Getting started as a content designer

Today’s guest post is from new Scroll content designer, Danny Chadburn. He talks about getting his first content design role, has advice for new and aspiring content designers, and explains how Disney princess analogies helped him clarify content about arms embargoes…

My first month as a content designer

“So we’re all going to have to call ourselves content designers now, are we?”

In a coworking space somewhere in Sussex, I’d been discussing my pending contract role with Chris. He’s what I call a purebred copywriter; someone who’s ignored the emerging disciplines of content marketing, content strategy, UX writing and all the other roles that have cropped up in recent years to focus on what he does best.

I, on the other hand, embraced a lot of those waves, picking up a long list of job titles via creative agencies, SEO consultancies and startups.

This eclectic background provided a good footing for what would lead me towards content design as a trade. Writing has always been the backbone of the functions I’ve performed, but so has product development, user research, content distribution and performance analytics.

Most content designers I’ve come across share a similar smorgasbord of experience. For those new to the profession, that can only be seen as a positive. There’s no set route into the job, and you’re just as likely to see an ex-marketing professional as you are an ex-journalist turning their hand to content design.

Getting my first contract with Scroll

Having recently escaped the clutches (and abandoned the safety) of a full-time career to go out on my own, I’d heard about Scroll through the Our Freelance Life podcast.

I got in touch with Scroll to ask about potentially signing up with them. The first step was a phone interview to talk through my CV. After that, I was asked to complete a series of tests and tasks to prove I had the necessary content chops. Having successfully passed the interviews, I was given my first contract as part of a team tasked with supporting the Department for International Trade through the turbulent time of Brexit.

Handling the transition

I’d love to be able to say the transition was a straightforward one, but the reality is that the first few weeks were headache-inducing.

Theoretically, the principles of good content design shouldn’t change whether you’re crafting content for a fluffy cat charity or a guide to international arms embargoes. It’s just that some topics have a steeper learning curve and a higher degree of scrutiny than others.

Whatever the subject matter, the same rules apply around creating a sensible structure, cutting out anything that’s superfluous and focusing on giving the user clarity through plain English copy. International trade is a complex beast — I now know more about trade remedies than is healthy — but once you get past the acronyms, the pieces of the puzzle do start slotting together.

The part of the content design mindset that I struggled with most was the meticulous pondering over every paragraph, sentence, word and syllable. Having worked within the healthcare and financial sectors in the past, I’ve seen plenty of stringent processes prior to publishing, but this was on a whole new level.

Initially, I held the view that the level of editing was excessive, but I’ve slowly come around to the idea that it’s all worth it. There’s an admirable commitment to the GOV.UK view that user needs come first, and writing for them is non-negotiable.

No such thing as normal

The infamous quote coined by Donald Rumsfeld neatly sums up the 3 types of content that our team has worked on recently.

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

The known knowns

This is the preferred (albeit Utopian) way of working, where we’re able to collaborate with those at the coalface of department policy from the outset. We discuss the messaging, formats, user needs and intended journeys of what they want to put out there, then take this to legal advisors and press teams to go through the broader impact of what we have planned.

The known unknowns

There’s a common theme in government work that, as content designers, we’re aware of a piece of work being on the horizon, but can’t yet start on it. That might be because we don’t have access to the right people, or because we don’t have the information we need to publish something doesn’t actually exist yet (for example, if it depends on the outcome of a vote in Parliament).

The trick here is having the right resources in place for a swift turnaround, and there have been various late nights and early mornings in recent months where being ready simply meant being available.

The unknown unknowns

These are the scary ones, but working in government inevitably means things will come out of the blue, and will often be under intense scrutiny. That could be a Freedom of Information request or an unanticipated change in policy due to world events.

How do you plan for the unexpected? In many cases you can’t. However, building relationships across other government departments, joining standups from other teams and occasionally enquiring about what others are up to may well give you an earlier insight that you’d otherwise get.

Content design is also about changing processes

The role I’ve taken on has been as much about changing the process of content delivery as it has the actual content design work itself. We’ve been working to try and shift as much as possible into the first of those 3 categories, or at least the second, so that upcoming work is on the radar.

With so much day-to-day delivery to deal with, it’s often difficult for stakeholders to see beyond publishing the next piece. But content design is about planning for future content as well as what you’re currently working on.

Think of it like break-building in snooker. Potting one ball is great, but it requires a certain technique to think 3 to 4 shots ahead so you’re already in a good position when it’s needed.

For example, we’ve set up a content request form and rudimentary ticketing system as a way for trade teams around the world to request content. This will replace the current email system. It’s not the most polished of solutions, but it’s a versatile one and in the ever-changing world of government, that’s a useful thing to be.

Prepare yourself

Having now been a content designer, and watched others performing their own interpretations of the role, there are 2 pieces of advice I can offer new or aspiring content designers.

The first is that it’s essential to be seen as a valuable cog in the machine, rather than an unnecessary blocker to get through.

It’s the role of the content designer to question what’s being published, to suggest alternative ways of framing stuff, or to query whether what they’re looking at needs publishing at all. That can be quite annoying for someone at the other end who just wants to get something up on a website, especially when they’ve worked hard to get it signed off by someone senior at their end.

My first instinct is to always attempt to find an amicable solution. That doesn’t mean setting aside the principles of content design or being a pushover. Instead, consider your feedback from the viewpoint of the person who’s already put in a a lot of work to get the content to this point in the process.

Some will see you as an essential partner, some will see you as a final hurdle to get through. You should aim to change perceptions of what your role is to be seen as valuable.

The second piece of advice I can offer is to get the words off the page.

Try and explain the thing you’re trying to write about to someone who has no knowledge of the subject. This could be in your office as part of a content critique session, but ideally, it’d be somewhere else altogether. Over the breakfast table, in a pub, on the golf course; wherever makes you comfortable, and wherever gets you away from staring at a blinking cursor on a screen.

Reddit’s ELI5 (Explain Like I’m Five) trope is a useful approach to take, and I’m lucky enough to have a real life 5-year-old living in my house who I use to test my ability to convey a message. Yes, I’m having to use various Disney princesses within my analogies, but I’m getting valuable responses and questions that genuinely help when going back to the editing suite.

So are we all becoming content designers? Perhaps, for the sake of more clarity in digital services, that’s something we should all embrace.