Beginner’s guide to content design

Double diamond icon, with a people icon in the first diamond, and an article icon in the second diamond

Over the past year, I have worked to re-shape the team I lead at the University of Edinburgh, hiring people into new content design roles.

(I say new roles, although strictly speaking we evolved them from existing but outdated job titles and descriptions.)

Content design is a relatively new discipline that pulls together complementary editorial, user research and design thinking skills into one role. Sarah Winters is widely credited with pioneering the discipline while at the Government Digital Service. Content design has quickly gained a foothold in many organisations.

Sarah Winters has moved on to running her own consultancy, but the Government Digital Service continues to be a source of inspiration for content designers. They have recently published an excellent blog post for people considering moving into content design. It is an excellent summary for those interesting in moving to this exciting new discipline.

Over the past year since we advertised for our first content designer, I have found myself answering lots of questions from people intrigued by content design but unsure if it’s the right fit for them. So here is my beginner’s guide to being a content designer. Find out why content design might be a better fit for you than you might think — and why it might not be.

You do not have to be technical to be a content designer

One of the most common questions I get about becoming a content designer is: “do I have to be technical?”

The answer from me is a firm no — you do not have to be technical to be a content designer.

I understand where the question comes from, because most content design roles are in digital teams, which can often be technology-led.

Some people can be intimidated by the idea of having to build technical skills. This means we may miss out on bringing a diverse range of brilliant, skilled individuals into our teams. So it’s important for us to get this across: Not every person in a digital team has to be technical.

Although an understanding of certain aspects of technology can be helpful (such as knowing how to structure content using HTML), most of these can be learned easily with a bit of commitment, and you do not have to learn to program.

Despite what some people might like you to believe, technical skills are not inherently more important, even in a digital team.

Content designers can play a vital role in ensuring that a team’s thinking does not become too focused on technology, and is instead always centred around meeting people’s needs.

Content designers have a blend of skills

Content design is so called because it’s about using the mindset of a designer to shape your content.

Skills in creating and editing content are clearly crucial. But what marks content design out from other content roles is that it’s specifically about using evidence to understand what people need from content. Our ultimate goal is to help people get stuff done more easily.

Your evidence may come from a variety of sources. Often it might involve carrying out or interpreting user research. So it’s important that you have an interest in people and understanding how they behave.

This skill is helpful for understanding the users of your content. But it is also crucial for persuading colleagues, who sometimes need to be convinced that their solution ideas won’t meet users’ needs. So a diplomatic but assertive approach can also be useful.

Content designers can come from a range of backgrounds

Since content designers have blend of content, research and people skills, content designers can come from a wide range of backgrounds.

Because content skills are important, people with a background in any type of content role such as copywriting, journalism or marketing could easily adapt to content design.

Understanding people, and gathering evidence or conducting research about them, is also key. So anyone with a background in social science could find themselves a natural fit.

Having an understanding of design approaches is also a big help. So people from other design disciplines such as interior design or graphic design can make the switch to content design.

What content design is not

Despite that, people seeking to switch to content design from other disciplines should keep a few things in mind.

Some creative marketing copywriters may find the ethos of content design frustrating. It’s about using evidence to help people get stuff done more quickly. So content design is not about writing funky creative copy. Search engine optimisation skills will only get you so far.

Content design is about keeping your content lean and utilitarian. Some people coming from other content disciplines can find this constraining on their creativity.

While user research is important, it’s also important to actually write the content your users need. So if your passion is solely in research rather than blending those skills with content creation, you won’t get far in content design. We need delivery skills as well.

The word design can also cause some big misunderstandings about what content design is. Unfortunately the word design often makes people think about look and feel. I have found myself sifting through lots of content designer applications that mentioned graphic design skills, but nothing about editorial skills, despite the job’s clear emphasis on content.

While the look and feel is part of how users experience content, the focus of content design is not on visual or interaction design. You need to be able to create, structure and edit (primarily written) content to meet users’ needs.

Content design is a superpower

After reading all that, if you still think content design is a good fit, you are in an exciting position.

In the past year I have had the good fortune of being able to build a small but brilliant team of content designers. I have quickly discovered that the range of backgrounds, and blend of skills, makes content designers very effective at getting stuff done.

I lead a user experience team that currently doesn’t have any dedicated user researchers or user experience practitioners, due to resource constraints. But by hiring three content designers with good user experience skills, we have managed to plug this gap. We can keep carrying out user experience initiatives to a high standard, while also delivering on content projects to better meet users’ needs.

When resources are tight, content designers come into their own. These diverse people have one thing in common. They can turn their broad range of skills to any problem, whether it’s more at the discovery or delivery end of things.

Content designers may be the closest thing we have to user experience unicorns.

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