After debating taking on yet another hobby today I started reflecting on what I have learnt in the last seven months since I became a content designer and what I still have to learn. So here are my reflections on my recent progress. Some are physical or interpersonal skills, others are just realisations about myself.
1. Many of the things that I was taught about punctuation and grammar in school have now become myths.
Depending on the era you were educated in you may have been told things such as NEVER put a comma before ‘and’, NEVER start a sentence with ‘but’ and you must ALWAYS put commas at the end of every part of an address and stagger each line. Turns out these are not militant rules, but more of a myth that is passed down. And I have held these hangups until now. But (see what I did there) thank you to content design guidelines and books like The Oxford Guide to Plain English, the truth is now out there.
In fact, the opposite is more often true. To craft beautiful prose out of plain English is a real skill and one which I admire and aspire to. I have never particularly been a fan of authors who seem to have swallowed a thesaurus and now I realise why. I always thought it was just because they either made me feel stupid or it was not enjoyable reading to have to decipher it all. Similarly, you can write well without knowing all the grammatical terminology - despite what they tell the 8 year olds in our primary schools who had to remind me what a subordinate clause was some years ago.
As a result of this, the pressure has eased and I have realised that I can actually write! Better than I thought I could anyway. I have always felt a pressure to write a certain way (flouncy) and thought my writing was too simple, as I rarely use the ‘big’ words. Now I realise the craft is in finding your voice and direction - something which I am working on but certainly feel is developing. Finally, you also need an outlet and some confidence to put it ‘out there’. So here, I am, 3 blog posts in!
3. There is more than one way to design with words.
Admittedly, as a graphic designer I already knew this (phew!), but I’m talking here about the difference between designing typography and designing content. The content can (and should) lead the design, not be dropped in to a ready made design. It is a skillset requiring a more holistic view of a project and very different guidelines to follow. Whereas typography design can be quite intentionally illegible at times and all about the aesthetic, content design must be readable and accessible, often in specific fonts.
4. Accessibility is a mine field.
Again, something I already knew having been part of an accessibility working group in my previous role. But. That mine field. It has become a field of epic proportions. More of a county. It turns out the amount I knew and understood is such a small part of it and it is much easier to apply in e-learning builds than websites. There is a real mindset change that needs to happen with accessibility and the way it is treated as a last minute bolt on and considered to be ‘jut about screen readers’. But the accessibility advocate in me will tell you about this another time.
5. I have been oblivious to many things, big and small.
Including but not limited to - the amount of work that goes into designing a service, the minutiae of how careful you need to be with use of words and the way it can significantly alter understanding in a service, the difference between an em dash and an en dash (or what they were called!), how simple things can overcomplicate content and the process... Many things fall into the bracket of 'oh I knew that, but I didn't know I knew that', others into 'that's common sense but I am glad it was pointed out' and finally, some just earn a look of bewilderment. Yeah I know, it doesn't take much, yada yada.
6. I love words as much as pretty pictures.
Being an avid book reader, this should not come as a surprise to me. But I know realise how I am not pining for the visual elements that come with doing graphic design every day. Don’t get me wrong I still love graphic design but I have just found other areas that I enjoy and challenge me as much. I have gained a whole new way of working and seeing things.
7. Always, always start with the user need.
I am now taking this approach into other areas of my design as I have seen how fundamental it is to reaching the right solution. I have always started design projects by writing design briefs in the past, though I realise now how they have been focused on what should actually be the peripheral details. They were not necessarily the wrong approach the time, but I can now see how a different approach could have helped lead to an outcome a bit easier. In hindsight I can see that the briefs were highlighting user wants rather than user needs, and were often working on assumptions from myself or the client. Which leads me into my next point.
8. The principles of content design can be applied to many other areas of design.
In particular it compliments instructional design really well. They are both about taking content and breaking it down to make it useable and accessible for an audience. Both design fields should ensure that the content is delivered by an appropriate medium and provide the user with the information they need, at the time they need it.
9. Twitter is an interesting place to be.
Many of you may be saying “Well, duh!” However, myself and twitter really did not get on until recently as I had struggled to find a purpose on it and or anything of relevance. Finally, the tides are turning - I am finally getting to grips with it, finding interesting ‘Content’ content and some inspiring people to follow.
10. Though it is a relatively new discipline, there is a great network establishing out there who are willing to help and provide guidance. And so many fabulous tools to help you write.
It can be difficult to find much information and guidance on content design when you first started, but by following leaders in the field it opens up a lot of guidance and sources of great information. There is a community building that when asked a question are more than happy to help out or collaborate and share research or skills. Add to that tools such as Grammarly, the Hemingway app, Medium, Slack and many more, there is always inspiration to be had.
11. HTML fries my brain. But boy it’s satisfying when you find a solution and it works!
It can be so frustrating to update a HTML prototype with no prior knowledge and to ‘learn on the job’, as aside from the pretty colour coding in my text editor, it is gobbledygook and so easy to break. It is far from the Plain English us content designers know and love. I can stare at some markup for hours and not see what is wrong with it. But then one little tweak to a div or a label and suddenly all is right with the technicolour markup world. (It’s a shame my first big moment of success went unshared as everyone around me had disappeared to meetings as I leapt up for a celebratory jig).
So there we have it. Eleven insights from my very full and whirring mind, though this is by no means the full extent of what I have learnt in the last few months. There is still a lot I want to learn, and I need to plan and prioritise a direction. On the shortlist are upping my skills in using Git, learning HTML properly, User research techniques, UX design skills and prototyping. Watch this space! And if you have any tips for any of these, feel free to send them my way.