The rise of content design

The Rise (and Role) of Content Design

Content design is popping up everywhere these days. But it's more than a catchy phrase; it's a title that finally makes sense for a lot of us working in the field.

Bill Gates was right; content is king. If you’re reading this article, you probably know that already or have at least heard the phrase

Content is king from “The Positive” blog

Anyone that works in tech is happy to argue that good content is necessary for products and users and that quality, well-written content wins over spammy, keyword-ridden content any day of the week. 

But the reality is a bit more complex than that, because without quality design to go along with the content, that well-written sentence you spent hours crafting can become totally meaningless. 

As the Internet has evolved over the last few years, web design (and app design) is becoming more and more important. 

No longer will users attempt to muddle through a Geocities-style website or a text-heavy app to find what they need. 

When it comes to web-surfing, no one is a novice anymore. 

People spend so much of their time online. Websites and apps can’t afford to be clunky or difficult. If they are, users will drop them and go to a competitor—not necessarily because the competitor’s content is better, but because the design matters. 

And because of that, the creation and planning that goes into that design matters even more. 

Just what is content design?

The term is popping up everywhere these days, especially with big companies like Shopify changing their titles or Facebook posting Medium articles to announce the rebranding of their team from Content Strategy to Content Design. It’s obviously the newest trend, the latest buzzword. For once though, it’s not just a catchy phrase but a title that finally makes sense for a lot of us working in the field. 

But now on top of content developers, content strategists, UX writers, copywriters, and more, we have content designers added to the mix. And unfortunately, companies often just rename positions or tweak job descriptions so much that roles often end up sounding like something else entirely. 

Even a content expert might be confused by all the cross-pollination of names and titles.

For over six years, I’ve been creating content for websites, for the gaming industry, and for e-learning companies and my titles have shifted over time too. I’ve been a content developer, a content strategist, and finally a content designer. But really, I was a content designer the entire time. Let’s break it down and see why. 

What is content design? 

Content design is exactly what it says. It is: thinking about the design behind the content with a focus on how to serve the audience the information they need, when they need it. Sarah Richards coined the term after working on consolidating the content of government websites for ten years. 

She was right when she came up with it, because content design is more than just microcopy or CTAs (though sometimes it includes that too). In short, we are not just creators, but the designers of content. And that doesn’t mean we just look at aesthetics. When we say “design,” we mean the process of envisioning and planning the creation of objects, interactive systems, building, vehicles—any sort of product. But in our case, we’re talking specifically about the design of digital products.

The true role of a content designer or content design team is to help design the development of an app, a website, a digital service—or any product—from the ground up. Content designers work alongside engineers, researchers, managers, data analysts, UX writers, graphic designers, and more. Content design is about constant collaboration and iteration. There is no content designer doing things in a bubble (hopefully!) just as no revision is ever final—there are always ways to improve and revise existing content. And that’s what content design is all about.  

What really makes content design unique among content roles is the designer’s ability and desire to help plan the organization of information for the user. No matter the industry or product, content designers help users find the content they need in the most natural way possible.

We do this by asking questions like:

  • What is the hierarchy? 
  • What messaging comes first? 
  • Where should this piece of content fit in the big picture? 
  • How can we better our UI to reflect that change? 

A content designer considers all of these things. Our work encompasses systems thinking, journey mapping, information architecture, and more.

You might be wondering, then what’s the difference between content strategy versus content design? Well, design is a better word that reflects what content design teams actually do on the regular

Strategy might just be creating the architecture and passing it down the production line but design indicates a level of involvement through every step of the development process. 

Design is a more encompassing word to show that our teams do more than just write or just strategize.

With all the thought and energy that goes into designing a product, it becomes necessary to include the content creators in that “design” umbrella. 

Shopify made the switch for those reasons and also because the term content design is a clear signal as to what the team is involved with. 

It’s easy for outsiders to picture what designers do, much harder to figure out what a strategist does in the scheme of product design. Strategist has also become a broad term for everything from information architecture to content marketing while design is more specific. We are involved in the design of a product.

What is the background you’ll need to become a content designer

How does one end up doing this sort of work? Like most jobs in content, content designers often start out life as something else: a copywriter (me!), a content or UX writer, a digital marketer, a journalist

There is no one, correct path. Many of us probably stumbled into our fields by accident, following our noses by asking hard questions, posing what-ifs, and looking for smart solutions. 

Lots of people claim to be good at writing (spoiler alert, they might not be) but not a lot of people try to claim they’re good at content design (because it’s a lot more involved and a lot more work than making a sentence sound good.) A writer’s ability might be measured by how “good” those sentences sound but a content designer’s success is measured by the impact of their writing and design on the end users. 

Content designers play such an important role for users that we’ve become integral to the development process. 

We don’t write or create for our own egos. Some of those self-described writers get very upset when you change their words but what content designers do is for the users, not for ourselves. 

Let me repeat that; we create and write for the user (cue the Tron theme song!)

What does a content designer actually do?

We look for problems, for holes, for things that don’t or might not work, things that might not belong where they are currently, and things that are good but could still be improved.

At its core, content design starts with identifying potential problems or potential uses of a product. Content design teams ask questions about everything. Then comes research, lots of research. We are research hounds. If the internet has information on it, we will sniff it out, map it out with user journeys, write it out with content outlines and so on and so forth. 

Content designers are also often responsible for words. We give the concepts of the product the words to match. We inject empathy into the content while ensuring we are following brand voice and style guides. 

After all, we are (mostly) writing for companies or products, not for ourselves, and we often have to balance user needs with client directives. Content designers might also present their designs to different teams, getting feedback from legal or marketing or outside subject matter experts. 

And then, we revise and iterate again! Like good writing, revising is always a part of good design.

Part of content design might include socials or advertising. Or that might be the marketing team’s job.

 Every role is slightly different in scope and depends on the company or client you’re working for. Maybe one day there will be a standard, well-defined job description across the board but until then, we might end up doing a little bit of everything. 

The key ingredient is that content designers are extremely good at a few specific things but we’re also very good at a lot of other, broader things. It comes with the territory. 

How do you know if Content Design is for you?

I’ve talked before about the skills needed for content roles and I think most of us agree that good content designers (and probably all content roles) should be empathetic, analytical, and collaborative. 

But what sets the content designer apart from a UX writer or even a content strategist?

For me, it’s not necessarily about the daily job functions since we often end up doing a little bit of everything. What sets a content designer apart from the rest is the ability and willingness to look beyond the words and beyond the strategy. Content designers strive to design content that strikes a balance between what the users want from products and what the product designers are trying to sell or emphasize. 

Content designers don’t think in problems, they see in solutions. 

Content designers are constantly asking questions, especially “how can we make this experience better?” They are the ones who are not just empathetic to users but passionate about crafting whole experiences for every facet of a product. They are happy to work behind the scenes and let the experts do the real creation—let the senior copywriter craft the words or the lead designer create a beautiful, usable UI. But the content designer is always there, always looking for ways to improve the words and the design for the betterment of the users. (If the Tron theme song isn’t playing in your head, it should be.) 

Actually, there’s a great line from the original Tron that I think applies very well to content design: “On the other side of the screen, it all looks so easy.” That’s the job of a content designer. To make the end result easy for the users, to make it effortless and painless so the user doesn’t notice all the work you and your teams put into making the experience so great; the users only see the products you want them to. 

What sort of salary do content designers earn?

Content design, much like UX writing, is still an emerging field across industries (even if we in the trenches don’t feel that way.) However, because of this, there’s a lot of discrepancy between salaries for content designers. 

According to Glassdoor, the average salary is around $58k a year but different companies might pay a lot higher than that for a good content designer. Ziprecruiter states that salaries skew even higher, averaging out around $70k. Hourly rates for contractors could start at $45 and go up (or start much lower at other companies.)

These salaries might be for more senior, experienced content designers and junior roles will probably start much lower. But it’s worth getting into as the importance of good content design is only going to increase across all industries over the next few years. 

How to become a content designer

If you’re already working in a content role, the best advice I can give you is to get more involved. Talk to your manager about collaborating with the design or the development teams. Learn as much about the design process as possible. Try and attend design meetings or presentations if you can. (I’ve learned a lot about how designers think and work simply by listening to folks on my design teams present to clients.) Learning is always the first step. 

Read and stay up-to-date on design principles. The Internet is a glorious place with a wealth of information. You don’t even have to search that hard, the UX Writing Hub has a ton of great content to get you on your path. Start with the staple of content design, Sarah Richard’s book. Listen to podcasts

Take the free course on UX writing and see how it fits into the great scheme of content design. Connect with other content experts, either through LinkedIn or Facebook Groups. (The Microcopy one is a great place to talk to UX writers, content designers, and more. We’re also very friendly, I promise.)

Once you begin to work on those skills and network with folks, start looking at job descriptions to see what you need to work on. Build a portfolio on top of a well-designed resume. Portfolios don’t have to be fancy but they should be thorough in showcasing what you’ve done as well as your eye for design. Here are some great examples to get you inspired. 

Don’t be afraid to apply to jobs, even if you might not be qualified for them. You never know where they might lead or what might grab a manager’s eye. 

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