When talking to friends, customers and even my partner I am often asked the above question. Understandably with the range of roles I work in there is often confusion as to what kind of designer I actually am. And whilst it is partially true, I am still a graphic designer, over the last few years I have added other disciplines to my work and broadened my skills somewhat. Adding to the confusion is that the job titles ‘content designer’ and ‘instructional designer’ give little away as to the other areas I also now work in. As anyone in the design industry will know, job titles are a moveable feast anyway and sometimes people just make their own up - ‘Digital Overload’ or ‘Wizard of Light Bulb Moments’ anybody? So I thought I would clarify all the areas in which I work and what the titles actually mean, to me at least.
Most people are familiar with the terms graphic design and illustration as we interact with it on a daily basis; logos, adverts, patterns on clothing, book covers and so much more. Plus, both the terms have been around for a long time, with many courses and qualifications out there to get into this area.
As a graphic designer, I focus purely on design for print, never having ventured into the mind boggling world of web design. When I was in education (and this is going to make me feel really old) web design wasn’t really a ‘thing’ yet, and certainly not one I could get my head around in those early stages. When I was at college doing my graphic a-level we had one Mac for the whole art, design and media department. Everything was still done by hand, and the one project where we had to scan and resize something was a hugely daunting affair for both students and staff - who were learning as we were.
Nowadays, I specialise mostly in branding, for businesses large and small. The majority of my clients generally being small local businesses and start ups. I find real value in helping companies to get going, in helping to raise confidence levels in starting out and to give them a sense of pride in promoting their business and their identity.
Next up - Instructional Design.
This was a field that I had never heard of before I pretty much fell into it. When I decided to leave lecturing, I moved into a role developing e-learning and literacy in a school. When I decided to go back into graphic design full time, my mixture of e-learning and design experiences merged really well to to secure me a role as a graphic designer in an e-learning company. Whilst there, there was a realisation that I was also good at writing and structuring content for the courses I was helping to develop, and had a knack for thinking about the direction in a holistic manner, rather than specifically from a design or writing direction. So I soon shifted to become an instructional designer, whilst also continuing with the design work.
“So what on earth is an instructional designer? Do you design instruction manuals?”
No, not quite. Basically an instructional designer 'creates learning experiences'. Be it through e-learning modules, interactive videos, workbooks, animations, any other media or a mixture of the above. Content from the customer or SME (subject matter expert) is broken down, put in a logical flow and format, aligned to assessment criteria where appropriate and given context and meaning that are relatable for the target learner. In addition to writing and designing the courses, I build modules in authoring software, create animations, handouts and much more, therefore providing an overall strategy. This is guided by learning outcomes and user needs, whilst ensuring accessibility standards are met.
Which leads us onto the final discipline…Content design.
Content design is a very new discipline, so understandably, one that not many people are familiar with. The discipline of content design was formed and defined by Sarah Richards about 7 years ago whilst working on the project we know as the gov.uk website.
Content design is about giving information to a user, at the right time, in the right format so that they can find the information they need without endless hunting and having to use an assistive function, such as a helpline, FAQ or online chat. Or even worse, they may never get an answer to their need. I think we’ve all been there and can sympathise with the frustration of hunting for contact information on a website to just speak to a human as we cannot find the information we need.
This role includes;
● assessing user needs
● looking at the structure and flow of content
● honing the message and tone of voice
● tweaking prototypes (oh yes, they let me loose on some html!)
● breaking down complicated and jargon filled content
● finding gaps with existing content
● being involved in user research to tests the effectiveness with the actual audience
● and much more.
There is so much opportunity to collaborate and cross into other disciplines when completing tasks, and in my experience so far, the more open you are and willing to get stuck in the better. I have learnt so much, that if I just stuck to activities defined by 'my job description' I just wouldn't have understood in the depth I am starting to. The user testing especially is invaluable to get involved with and leads to many design assumptions being challenged.
Ultimately, our goal is to find a way to satisfy the user needs highlighted at the start of the process. As a content designer you have to work closely with colleagues in other disciplines such as user research, UX or frontend designers, developers, information architects, product owners, business analysts and whoever else is relevant to your project.
Being a content designer is great, I am learning every day and it is really rewarding to be part of a very new profession and to help build knowledge as to the importance of content design and having a dedicated content specialist on a team.
So that’s me in a (sort-of) nutshell. I am very fortunate to have found a blend of disciplines that I really enjoy and I hope to continue to work in all of them. The three areas compliment each other so well (a future post in the making), and being given the freedom to work with both words and visuals is perfect for me. The mixture of skills I have gained in the past has made my approach a well-rounded one and made me very adaptable to broad-ranging projects and situations, and able to pick up new skills quickly.
Long may it continue! And maybe in the future I will create my own job title to merge all three - Head Word Wrangler? Concepts Wizard? Chief Organiser of Stuff and Things?
Hmm, I’ll keep working on it…