his definition is a great place to start. Although the discipline has clearly evolved, this breakdown of its scope makes perfect sense. The aspects of content strategy that matter most to Web designers in this definition are design (obviously!), development, presentation and production. In this article, we’ll concentrate on the relationship between content strategy and design in creating, organizing and displaying Web copy.
As a writer and content strategist myself, I’ve worked with designers in all of these areas and find the creative process highly enriching. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with designers who are quick to challenge ideas that are unclear or unsound, who are brilliant at creating striking visual representations of even the most complex concepts. A lively interplay between design and content is not only fun, but is how spectacular results are achieved. This is why content strategy should matter a great deal to designers.
What Is Content Strategy, And Why Should A Designer Care?Content strategy is the glue that holds a project together. When content strategy is ambiguous or absent, don’t be surprised if you end up with the Internet equivalent of Ishtar. When content strategy is in place and in its proper place, we’re on our way to producing beautiful and effective results.
While wrapping one’s head around content strategy might be difficult, the thing that makes it work is very simple: good communication. Sometimes a project moves along like a sports car on a superhighway. Other times, the road is so full of bumps and potholes that it’s a wonder we ever reach our destination. As we explore the relationship between content strategy and design, I’ll detail how I keep the channels of communication open and go over the workflow processes that I’ve used to support that effort. I hope that sharing my experiences (both positive and negative) will help you contribute to and manage projects more effectively and deliver better products to clients.
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How To Get Started
Project manager: We need a landing page for client X.
Designer: I can’t start the design until I see some content.
Writer: I can’t start writing until I see a design.
You may find this dialogue amusing… until it happens to you! At our firm, we find that the best way to get past such a standoff is to write first. This is because content strategy, at a fundamental level, frames a project for the designer. As a content strategist, my job is to articulate the why, where, who, what and how of the content:
- Why is it important to convey this message? This speaks to purpose.
- Where on the website should the message appear? This speaks to context.
- Who is the audience? This speaks to the precision of the message.
- What are we trying to say? This speaks to clarity.
- How do we convey and sequence the information for maximum impact? This speaks to persuasiveness.
Is the audience sophisticated? Down to earth? College-level? Predominately male? Female? Etc.
- Word count
Some pitches scream for long copy, while others must be stripped to the bare minimum. SEO might factor into the equation as well.
- Messaging priorities
What is the most important point to convey? The least important? What needs to be said first (the hook)? What needs to be said just leading up to the call to action?
- Call to action
What will the precise wording be? What emotional and intellectual factors will motivate the visitor to click through?
Landing pages are a great place to try this workflow, because in terms of content strategy, they are less complex than many other types of Web pages. A product category page, on the other hand, might have a less obvious purpose or multiple purposes, considerably greater word counts, more (and more involved) messaging points, and a variety of SEO considerations, all of which would affect its design.
Quick Tips for Getting Started
- Make sure someone is specifically responsible for content strategy. If strategic responsibility is vague, your final product will be, too.
- Slow down! Everybody, me included, is eager to dive headfirst into a new project. But “ready-aim-fire” is not a winning content strategy. Make sure everyone is on the same page conceptually before cranking out work.
- If content strategy falls on your shoulders as a designer, cultivate an understanding of the discipline. Resources are listed at the end of this article to help you.
- Make sure designers and writers understand what their roles are — and are not. There’s no need for writers to tell designers how to design, or for designers to tell writers how to write.
Communication can be streamlined using project management software. We use Basecamp, which is a popular system, but many other good ones are available. If you’re a freelancer, getting clients to work on your preferred project management platform can be an uphill battle, to say the least. Still, I encourage you to try; my experience in managing projects via email has been dismal, and many freelance designers I know express the same frustration.
The big advantage of a project management system is that it provides a single place for team members to manage tasks and interact. Internal reviews of design templates is one good example. The project manager can collect feedback from everyone in one place, and each participant can see what others have said and respond to it. Consolidating this information prevents the gaps and miscommunication that can occur when projects are managed through multiple email exchanges. Designers can see all of the feedback in one place — and only one place. This is a big time-saver.
Quick Tips for the Creative Process
- Make sure someone is specifically responsible for project management.
- Whether or not your process is sophisticated, get it down in writing and in front of all team members before the project starts. This really helps to align expectations and keep communication flowing.
- Meet at regular intervals to discuss status and problems. Hold yourself and others accountable.
- Get approvals along the way, rather than dump the completed project in the client’s lap. Having clients sign off on a few pages of content and one or two templates really helps to align the creative process with client expectations, and it reduces the risk of those massive overhauls at the tail end that demolish budgets and blow deadlines.
- Writers and designers should discuss issues as quickly, openly and thoroughly as possible.
Making the labels for navigation straightforward is a fairly established best practice. Predictability is important: if visitors are looking for your “About” page, and they finally stumble on it by clicking on “Be Amazed,” then the emotion you will have elicited is irritation, not adoration. Be as creative as you want with the look and feel of the labels, but to maximize the user experience, the text and positioning of the labels must be as vanilla as possible.Quick Tips for Conflict Resolution
- Keep the lines of communication open between all team members and the client.
- Select a project manager with great communication skills and an objective point of view.
- Stay focused on the purpose of the design: is it to persuade, motivate, inform or something else? Creative disagreements should never be theoretical; they should always be grounded in what will increase the real-world effectiveness of the work at hand.
These opposing mentalities pose challenges in Web design. Does an image alone convey enough information about a product’s key benefit? Will the length of a 200-word explanation of that benefit deter people from reading it? How intuitive can we expect visitors to be? How patient?
This is when having a process that encourages communication between team members makes a difference. I wish I had a secret formula for resolving conflict, but I don’t. I know of only two ways to balance design and content philosophies, and one of them is to talk it out as a team. As I said, communication is at the heart of an effective content strategy, and we have to resist the temptation that some of us have to withdraw into a shell when we encounter confrontation.
The other way to resolve conflicts — astoundingly underused, in my experience — is to get feedback from target users. Simply showing people a Web page and then asking for their key takeaways will tell you just about all you need to know about how effective you’ve been in getting the point across. Our opinion of our own work will always be subjective. Furthermore, because we’re emotionally invested is what we’ve created, discussing its flaws calmly and collectedly is difficult. Users are the ultimate judge of any creative effort, so why not take subjectivity and emotion out of the equation by going directly to the source?