How to Design with Content in Mind


November 22, 2021


If content is king (as Bill Gates famously declared in the 90s), what does that mean for designers? In the first article in a series about the relationship between design and content, Ana Wang gets to roots of content's definition and explores the rise of content design.

So you may have heard: content rolled in and as of 1996, it's taken up the helm as king, so says Bill Gates. Before long, we found ourselves in this flurry of content 24/7, at our fingertips, at our beck and call and even at our futile resistance.

While content is king, there's another accuracy floating around disguised as hyperbolic statement: content is design. I used to do content things here at SuperHi so forgive me for my bias: content is food, content is life, content is love, content is the universe. Stop me now.

But actually, content is design. Or more accurately, it should be design, and it deserves the same level of care and attention as it aims to demand.

If you've ever come across any or all of the following situations, you may know already what it feels like when we put content last (and if not, you're about to get way ahead of the game):

  • Everything is perfect and ready, but wait –where are the words?

  • Designs look good but context, strategy, message is missing

  • Lorem Ipsums everywhere

  • Extended timelines and missed deadlines on design and development

  • Entire pages and websites that need to be redone to ‘fit’ content

And that makes no sense. 

Content is the message, design is the frame. You don't decide on the frame before you decide on the art. You find the frame that fits the art. 

Yes, it's all a bit confusing because in this case, the words – undressed characters making up words, that make up sentences, woven together to form information – is the art.

If you're used to thinking of language as secondary, as just ‘words on a page’, or if you're struggling to connect design to message, or process to strategy, then let's get you acquainted with the role of content and copy in design.

Defining content and design

When a lot of us think about ‘content’, we think about content marketing: blogs, white papers, social media, YouTube videos. And sure, the fact that so many of our browsers are set to search engines to help us find the content we're looking for in milliseconds makes that an easy assumption: that content is this.

But content is pretty broad. It has existed as literature, on cereal boxes, on radio and now podcasts. And ‘content marketing’? It's not just what you think either. Heard of the Michelin Guide? It's the world's authority on good food, the industry standard for excellence. If only these chefs knew they were working this hard for Michelin Stars that stem from a 400-page piece of content marketing for car owners created in 1900.

It doesn't help that ‘making content’ is a thing now. No one used to call it that until our entire worlds (and our lives too) became content – and content creation, in any form one can get their hands on, became a career. Kids even want to grow up wanting to be YouTubers, according to a study conducted by Lego.

Yes, there's a lot of content out there and while there are certainly exceptional examples, it's overwhelming to try to define it when it exists everywhere, in all forms. But what if that was exactly it? What if content was everything? And if it is everything, what would happen if we could design it to be a better experience, to connect with people better, to meet an organization's, product's, website's, user's goals better? 

What if we applied the same level of intent with content as we do with visual design?

What if content is design?

We need to clarify what design actually is, too. I've worked with many kinds of designers. Early in my career, in my peer group, ‘designers’ meant fashion designers. Later on, when I worked in marketing, it meant graphic designers. And when I found myself in tech, designers were by default UX and product designers. Most people don't cross over from one form of design to another, so they're not exactly the same – but they do certainly have some things in common. They're all designing.

So what is design? (For a comprehensive overview, check out our First Steps to Learning to Design guide.)

For now, we understand that visuals are a major part of practically all forms of design. And that's because so much of human processing and cognition comes from our sense of sight. It's not a coincidence that if we are looking to design things for people, that we're designing things to appeal to their most used sense.

But if I were to try to define design, I might not lead with visuals as the most important thing. I'd probably start by saying that design starts with intent and strategy. Design isn't the opposite of ugliness or visual disarray, after all. Nor is it the opposite of art.

It's the opposite of an accident. Designer Robert Peters said, ‘Design is the application of intent, the opposite of happenstance and an antidote to accident.’

What does it mean for design to be content-driven? And why is it important?

Content-driven design focuses on intent, strategy, and messaging first before arranging visual hierarchy, structure, and details.

Being a content-driven designer (not to be confused with being a content designer, which we'll get to in a bit) doesn't necessarily mean that you've got yet another skill to pick up before you become a two-horned unicorn. It doesn't mean that on top of what you already do, you're the one writing the polished, final copy for a product. After all, that's a whole other job, one that many people spend years to hone too.

But it does mean rewriting your understanding of messaging's role in the experience of a product to make your job and the job of the people around you easier.

So, everything we know about design being generally quite sight-reliant? Well, let's not forget about language. Aided by the advent of the printing press in the 1400s (though other forms of printing existed way before in China and Korea), mass media in the 1920s, and the internet in 1983, words mean even more than they did thousands of years ago.

Language is information, expression, direction, creation, and connection. 

In fact, in a very short span of time, we've had to evolve to keep up with our technology. We read less, we skip the fine (and boring) print, and a lot of us can't even be bothered to get through paragraphs (resulting in the internet marketing rule of spliced up paragraphs to help people get through text, ignoring all previously defined standards of grammar.)

And that's why content-driven design matters. The rules have changed, and they're still changing, and we need to apply style to substance to grab attention, keep it, and connect with people the way we want to – in this world of content everywhere, anytime, all ways.

Content-driven design is important because:

  • It saves time, effort, and ultimately money

  • When content is everywhere, content strategy is brand, marketing, and product strategy

  • Content forms so much of a user's experience with a product – therefore, designing without content in mind brings this quote from web designer Jeffrey Zeldman to mind: Design in the absence of content is not design, it's decoration.’

And in fact, there's a discipline adjacent to UX design dedicated to this integrated approach between design and language. Say hello to the field of content design.

Exploring the rise of content design

Content design is a fairly new discipline. In fact, considering its meteoric adoption in recent years (in certain spaces, that is – so don't feel bad if this is your first time hearing the term), you may be surprised to hear that it was only coined a few years ago, sometime between 2010 and 2014 by content designer Sarah Winters who subsequently wrote the book, Content Design.

The discipline has now been adopted by many companies, including Facebook, Dropbox and Shopify, who have all changed their content strategy and UX writing teams to content design teams. (As has always been the practice, people have been inventing jobs and names of jobs since, well, forever. But the world of fast-changing tech means these jobs and titles are changing much quicker.)

But what exactly happened here, and why are so many companies starting to catch on?

As a designer (or developer or marketer or project manager), you've probably heard the term content strategy – also another one of those terms that gets mixed up, this time with content marketing strategy. (the resource for UX practices by the U.S. General Services Administration) defines content strategy as focusing on the planning, creation, delivery, and governance of content, from the words on the page but also images and multimedia. Interesting! So already, content isn't just text. It's, well, everything.

Over the last few years, as content strategy evolved to align more specifically to mean the strategy behind content marketing in the battle for consumer attention and dollars, companies needed a way to differentiate between the marketing discipline and the product discipline – just like the evolution of visual design from an advertising and marketing driven discipline towards UX/UI and product design (since hijacked from physical products to digital ones, another reflection of the state of the world), fields that many visual-types have moved into.

Here's why ‘content strategy’ and then its secondary attempt, ‘product content strategy’, didn't quite work for this brand new thing:

  • Strategy is a part of the process anyway – to call it out as part of the role and discipline mistakenly identifies it as the only function

  • Case in point: a lot of the discipline is strategy, but it's also execution and writing too

  • When you break apart the process, it shares many of the same processes as design

  • Everyone kept conflating content strategy with content marketing strategy*. It must get frustrating to constantly have to explain what you do. *This challenge hasn't entirely been solved. Ask anyone outside the field to guess and they might say that a content designer is someone who puts together Instagram graphics. Oh, well.

So hello and welcome, content design.

But don't take it from me. In this article by Shopify's newly minted content design team, they explain their rationale:

We don’t just think or write. We design with content. We collaborate with product designers, researchers, and developers to create [...] experiences using language as our lens and our primary tool.

Facebook also gave their own take:

This new focus on the word ‘design’ makes a lot of sense to us. After all, what we do is and always has been design work – from conceiving flows to creating information architectures to pairing the right design components with the right language.

When things can be measured, they become more valuable

Language is taking on an increasingly more critical role in product and user experience, just like it took a central role in communication and advertising at the advent of mass commercialization. But what happened to make words such a big deal again in spite of the big push and pull towards visuals and video? Analytics, that's what. (Also, words show up in pictures and media too, either as captions or as speech.)

Micro-decisions like which word to use and macro decisions like how to structure information can now be measured (pretty much like everything else in the world, other than love and magic) – with a proven return on investment, or lack thereof.

Sarah Cancilla, the very first content strategist at Facebook, back when that's what they were called, describes in the book Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson, how tiny copy changes to make a call to action more clear and compelling resulted in 56% increase in traffic, which for a company like Facebook, meant six million more conversions. That's a big deal for a couple of words.

Similarly, Sarah Winters describes one word turning 100% failure rate into 88% completion on a government service website. It was also probably a big deal, considering the source.

This rise of measurable impact is good news for writer-types who traditionally have been drawn to (often and relatively) low-paying careers in journalism and copywriting. It's also good news for product and design teams who now have results they can point to, data to learn from, and the missing voice to finally connect content to experience, from start to finish, all the way through the design process.

How to get into content design

You can't get a college degree in content design. (Come to think of it, most college degrees haven't kept up with demands of the market. Are they supposed to? Anyone hiring philosophers?) 

Content designers often come into the field by way of copywriting, UX design, or marketing. They may not necessarily be as aesthetically inclined as visual designers, but they design using language and messaging.

In startup environments and smaller companies, just like how UX and UI are often blended, the visual/product designer is also sometimes the content designer (but pssst: they might not even know it). They may work with a copywriter or a content strategist, but it's often the product or UX designer working through wireframes and thinking through information architecture and planning site hierarchy and structure.

You may also find the role of content designer split between a content strategist and copywriter. There's no clear delineation so don't get nervous if you're still a bit confused. It's a field in the midst of a lot of change.

One thing that does seem common: people who accidentally fell into the discipline because they happened to work at a company that decided it was important, they were in the right place at the right time, and they showed up with the right skills: a killer combination of writing, strategy, and problem-solving chops.

How to design with a content-first approach in mind

It's not a competition between content and design but when content comes in last minute and ruins all of design's plans, that's what it can feel like.

Here are some quick tips to design with content in mind.

If you have a content designer on the team (or someone whose role encompasses that, even if they don't have the title)

Involve them early on in the process and have them work closely alongside the product and UX designer. That's it! Having them be a partner with a voice and ownership will go a long way in starting to establish a content design function so that your entire design, development, and marketing process goes a lot smoother in the short and long run.

If you don't have a content designer on the team, then it might be you

1. Start with strategy and messaging. Learn to ask who, what, and why for everything.

  • Who is the audience?

  • What is the main message?

  • Why...well, ask why for everything. So, why?

2. Include key messaging as early as the low-fidelity wireframing process. Designers often use squiggly lines to represent text, which is a major missed opportunity to start thinking through how design will frame the content, rather than the other way around. Bonus: learn to speak content strategy. Acquiring this skill will be a huge advantage when looking for jobs as more companies catch onto the importance of content design and cross-functional, integrated thinking. 3. Include language and messaging in A/B tests and user research. 4. Create a style guide to build consistency and align style standards across the product. This doesn't have to be you. Find out who that could be or ask for the budget to hire someone on a project basis. 5. Learn the basics of writing copy. We'll cover copywriting basics for designers in part three of this series. Or, budget and plan to bring in a freelance copywriter or UX writer to the project, and have them scoped in early on. (What's the difference? Stay tuned for part two.)

We're finally at a point where it's obvious and measurable that language matters, which means you can no longer design a website or product without your eye, pulse, and mind on the content. Take any one of these tips and give it a try.

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About the author

Ana Wang was previously the Head of Content at SuperHi. She is an ex fashion designer and copywriter who ran a whole bunch of ecommerce stores and brands and then helped other people run ecommerce stores, then helped other people help other people run ecommerce stores. Now, she's a creative generalist who plays with different mediums to tell stories.


November 22, 2021


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