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.

Content design part-time, while writing a book: how it worked for me

Our guest blogger is Scroll content designer, journalist and author, Olivia Gordon. She talks about combining her work for Scroll with writing her book, The First Breath: How Modern Medicine Saves The Most Fragile Lives.

Writing a book and discovering content design

When I started writing a book proposal, in the autumn of 2016, I had never heard of content design. I had worked for more than a decade as a freelance journalist for the national press, as well as being a freelance copy/content writer.

The idea for my book, The First Breath, grew out of my experience as a mother of a child with a genetic condition who was born critically ill and premature, spent his first 5 months in neonatal care, was tube-fed until the age of 2, and had had 5 operations by his fifth birthday. Once my son’s health was stable, I returned to journalism, and started writing features about foetal and neonatal care and genetic screening for newspapers like the Times, Telegraph and Guardian, as well as writing a column about being a ‘SEN mother’ for a parenting website.

I always felt the subject of foetal and neonatal medicine deserved a book, though, and after much emotional bolstering from a writer friend, I worked up the courage to contact a literary agent. Next I found myself writing a detailed proposal, and by the following spring, I had a book deal from Pan Macmillan. There was a minute of joy and then it hit me: now I have to write a book. I had 16 months, which meant I’d have to write just over a chapter per month.

My husband Philip Clark, a music writer, coincidentally got a book deal for his forthcoming biography of Dave Brubeck around the same time as my book deal came. Our advances were very good, but would be paid in segments over a period of years, with part on signing, part on delivery and the last part on publication. I needed to continue earning, then, and would only have 2 or 3 days per week for writing the book.

Yet as soon as I began writing The First Breath, I stopped enjoying writing features and copy – my heart was in the book now.

Transferring my skills to content design

When I heard a former journalist colleague (now a Scrollie) mention on Facebook that she had moved into content design for the government, and was very happy and earning well, I was interested.

She told me about Scroll, I sent in my CV, I did the interview and written test, and a week later I was offered a part-time contract at the Department for Education (DfE) in Westminster.

Although the title ‘content designer’ was new to me, I had actually been practising content design throughout my career as a journalist, just using different terms for the same skills and techniques.

For example, the principle of creating content according to user needs, which is central to content design, is second nature to any journalist. The same goes for the content designer’s duty to publish content that is accurate, and also clear and accessible. As a journalist, there is the same responsibility to get facts right, plus you always focus on what the audience wants to know, and make content engaging for them.

In fact, the emphasis on user needs in content design surprised me at first because to me as a journalist, it was just so obvious. You wouldn’t last a day writing or editing for a national newspaper if you didn’t look at everything you wrote from the reader’s point of view. It’s about what readers want to know about your interviewee, not what the PR wants to communicate. In content design for GOV.UK we also focus as much as possible on what our users need to know, as opposed to what (for example) the government wants to tell them.

Another element of content design is working diplomatically with others: for example, being able to redraft waffle or impenetrable bureaucratic terminology while maintaining a productive, positive relationship with the author. Again, any seasoned copywriter or editor already has this ability.

So my journalistic and content/copywriting skills translated well.

Getting the balance right

Content design has also proved the ideal complement to writing a book.

I worked 2 days a week at the DfE and had the other 3 for writing The First Breath, which turned out to be a good balance. The content design work stimulated a different, more business-like part of my brain from the writer part, so I could keep my ‘creative’ energy for my writing days.

On top of all this, because of my son’s extra needs, I spent around half a day every week (out of my ‘book’ time) taking him to check-ups and doing admin relating to supporting his health and education.

Thankfully, the DfE is a friendly, forward-thinking place to work. It was never a problem if I needed to swap my days around, or when I needed to take a week off to focus on meeting my final deadline. And after the first few weeks, I was able to work largely from home, so I didn’t have to do the 2- plus-hour each way commute from my home in Oxford too often.

Being part of a big team of content designers meant I always had someone to help me with anything I wasn’t sure about – at last, freedom from the constant stress and sole responsibility that often accompanied pitching as a freelance journalist. As a contractor in the content design team, I never had to ‘take work home’ mentally or physically at the end of the day. And the tasks – and income – were reliable and stable, while I negotiated a rollercoaster of twists and turns as my book took shape.

Even after I had finished the actual writing of the book, my ‘writing’ days were filled with the various edits and, more recently, the marketing and publicity.

My contract kept being renewed, and I’m still at the DfE 20 months later, as The First Breath is published.

I would recommend working for Scroll as a part-time contract content designer to any author or artist. It certainly seems a popular path: several of my fellow contractors at DfE are also writers and journalists, dividing their time much as I do.

Find out more

Photo credit: Nina Hollington

How to get hired – advice for contractors

Scroll places hundreds of contractors in roles every year. I’m Hetty Meyric Hughes, partner at Scroll, and I manage this process. Here’s my advice on what you need to do to get your next contract.

What agencies look for

I often feel like a matchmaker when I am placing a contractor in a role. This is what I look for in pairing people up.

  • You have experience that fits what the client is asking for (or that will be useful to them, even if they’re not asking for it).
  • The role will be interesting for you and ideally stretch you, helping you to extend into new areas that you’ve had some exposure to but need to practise a little more.
  • You’ll get on and fit in well with the client.
  • If several Scroll contractors (affectionately known as ‘Scrollies’) are going to work on the project, I try to balance the team (will you all get on? Do you have complementary skills?).

Brush up on multi-disciplinary team skills

There’s an increasing trend towards clients (especially in government) wanting more rounded individuals who can work in multi-disciplinary teams alongside user researchers, ux designers, analysts, developers and so on. So the more you can learn to speak others’ jargon and understand the basics of what they do, the stronger your own position will be.

When I say ‘work with’ I mean really understand their roles and even demonstrate some of those skills too. These are the sorts of people that get snapped up really quickly and who prove invaluable in the bigger and more complex projects.

So if you’re ambitious to extend your knowledge of service design or content strategy, multi-disciplinary is the way forwards.

You need to react fast

Roles are offered and filled in a matter of days – you need to be ready and act fast.

We sometimes get invited to submit a tender with a partner company at the last minute, or a loyal client rings asking for help urgently. A lot of our work is done in response to replying to an invitation to tender, and tenders now often have a single week’s deadline.

Most recently, I was called at 4pm on a Friday to include a CV in a partner supplier’s tender – deadline 5pm.

And we also have regular work with clients who know we can find them proofreaders and editors at 2 days’ notice – they come to us because they know we can meet that requirement.

So please help us to help you!

Here’s how to be prepared

Update agencies about your availability

Scrollies should contact us about a month before they finish any current contract.

Be clear about what you can and can’t do

Be clear with us about where you’re prepared to work, if you have to be part time, if there are any travel or accessibility limitations.

Update your CV and LinkedIn profile

Make sure your agency has a current version of your CV on file.

Scrollies – start by asking for your formatted CV (if we’ve ever put you forwards for a role we’ll have one on file) and update that, so we don’t have to spend time updating it.

Keep your LinkedIn profile up to date. And when you do a contract through Scroll, mention us! Some clients even see it as a mark of distinction!

Adapt your CV for the role

Wherever possible, tweak your CV to the role. Clients don’t like generic or over-long CVs. To save time in an emergency, just rewrite the introductory paragraph (5 lines or so) making you seem you’re the only person in the world who could do this work.

Create a file of recommendations and project summaries

Keep a file of handy summaries and quotations. It’s handy to be able to churn out a 10-line summary of a project you’ve done in the past (like a mini case study) and quotations about your performance from past clients.

These are gold dust as we can include them in tenders, which will position you well for the role. Have them ready so you can give them to us at a moment’s notice.

On that note, don’t be embarrassed to ask clients for comments about your performance. It’s normal that contractors need to sell themselves!

Keep your security clearances current

You’d be surprised how many people end up falling at the last hurdle because their security is out of date. At the very least, ensure your Disclosure Scotland is less than a year old and that you have a couple of referees whose contact details are correct whom we can contact.

After you’re offered a contract

Help us to clear you through any security hurdles quickly by sending us the information we ask for asap, and retaining it for the next time.

Mug up on the project: look at the website you’ll be working on, read up on the topic so you can show you’re interested.

Ask us if there are any other Scrollies who work there or have worked there in case we can put you in touch for a pre-start date chat.

Sounds like fun?

We’re always on the look-out for good content designers and strategists. If you’re interested, please send us your CV.