How do you do content design when it doesn’t exist yet?


Picture of Caroline on the bridge with County Hall atrium in the background

At a GDS Academy course last year, someone asked me if I’d be willing to conduct a telephone interview about my career pathway to content designer. Of course I accepted and just prior to the telephone call, it got me thinking,“how did I get here?”

I never really thought about it. It seemed like a natural progression from all the other things I’ve done and each of those things has led me here.

Journalism taught me about the user

While studying journalism in Canada, I learned to write for different media: radio, television, newspapers, technical writing, creative writing, corporate communications and marketing. What was drilled into me, is ‘first, know your audience.’ This was the most important lesson I learned and one I put into practice every day of my career.

From technical writing to plain English

My first job was as technical writer for a company in Montreal that developed gateway and router technology. This involved taking a complicated technical subject and turning it into easy to read instructions. This was for users who didn’t particularly have a lot of technical knowledge about the products, mostly salespeople.

This taught me how to write in plain English.

Listening to users makes better products or services

A few years later I moved to Beirut, Lebanon and I started freelancing. This drew me more into marketing communications and copywriting as there was more demand and it was more lucrative.

One my biggest clients was a company that held trade fairs. I wrote copy for all their trade shows. During the exhibitions I interviewed businesses and visitors to gather insights that would help the company make next year’s show even bigger and better. I learned that listening to users was the best way to improve the product or service.

Getting buy-in from stakeholders

One interesting project was at the American University of Beirut. It is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the Middle East. It had, however, a clutter of websites which I was tasked with making into one user friendly website which reflected the university’s reputation.

It was a challenge to convince heads of faculty and the administration to give up their sites. While I knew that the only way forward was to get rid of the microsites, I also realised I had to get consensus from this group.

In 2003 content design didn't exist

This was 2003. Content design wasn’t a thing yet, but it was beginning to emerge. My source for best practice in those days was Nielsen Norman and W3C. I used these as examples to convince key stakeholders of the way forward.

What interior design taught me

When my children were young, I took some time out and completed a degree in Interior Design and Architecture. Although I didn’t follow this path eventually, it taught me a lot about the theory and process of design which is not so far from how we do things as content designers.

It also taught me how to conceptualise, do research, build prototypes, handle the ‘crits’ constructively and present ideas to others. I was still a writer, but I had a designer mindset.

The new world of content design

I joined Essex County Council as a Web Editor in 2013. Digitally, things were changing. GOV.UK was being born. We had signed up to digital transformation and a new digital team was formed. I was thrilled to join them in 2017.

It was a strange new world. What language were these people using? Were ‘agile sprints’ a lunchtime run around the park? Were ‘stand ups’ jokes they shared in the mornings? And why were there all these ‘post-its’ everywhere? What was Trello, Hotjar, Optimal Workshop?

From web editor to content designer

Not long after, I realised that I already had mastered a lot of the skills it takes to be a good content designer. But there were still gaps in my knowledge.

So I asked lots of questions. I learned the new tools. I booked a 2-day bootcamp with Padma Gillen, I took a user researcher course and an accessibility course at GDS. I bought Sarah Richards’ book, Content Design. I went to the 7th annual content design conference, ConCon.

It was like a whole new world opening up. Here were people like me, technical writers, copywriters, web editors and UX specialists all embracing this new profession of content designer. I felt I’d finally come home.

And, seeing as content designer ranks in the top 15 of Linkedin’s Emerging Jobs for 2020, here’s where I’m likely to stay.

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  1. Comment by Zinou posted on

    Thank you very much.
    I like such topics.
    It’s worth reading your.
    Topic is really excellent.
    Nice topic. Thank you.

  2. Comment by Caroline posted on

    Thank you Zinou. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed reading it!


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