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Find out why content strategy isn’t the future of web design—and how to avoid the detour of the next big thing.
The future beams from billboards, flashing distraction from the car in front of you. Your job is to keep your eyes on the road—but how can you? The advertisements once painted on wood now dance on electronic displays. But the message is the same: Look here.
For many practicing designers, content strategy says “look here.” It’s the practice of planning for the creation, delivery and governance of useful, usable and brand-and user-appropriate content within an experience. Content strategy emerged with a name around the time of the dot-com boom. As online communication became increasingly more complex, the web raised more problems: Who would own the content? How would it evolve over time? How would the content reassemble for different contexts and needs?
Content strategy provides answers to those problems. But content is political, complex and time-consuming, even in the context of static print projects, and even more so in dynamic web initiatives. If you’re a designer looking to stay ahead in the industry, you can dig into content strategy and offer that additional expertise to your clients—but should you?
I’ve worked as a content strategist for more than a decade. To the designers with whom I collaborate, I say this: Let’s continue to marry our complementary areas of expertise. When considering your own skill set, you don’t need to fully understand content strategy. But you should understand where it begins and its common foundation with design: organizational communication goals. Those goals belong to you and me, and it’s time we reinvest in that foundation.
Understand Communication Goals
The marketing team at a nonprofit organization spoke with me recently about their industry positioning and long-term plan. They felt they needed a fresh look and feel, with the points of interaction and affordances they’d found on many competitors’ and retailers’ sites. “We really want to get more people engaging with the new content we’re trying out on Pinterest,” my client explained. “We’re thinking about updating our color palette and offering a mobile giving app, too—or should we develop an entirely separate mobile site, with its own color scheme? Where do you think we should start?”
With all those new channels and possibilities, her anxiety to hurry and catch the next big thing made sense. But even more, it made sense to back up and first consider the foundation for all those options: the organization’s communication goals. What did they need to tell their audiences? Which beliefs did they need to establish in the hearts and minds of their donors and service recipients? Until we understood those qualities and their order of importance, we couldn’t make decisions about a new look and feel or cross-platform content—let alone the priority of those investments.
This thinking resonated with my client, especially in the context of a nonprofit organization: The temptation to “do” and race after the next big thing is steep, but every action or investment represents an opportunity cost in terms of budget, time and creativity. Write content for your blog, and you don’t have that time or creativity to invest in the company newsletter. Devote yourself to creating visual content on Pinterest, and burn though the budget the creative team wanted to invest in new employee videos.
To navigate those options, we must first ask ourselves and our clients why. What are we trying to communicate? If that nonprofit’s leaders identified a gap in industry advocacy, they can prioritize communicating thought leadership. They can invest in new content. The choices become clear: Invest in new content for a blog and elevate speakers who can draw visibility back to the organization’s services.
Or perhaps the nonprofit’s leaders needed to communicate their staying power in a shaky community teeming with questionable competitors. Their message architecture, or hierarchy of communication goals, might include qualities like reliability, longevity and endurance. Again, the direction becomes evident: Invest in a brand update that simplifies positioning and reasserts a familiar color palette. Don’t get distracted by shiny new channels; instead, invest in guidelines to consistently present your brand in the channels and markets in which you’re already known.
Focus first on your brand or client’s communication goals, and the choices and channel priorities become clearer for both design and content. That principle helps structure the idea of design as problem-solving, regardless of whether you work in print, on the web or in a more multi-dimensional context like exhibit design.
No matter our medium, we share in a common purpose: Design is a process of problem-solving with defined elements and artifacts—content—in service of a goal or need. Tell the story. Explain what makes us different. Clarify a complex topic. But among deadlines and deliverables, those goals can get lost—and when we lose them, we lose ourselves. Amid competing demands on your time and attention, communication goals may be nothing new, but they’re the most relevant signposts to guide you in a swiftly evolving industry.
As our twinned industries of design and content strategy continue to evolve, it’s tempting to look to other tools, practices and channels as “the future of our industry.” But the future isn’t content strategy any more than it’s responsive design, Google Glass, or any other practice, approach or technology. The future is how content and design can communicate together from shared goals. Content strategy may be a way of pulling design back to focus on communication goals because the goals crystallize in the foundation of strategy—a foundation that also bolsters the design process as well.
Beware of False Futures
Every time I’ve worked on teams high on possibility, unbridled by history, politics or the client tropes of “how it’s always been,” someone would cite William Gibson:
“The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”
Once, the future was white space and a client who respected it. Then, the future was an app, and then it wasn’t. The future was mobile first. The future was social, local, pinned and integrated. The future was responsive design. And lost in quoting Gibson, we missed his act of mirroring our world. He writes science fiction not of an arcane future, but of the pockets of fantastic reality that surge within our familiar routines. Today, digital billboards dynamically update with news alerts for commuters who putter one by one down arteries of the Interstate Highway System, planned during the Eisenhower administration. Unless you’re upwards of 75 years old, planning for the highways you drive occurred long before you got your license.
The “uneven distribution” we saw, of course, was everyone else. Inept smaller agencies, bloated larger agencies, agency teams encumbered by mismanagement. Do you look around and cringe because those signs are all too familiar? Your future is in understanding your client’s communication goals, not in some channel that will only slump under the stampede of the next new thing.
That’s the thing about the future: There’s always more coming. You’d be foolish to put down roots in a place like that, knowing that however sound your investment in new tools and thinking, something else will soon pave it over and render it irrelevant. There’s no tool set, certification or methodology to clarify the communication goals you need to address. Just hard questions with answers that inform a foundation for how you should design, how you should prescribe content and how you can bring it all together. That’s the road ahead and where you should focus.
Always Communicate First
Around the time of the dot-com boom, I worked in an agency that had grown from a design-first methodology. We evolved to offer services that began with user research to influence site maps and wireframes—then mood boards and design comps. And today is a place of firsts: Mobile first. Content first. It’s been communication always, but we don’t always practice it. Content strategy offers an opportunity to embrace communication goals, then tear them apart, explore their seeming contradictions and elevate what makes them unique.
If design is problem-solving, content strategy begins by asking us to confront the constraints of the problem. Visual design or graphic design—so much of print design, before we even address other media—is “the relationship between form and content,” writes Paul Rand. No more, no less, however we complicate it with promises of budget or the blinding sheen of new platforms. Those are the tools and dimensions with which we can solve communication problems—and in the right hands, they’re enough. “To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master,” writes Milton Glaser. No more, no less a challenge, but only if we acknowledge all of our tools.
Embrace the Problem
Content strategy asks who will produce content, where it will come from, at what frequency, and what will happen to it when it’s no longer relevant. As a content strategist, I address workflow in collaboration with my clients and discuss format in partnership with designers and creative directors. I don’t ask them to gain expertise in my process, but we all have to operate from the same foundation: the hierarchy of communication goals, or message architecture, which drives our effort. Content strategy offers the next step in realizing communication goals in Rand’s relationship between form and content. As you consider your expertise and decide which skill, channel or next big thing deserves your attention, take note. Content strategy isn’t a new tool to add, but rather a unifying force between the purpose of your work and ways in which you already engage your clients and their problems. Dig into the first step—understanding your client’s communication goals—and build from there.
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