Using Meaningful Content to Create Transformative Design
Why do we as designers make anything? When we create wireframes and visual comps that aren’t based on real content, I’d argue we’re not making much.
By real content, I don’t mean 100% true fidelity copy, but the minimal viable product (MVP) needed to make a convincing digital experience. The stuff we need to test in our designs includes not only sample text like headers, profile names, article titles, snippets, etc., but the overarching answers to even more existential content questions like how the heck does this all work together, and why should people care?
When we have this stuff in our hands, we are like kings and queens of design, my friends. WE RULE at making stuff our clients and users love. That’s why it’s so important we go into design equipped with all the tools we need, instead of expecting to “figure out” the content later. Because unless we know those answers, we are just designing empty boxes. It’s not efficient. It’s frustrating. To do our best work, to do what we love, all disciplines need to agree on the parameters of what we’re designing, based on an understanding of user needs.
Enter the content design approach
The reason why we make anything is to communicate. It doesn’t matter what we’re creating, the bigger purpose is to connect with people. Our goal is to create an experience that’s worth something to a user, that answers their questions and provides the right info at the right time. To do it convincingly, every element needs to work together seamlessly. If team members can’t even communicate among themselves, believe me, it will be visible in the end product.
That’s where content design comes in.
As a digital copywriter, I am really, really invested in how words work overall in the full experience ecosystem. But content design is about more than words. As Sarah Richardson from Content Design London says, it’s about how to get information across to the audience in the best way possible. That may take the form of a video, or a tool, or anything but the written word these days. It takes content.
A content designer or strategist acts as a project’s content champion, providing the insights everyone needs to answer the questions what and how and why. While a content designer or strategist “owns” content on a project, a savvy one knows content design is where visual, UX, content strategy, development, and copywriting meet. It takes all the creative minds to take raw information and transform it into something useful, informative, and interesting. With cohesion.
Content design in practice
The best project I ever worked on got everyone from all disciplines involved from the first day. We were tasked with transforming a dry, 148-page PDF into a much-condensed interactive experience. Content naturally had to be the primary consideration (which I won’t argue with, ever). But that didn’t mean the task of shaping it fell all on me as sole content wrangler and writer. We worked as a team.
We ended up creating an exploratory experience that put user choice first, supporting both longer form stories on a single subject, and interactive components that revealed information upon scroll or click. The final product was transformative for the brand, and something we could all be proud of. But it only became possible because we pooled our different perspectives together. No egos. No one saying, “That’s not my job.” No silos. We worked together to understand what the audience would care about, and how to best present the info.
While banishing silos is good, realistically each team member owns their area of expertise on any given project. That’s fine. You wouldn’t want me opening up InDesign and trying to craft a visual comp. But each of us depends on the other at certain points before we can all move forward. It just happens that content informs many steps along the way.
Where content meets other digital disciplines
• To know what content exists, or can be created, to collaborate on a sitemap and IA that supports user needs
• An understanding of what content should appear at what time to inform wireframe design
Visual designers need:
• To know the content themes, strategy, personality, etc. to create spot-on visual representations and interactions
• Actual copy stylings and word counts so their designs can convey the message harmoniously
Front end developers need:
• An understanding of content interactions and copy appearances so they can apply the appropriate animations and stylings
All of this stuff they need? It’s real content, both tactical and strategic. Content design is all about defining parameters, so we know what the heck we’re designing, and how it all fits together. Yet we can agree on those parameters together.
You’re making something for a reason. So, give it meaning.
It takes a shift in thinking to achieve a content design approach. It’s important to note that this isn’t essentially about content being first, or content being more important than other disciplines. It’s about designing with purpose. To give your product meaning, you have to care about what it says, in all the different ways it “says” it.
The best teams design together, with real content. And guess what? They design the most transformational work, too.
Megan Williams is a Senior Copywriter at Rightpoint. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.