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Richard Kimber
June 9, 2020

Content design: What it is, why you need it and why it shouldn’t be new to you

Content design means taking a much more considered, deliberate approach to planning and creating content than many on the web have done up to now.

If you work in digital marketing, you’ve probably been hearing the term ‘content design’ more and more over the last year or so. If you’re wondering what it’s all about, content design actually has little to do with what you’d usually think of as ‘design’.

In fact, content design groups together various existing digital disciplines and techniques into a single approach that we (and most other people with an eye on digital) believe is powerful for any organisation in the business of producing content. Here’s what it’s all about, why you should care, and some good news about how it might not be as new to you as you think.

What is content design?

Content design is the discipline of planning (or ‘designing’) and producing content in the way that will best serve the needs of the people it’s intended for. It combines user research techniques with expertise in briefing, structuring and producing content, whether that’s text, graphics, audio, video or anything else.

The definition may vary slightly depending on who you ask – particularly depending on the organisation they work for, and whether their background is in marketing, publishing or government – but that’s pretty much it.

Follow that stated aim to its logical conclusion and you’ll see that content design is not simply content creation or writing, and that it has relatively little to do with what you’d probably associate with ‘design’.

Until relatively recently, content design as a formal discipline was mostly confined to the public sector. It was unusual to hear about content design outside the context of GOV.UK and Government Digital Service (GDS) projects. That’s because the term was (probably) coined and (definitely) pioneered by the GDS team, and notably Sarah Richards, formerly head of content design at GDS. She literally wrote the book on it when she published Content Design in 2017.

Since then, businesses from tech unicorns to insurance providers to utilities companies have realised that they need content design and got onboard. If you’ve yet to join the party, I’d highly recommend Richards’ excellent book as your logical starting point.

How is content design different from design?

Whatever ‘design’ means to you, it’s almost certainly a very different concept from content design. Content design is not about graphic design, UI design, web design or how things look (though those disciplines may overlap with it sometimes). You could think of the ‘design’ element of content design as being there to emphasise the deliberateness of how you plan, create, and publish content. Richards offers this distinction at the start of Content Design:

This book is not about design as in graphics, icons, look and feel, colours, interaction and so on. It’s about the content that sits within the design.

What does a content designer do?

A content designer finds out what people want and need from your website, and figures out how to create content and how best to execute it.

They don’t necessarily then create the content – it may then be the role of a different person or team (say a writer, a designer, a developer, or all the above) to do that. However, a content designer will usually be a skilled writer, since expertise in communication, writing for the web and producing effective content are prerequisites. Good knowledge of UX is also essential, and SEO understanding really helps. A content designer is not the same as a web designer, a UI designer or graphic designer.

In other words, a content designer doesn’t just create content. They determine how to make digital content do the thing it’s supposed to do as effectively as possible.

Why is content design so useful?

The aim of content design is to do away with the haphazard way that most people go about creating content on the web, and take the guesswork out of creating and publishing it. That’s a good thing for any website for masses of reasons.

The use case for government is obvious. Unlike most of the web, GOV.UK has absolutely no commercial goal whatsoever. It’s not trying to sell directly or indirectly, it’s not trying to persuade – its raison d’être is to give people information, with no additional tangential goals. That makes content design a no-brainer.

But what about for a commercial website, where publishing content is primarily a function of marketing goals? You might argue that the user-centred approach of content design doesn’t explicitly have to do with digital marketing. Well, explicitly, it does.

Content is only really effective if people engage with it. That principle firstly works simply on a basic psychological level. But it also applies to the very nature of the web. The importance of search engine algorithms, among other factors, has created a virtuous circle between SEO, UX, even CRO, and the content that drives them.

We’ve been banging on about the importance of user needs for a while now. That’s what content design is all about; I’ve summed up the approach you take as a commercial business in my favourite Venn diagram that I never tire of wheeling out for pitch decks:

Venn diagram on user-centred content

Why content design shouldn’t really be new to you

The definition of content design as a discipline is a relatively recent thing. It was only really formalised as a cohesive approach in the digital field when Sarah Richards published her book in 2017.

But each of the constituent techniques, skills and principles should all be more or less familiar to you if you work in digital marketing. And, most of all, the importance of user needs in optimising every digital channel should be very familiar.

User stories? Well, yeah, they’ve been around since the late 90s. The formalised version that Richards advocates is familiar to anyone who knows Scrum and is used verbatim from Scrum guru Mike Cohn’s definition, published back in 2008:

As a, I want to, so that.

Richards goes further to make this specific to content design:

As a [person in a particular role]
I want to [perform an action or find something out]
So that [I can achieve my goal of…]

Then there are think aloud protocols – academics have been using the technique in fields such as psychology for at least 40 years. They were being used in a usability context back in 1982 at IBM[1]. Web developers, designers, UX professionals, product people, engineers and others who take their digital craft seriously have been using these for decades.

And then, of course, there’s simply good copywriting, use of plain English, page experience, formatting, layout, structure… But if you work in content, you know about these already.

The point about content design

This is what I’m getting at: if you have the words ‘digital’ or ‘content’ in your job title, none of this stuff should be new to you. Granted, you might only have a passing familiarity with some of the concepts – particularly the research aspects – but that’s not the point. You don’t have to be a content designer. But, if you work in digital, you do need to understand what it is and why it’s so powerful.

Content, UX and SEO are all worshipping at the same altar: user needs.

Particularly for SEO, update after update sees Google placing emphasis on how real people actually experience and interact with the content on your website. This was exactly the case with the late May core update.

If you’re an SEO, it’s not enough to think of page experience as simply the job of the UX team. What we’re seeing is an increasing convergence of UX, SEO and content that means professionals in each of those fields need to work together more than ever. That’s exactly what content design is all about.

[1] Lewis, C. H. (1982). Using the “Thinking Aloud” Method In Cognitive Interface Design (Technical report). IBM. RC-9265.

If you’d like to talk to us about content design, content strategy or pretty much anything related to content, SEO, or digital, we’re all ears.

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