Most people I speak with don’t understand what content designers actually are, and it’s no surprise. “Content” has become synonymous with the digital marketing industry, and “design” has become a ubiquitous term for visual work.
I was guilty of thinking that way, too. I would refer to “graphic designers” as “designers” for short, and—being a content writer for most of my early career—I associated “content” almost exclusively with marketing.
Content designers don’t fit into either of those buckets, though. So, what is a content designer, then?
They take ownership of the scope, the flow, and the contents of a digital experience. That all-encompassing responsibility does mean that copywriting and content writing need to be exercised at times, but they are secondary functions—not primary ones.
This is what a content designer’s responsibilities look like when you unpack them.
Are content designers really “designers?”
Excellent question. The truth is that, done effectively, content design follows many of the same principles—even the exact same principles—of other design fields.
Here’s what that process looks like:
- Researching the needs, wants, and expectations of people engaging with a given experience (often a product).
- Identifying a problem with that experience, or one part of it.
- Establishing the scope of the solution and the resources available to address it.
- Creating or improving an experience to solve the underlying issue within the bounds of technological limits and brand guidelines.
That process could describe the work of a product designer or a graphic designer just as much as a content designer.
The key difference is the use of information and messaging to design the solution instead of a UI library or visual styling —and that is why it’s called “content design.”
Remember that the next time someone asks you what a content designer is—because it is indeed part of the design discipline.
What do content designers do?
Content designers use the power of information and messaging to solve design challenges. They’ll often partner with product designers and graphic designers to solve challenges, bringing together form, function, and information—a kind of design trinity working in concert.
Pro tip: Content design is often conflated with UX writing, but they aren’t strictly the same thing. While content designers do engage in a lot of UX writing, their responsibilities go beyond just writing within a predefined box on a screen.
The difference is that content designers take responsibility for the wider experience. That means setting a project scope, creating journey maps, ideating, and so on.
Before doing any of this, though, they consult UX research. Most organizations with a content designer will also have one or more UX researchers who create libraries of information to inform design decisions.
Those libraries usually have information like:
- User preferences
- Survey data
- App usage stats
- User interviews
- Sales objections
- User misconceptions
- User’s industry expectations
The content designer cross-references these findings with the challenge at hand to find out if new information should change the direction of the solution, or if a solution can be informed by old information that might have been overlooked.
With research in hand, they create a hypothesis about how to make that experience clearer, easier to use, and more compelling.
They do that by:
- Improving product and feature positioning
- Improving general usability through language and layout
- Clarifying language within each screen (part of UX writing)
- Working with product designers to improve the user flow
- Applying progressive disclosure to the experience (to avoid overwhelming users)
- Ensuring cohesion with the rest of the marketing and product experience
That manifests as these kinds of tasks in day-to-day work:
- Charting user journeys
- Clarifying information architecture
- Creating wireframe concepts (often in Miro, Figma, or Balsamiq)
- Contributing to prototypes (usually in Figma)
The open-ended and ambiguous nature of the work is part of what makes it “design.” Content designers just use information and context to tackle those ambiguous challenges instead of visuals or layout components.
They create cohesive marketing and product experiences
Keeping the user in mind is key here, unsurprisingly—content design is a part of “user experience” (UX), after all. That means making judgment calls based on what builds trust and benefits the user, not just what product managers or marketers want.
Content designers can work on many kinds of experiences, and they all need to be unified. These can include:
- Web applications
- Mobile apps
- Marketing collateral
- Sales enablement material
What is a content designer without writing experience? Yes, they may be tapped on the shoulder to write ads or longform content if copywriters and content writers aren’t available, but content designers are really there to shape the entire experience, not just words on a page.
Here’s how they do that:
- Creating written brand guidelines
- Creating the experience’s information hierarchy
- Creating glossaries for internal and external use
- Creating user journeys
- Staying on top of evolving user research
- Updating assets for consistency
There is always a degree of brand guardianship here as well, and that becomes increasingly important as organizations introduce more products to a wider range of customers. Good experiences require a single vision for everything to come together, and that’s part of what content designers do.
They shape the organization’s content ecosystem
Yes, content writers tend to produce written content, like blogs and white papers. But that’s a production-focused role. Content designers can also take on responsibilities related to strategy, but there are key differences between content designers and content strategists.
Note: “content strategist” usually refers to a marketing role responsible for creating a content marketing strategy with goals and KPIs, maintaining a content calendar, and managing freelance content creators to create the meat and potatoes of a marketing funnel.
Content designers don’t spend their time doing that, for the most part. I’ve done both, but that’s not common.
Instead, content designers would provide input on the following parts of strategy:
- What kind of content formats should be used?
- What does the experience look like from start to finish?
- How do we apply progressive disclosure principles along that journey?
- Where in the journey should certain experiences live, to the benefit of the user?
- How do we systematize all of that as a repeatable process?
And that’s your crash course on learning what a content designer is. Remember the key takeaways:
- They improve digital experiences through information and messaging.
- They make sure the wider user experience is cohesive
- They shape the content ecosystem for brands and their products.
Want to learn more about content design? You know where to find me.