; visitors create butterflies when they touch the glowing plaques. The New York University Medical Center by Poulin Morris is an elegant marriage of type and texture. Each is a form of permanent recognition; these will remain in place for the life of the building. Also, each depicts a single level of giving.  Located elsewhere are other giving levels.


Left: Dell Children’s Medical Center donor recognition program by F2Ds   Right: New York University Medical Center by Poulin Morris

Capital Campaigns are a different challenge, they are for a particular project and need to represent all levels of giving in one location. Relative scale is essential, with larger donors having the biggest plaque and tallest cap height. It’s a challenge to differentiate a $25 gift and a $ 25,000 all on the same wall.  A proportional typographic treatment could lead to extreme proportions. If the top donor has a 1.5” letter height how small is the smallest donor, 1/16th of an inch? The designer goes beyond scale and uses material and color to help solve the design problem. Smaller donors can also be clustered onto a single panel within the system, creating a more appropriate relationship to the larger forms of recognition.

The following installations show scale and architectural integration. At the Clark Center designed by Tadao Ando and Gensler, a connecting corridor portrays three levels of giving. It dynamically carries you through space with etched and filled lettering on acrylic is backed by a metallic film creating a subtle drop shadow. Shown in the corridor of the PETA headquarters designed by Lawrence + Beaven Design is a full range of scale with at least five levels of giving represented by typographic scale and weight. Finally, an unidentified Capitol Campaign shown on Pinterest, it appears to be at a Temple, is playful and wonderfully integrated with the textural color of the wall.


Top left: Clart Art Center by Tadao Ando and Gensler    Top right: PETA Headquarters by Lawrence + Beaven Design    Bottom:  Captial Campaign recognition program, designer and location unknown

This design we found most inspirational for our giving recognition challenge, the donor system for the Parker’s Revenge Archeological Project at the Minuteman National Park Site in Lincoln, Massachusetts. This landmark project has revealed much about how this well-known skirmish, for instance, the pattern of musket balls found in the metallic survey reveals much about the number and location of the combatants. Our fundraising recognition for the project and exhibit will share the same wood-paneled wall as the exhibit. It must represent a large range of giving within the four linear feet dedicated to the system.

Our project is in design development, and the park manager is excited by our design with a variety of wood stain color with routed and printed lettering.



Above are two studies we developed showing a looser and tighter design grid. By mounting the plaques to a backer board, we limit the impact on the paneled wall. Inspired by the stained wood finish made for another project, the Norman Bird Sanctuary signage fabricated by Wood and Wood Signs in Waitsfield, Vermont. By using the right kind of wood with a pronounced grain, in this instance ash, creating a visual link between the wood panel wall and donor system.

Making the Magic of Mount Greylock Accessible

Pottermore website with image of Llvermorny School exterior exhibits provide access, meaning, and magic

To the residents of western Massachusetts, selecting Mount Greylock as the scene for a supernatural thriller is as natural as the clouds that envelope the peak giving it its name. After all, they are familiar with sightings of Bigfoot (of course), and ghostly “Old Coot”, a restless Civil War veteran. Nathaniel Hawthorne added to the mystery with his story of Ethan Brand who conjured up supernatural beings in his lime kiln. The Greylock experience has always had a touch of the supernatural.

Adding to this mythology famous wizard creator JK Rowling has set her Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry atop Mount Greylock in her new book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Naturally, if such a structure existed it would be invisible to “muggles” like ourselves. Access to the world of magic is limited in the world of Harry Potter to the magically gifted.

The Massachusetts War Memorial on the left, with a cross-section used in developing the exhibit.

In reality, visitors do not encounter a School of Witchcraft on top of Mount Greylock but rather the Massachusetts War Memorial. But access to the top is difficult for many people. Ascending the 92 tightly coiled steps up to the top of the monument is not for the faint-hearted.  But those that do are rewarded by fantastic views of Connecticut, New York, and Vermont as well as eastern Massachusetts. On a clear day point 90 miles away are visible. Our challenge is to make these views accessible to visitors reluctant to make the climb to the top. A technology solution was out of the question; our exhibit would be located outdoors in the vicinity of the monument structure with subzero wintertime temperatures and gale force winds (only a media wizard with magical touchscreen kiosks could pull this off). Instead, we translated the views into a wayside exhibit that mimic  the panoramic views available from the top of the tower.

Four images were composited together to create this westerly view

Photos by Jeffrey Bryne, magic by photoshop; this panoramic view encompassing more than 90 degrees is a compilation of three photos

Just send up a drone and spin it 360 degrees, right? Not so simple, the human eye is attached to a head that rotates up and down as well as left and right. We needed to capture not only the mountain ranges but the destinations near the tower such as Bascomb Lodge and the Overlook. This required Photoshop magic, which the staff at Content Design is adept at making. The photographer Jeffrey Bryne took photos at two azimuths, cut and blended for a seamless panoramic that was segmented into the four cardinal directions. Set on stainless steel posts fastened onto the Quincy granite parapet our phenolic panels will be unobtrusive and will last until a media wizard arrives with 22nd-century holographic technology placing visitors virtually at the top of the tower.



This mock-up shows the dimensional elements; eagle, medallion, and tower section. These are a boon to sight-impaired people and all visitors love to touch the exhibits!

If this was not enough interpretive enchantment, our team told the story of the War Memorial Tower. Less dramatic than the imagined Ilvermorny School with its turrets, stone walls, and monogrammed gate, it nevertheless could have served as an inspiration for its tapered column and glowing beacon. Erected in the early 20th century to honor World War One veterans who gave their lives, it now stands as a monument for all wars. Writing the text for the bronze plaque format was challenging. Within the space constraints we provided information for all aspects of the tower; the inner chamber, exterior sculpture, staircase and beacon.

Our solution was inspired by other bronze elements on the summit, creating a three-dimensional cross-section of the tower that included the inner chamber, stairs, and beacon, giving visitors a better look at the tower structure than the visitors who entered it.

After the construction fence comes down and the refurbished tower is open to the public in the fall, our exhibits will make accessible aspects of Mount Greylock and the War Memorial that until now have remained hidden to many of us—just like that school for wizards.

The final panels are elegant and inviting, and require a lot less work than climbing 92 stairs

 The final west view panel

Rebalancing the Confederate History Experience

From 1889 to 1946 in Limestone County, Texas, veterans of the Confederate Army and their families gathered at the Confederate Reunion Grounds

Interpretative exhibit design and lessons about American identity and family culture

Our understanding of history changes over time, and the Civil War is a topic that is as alive as ever at the Confederate Reunion Grounds State Historic Site in Mexia, Texas.  Established in 1889 as the Joseph E. Johnston Camp of the United Confederate Veterans at a time when the many veterans and their families were alive and well, the grounds are preserved today as State Historic Site managed by the Texas Historical Commission (THC). After the June 2015 tragedy in Charleston at the famous Bethel AME church when nine parishioners were murdered by a man motivated by racial hatred, the Commission responded to the nationwide debate about the public display of the battle flag of the Confederate States of America by removing the Confederate Flags on display at the Reunion Grounds. What was a straightforward storytelling of local history became part of a national dialogue about a historic flag.

While “rebalancing” the interpretation of this historic landscape it was important to understand the role that it played in the community. Although the American Civil War ended in 1865, Confederate Army veterans were not permitted to gather in large numbers until seceding states re-established local rule in the 1870s. Afterward, hundreds of reunion organizations sprang up across the South to share memories of the war. In Limestone County thousands of people gathered at the Reunion Grounds for annual camp meetings. Over several days, they enjoyed speeches, concerts, and dances while raising funds for families of fallen comrades.

Mexia, Texas, July 1st, 1905 General Orders No. 22
All members of Joe Johnston Camp, No. 94, U. C. V. are hereby commanded to answer to roll call at the Reunion Grounds on Tuesday, July 18th, 1905, at 10 o’clock a.m. provided with four days rations, armed and equipped to have a good time. Leave all cares behind and “turn yourselves loose” for four days.
Excerpted from the Groesbeck Journal, July 6, 1905

The THC originally asked Content•Design Collaborative to develop an interpretative program that showcases the Reunion Grounds’ rich history, but in addition to implementing a program in which the battle flag of the Confederate States can be displayed in a way acceptable to all visitors. Here is how we brought the story to life for residents and tourists.

Old Val Verde, a Civil War-era cannon that Reunion Grounds campers fired to start and end each day.
Unfold the narrative in pieces. Put historic photographs front and center.

We designed and wrote eight graphic panels that guide visitors through place and time along walking trails and picnic areas. We used captivating images, skillfully preserved by THC researchers and archivists, to give visitors a palpable sense of humanity from long ago. This panel explains the history of Old Val Verde, a Civil War-era cannon that Reunion Grounds campers fired to start and end each day. The weapon symbolized a national movement known as Lost Cause, which sought to strengthen camaraderie among Southern veterans and restore the honor of fallen Confederate soldiers. This image might make the 21st-century viewer think of his regional pride, the US military, or perhaps any political cause championed by parade marchers.


Here, we explain how the Reunion Grounds experienced a second wave of popularity during the 1920s Oil Boom in nearby Mexia [muh-hay-a]. When oil entrepreneur AJ Humphrey damned the Navasota River to harness water for his oil fields, he transformed the Grounds into a popular swimming area complete with bathhouse, water slide, and footbridge.
Mix and match other visual elements

Few trail walkers will pore over a panel offering dry renditions of facts. Instead, our compositions capture the eye through inset orientation maps, subheads, and photo captions. Here, we explain how the Reunion Grounds experienced a second wave of popularity during the 1920s Oil Boom in nearby Mexia [muh-hay-a]. When oil entrepreneur AJ Humphrey damned the Navasota River to harness water for his oil fields, he transformed the Grounds into a popular swimming area complete with bathhouse, water slide, and footbridge. The Reunion Grounds serves as a historically valuable site which provides visitors with the context in which to understand the very complex issues of the past and the present.

Visitors now learn about flags such as Hardee Pattern Battle Flag that was inspired by the Irish Full Moon Rebellion of 1778 or how the 1863 United States 34-star flag contained the stars of the Confederate states because they were still considered part of the Union.
Give a controversial symbol context

Initially, the Reunion Grounds provided a lesson on all the flags flown during the 5-year life of the Confederacy. Few visitors understand that the familiar image of the battle flag was not the official flag of the Confederacy, but only one of many individual army units flags flown by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The familiar stars and bars pennant was created by the military of northern Virginia but for various reasons became emblematic of the Confederate aspect of the Civil War. Together with the staff of the Commission, we created a graphic display that enabled the staff at the Reunion Grounds to show a total of 14 flags, both Union and Confederate. Visitors now learn about flags such as Hardee Pattern Battle Flag that was inspired by the Irish Full Moon Rebellion of 1778 or how the 1863 United States 34-star flag contained the stars of the Confederate States because they were still considered part of the Union.

Now visitors to the Reunion grounds will not only learn about the famous dance pavilion, a water park on the Navasota River, and the Mexia oil boom, they will get a short lesson in Vexillology, or the study of flags.

What’s on your exhibit bucket list?

The Hingham Historical Society’s new Heritage Museum bucket list: visible storage, hands-on math interactive, research facilities, extraordinary gift shop

Hingham Historical Society’s bucket list – a visitor experience that combines hands-on interactives with visible storage and a new exhibit

The Hingham Historical Society’s new Heritage Museum exhibit tells the story of “Bucket Town” where energetic and innovative craftsmen created tens of thousands of wooden buckets along with firkins, piggins, pantry boxes, churns, and other essential containers during the 18th and 19th centuries. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, the Committee of Supplies ordered 15,000 canteens to be smuggled to safe areas before the conflict began in Lexington and Concord. When director Suzanne Buchanan took the helm of the Hingham Historical Society in 2007, she composed her own “Bucket list” to fulfill the vision of the Society as it entered its second century.

Director Suzanne Buchanan conferring with designer Ed Malouf on the plans for the Hingham Heritage Museum

Director Suzanne Buchanan conferring with designer Ed Malouf on the plans for the Hingham Heritage Museum

First on the list, make the 198-year-old Old Derby Academy a modern museum facility. Currently the headquarters of the Hingham Historical Society, it is an 18th-century building minimal electricity and heating, and no air conditioning or the climate control required to protect a collection. Second, an exhibit gallery so the Society can exhibit this collection. Third, a visible storage gallery to make accessible as much of the balance of the collection that is not on display. Fourth, an inaugural installation in the new gallery featuring highlights from their bucket and toy collection. Fifth, create a new and enlarged archives room for the many researchers who return to Hingham to trace their roots and sixth, a new “Out of the Ordinary” gift shop for souvenirs unique to Hingham’s history.

The Old Derby Academy under construction

With the 2.9 million dollar renovation of Old Derby Academy halfway to completion, this bucket list will be “kicked” by December after years in the making. The Ballroom Gallery will feature the Boxes, Buckets, and Toys; The Craftsmen of Hingham exhibit with over 50 artifacts on display from their collection as well as interactive experiences on bucket taxonomy and the legacy of Hingham’s craftsmen on today’s landscape. The star of the new visible storage gallery will be the magnificent Gay Desk emerging from storage for the first time. It will be surrounded by a striking collection of objects currently located in the less accessible and unheated or air-conditioned Old Ordinary. The Gift Shop will be larger and will include a media corner, and the archives room will be so large returning researchers might get lost.

ooden buckets along with firkins, piggins, pantry boxes, churns, and other essential containers during the 18th and 19th centuries

Left, typical Hingham bucket, right William Seawall Tower’s “Fancy Bucket”

Hingham buckets are not your ordinary buckets, a miniature Hingham Firkin signed by Caleb Hersey is valued between $ 2,000 and $ 4,000. The word “bucket” does not do justice to the remarkable craftsmanship that went into these utilitarian objects to hold flour, nails, feathers, beans, water or any other item a colonial skilled worker or cook might require. The elegant proportion and strapped banding technique evoke the classic swallowtail projections of the well-known Shaker box. When the market for boxes shifted away from the handcrafted product to mill manufacture, the Hingham craftsmen created a whole new industry— wooden toys, especially miniature furniture. They drew upon their expertise to create miniature versions of the buckets and pails they once made for the general trade. Dollhouse scaled chests of drawers, ladder-backed chairs and bedroom sets delighted young people all across the country. As part of this “Objects for Lesure” display, there is a “Fancy Bucket” made by William Tower built from 47,568 individual pieces of dark and light colored wood.

This exhibit will not only feature the breath of the collection but will demonstrate how the bucket functioned in the colonial and early industrial economy. How much did a firkin of butter weigh compared to a firkin of feathers? How many buckets would you order to transport 100 pounds of nails? What is your weight in buckets of water? These questions and others will facilitate visible math skill development for the Hingham 3rd and 5th-graders.

Design presentation for “Boxes, Buckets, and Toys”

Our contribution to checking off this “bucket of lists” is modest compared to the years advocacy by Ms. Buchanan and the Historical Society Board. But our planning, design, writing, research, and construction oversight makes for a small bucket of a list all on its own. Visit Bucket Town, a.k.a. Hingham Massachusetts, later this year to experience the lore of the bucket yourself.

3 ways to transform a nature center into a nerve center

Interactive map at Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania

The third space is central to community vitality

Silver Lake Nature Center unites community members in a positive, shared experience through purposeful exhibit content and design. Most of us are busy beavers when it comes to activities of daily living. We rise and shine at home, trudge off to work, shuttle back, and repeat the cycle.

When we do stop to take a breath, it’s often not at home or work but a public gathering place like a park, restaurant, hair salon, or library. The urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg studied these so-called third spaces (or third places), and, in his books The Great Good Place and Celebrating the Third Place, argued they are central to community vitality: “The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. …They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.”

We think about Oldenburg’s work a lot at Content Design Collaborative. How can we design community-driven nature centers and museums that promote feelings of warmth, possession, and belonging? How do we ground visitors in a sense of place?

Flip book at Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania

Silver Lake Nature Center

A useful case study is the Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania. Local residents have treasured Silver Lake’s 235 acres and 4.5 miles of trails since the property was converted from a farm to a nature center in 1987. The County of Bucks Parks and Recreation Department asked us to design a new visitor center for Silver Lake that inspires connections with nature for people of all ages. Our collaborative process—including workshops with community members and back-and-forth with the County—allowed us to develop a beautiful, more vibrant third space. Here are three ways we did it.

Before and after at Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania

1. Bring the outdoors inside.

The original visitor center (seen in this walkthrough) was a dark, confined space with tired exhibits and unwelcoming partitions. Without expanding the footprint, we designed an open floor plan with walls of glass, clear sightlines, and free-flowing, accessible pathways through the exhibit areas. This “room with a view” now serves as a bright, beautiful reception area that encourages visitors to interact with staff and get ready to go outside. Visitors gather at a 12’x8’ site map to plan their hikes. This area serves as an attractive new meeting room that motivates residents to preserve the living treasure of Silver Lake for generations to come.

Observatory at Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania
2. Appeal to all ages.


A welcoming third space is family-friendly and offers something for all generations. Silver Lake’s original visitor center featured a replica tree that young people could sit inside. The exhibit was popular but well past its shelf life. When brainstorming replacement ideas, we got down on the floor to see the world through the eyes of preschoolers. Our answer was nifty with bubble-shaped terrariums housing indigenous turtles. Small children can safely observe the animals up close and delight in the “just-for-me” scale. This exhibit shows respects for Silver Lake’s youngest learners and inspires their appreciation for nature.

Photography by community member Clarance King at Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania

3. Tap the brainpower of local residents.

One secret to developing unique content is to collaborate with the community who have a personal interest in the project’s success. They often can help us unearth photographs and stories you can’t find anywhere else. For this project, we turned to professional photographer and historian Clarence King, whose family once owned the Silver Lake farm. Only someone with a firsthand knowledge of the land and history could capture a gorgeous shot like the one above!

Today, visitors to Silver Lake Nature Center kick off their outdoor adventure with a positive, informative experience that bolsters community pride and togetherness. We hope they will want to come again and again. Contact us about your next project. We have lots of good ideas.


Exhibit photographs by Justin DeRosa