Helping Your Content Infrastructure Designer Help You: Three Things to Consider

So you have that publishing project you’ve dreamt about for years, or maybe just a few months. You’re finally doing it; deciding to go it on your own, keep costs low, and work hard get the content you want. Then — just a few weeks before you’re scheduled to launch — you put it all together and step back hoping to see a nearly finished product. Instead, you see a project that is uneven, inconsistent, missing key elements, and you still have to do a million things you’re not entirely sure how to do. Is your project doomed to a delayed launch? Not necessarily.

What’s to be done?
Answer: Get yourself a Content Infrastructure Designer.

What is a Content Infrastructure Designer, anyway?

I’ve been a Content Infrastructure Designer (CID) for nearly 15 years, working for clients from Tokyo to Berlin, London to New York City. The reasons and conditions that bring people to me are as individual and unique as their dreams to see their print magazine or digital content platform become a reality. Some want to create a viable print magazine, others want to publish a series of books, still others want to start a mid-to-large-scale digital content platform. (For a deeper read on what a CID does, check out the introduction.)

Content Infrastructure Designers are not simply editors, nor are they purely project managers. The thing that brings it all together is the alchemy of creative direction, knowledge of publishing and content, and how to organise and build a viable framework from the ground up — a framework that will be sustainable, adaptable, and support your publishing project through (at least) its first phases of growth.

Neither are we magicians, however. We can’t work miracles, but with a bit of understanding about common circumstances in which we find ourselves, you can work with us the best way possible for a great result.

Here’s how…

1. Check your expectations.

Often, CIDs are approached during the final phase of a project, sometimes mere weeks before launching or going to print. This may not seem logical, but I can totally understand where the client is coming from. It might be after an inexperienced editor is off the project, and they are realising that much of what needs to be done to properly structure a publication hasn’t been accomplished. This could be anything from not successfully creating and implementing workflows to poor commissioning and management of writers and contributors. Another scenario could be that they simply tried to do it themselves and realised too late that the task was a little more complex than they estimated.

Much of the time CIDs step into projects full of great content, but governed by chaos. It can be hard for anyone closely involved to see the big picture without the proper organisation and strategy. This is where the project management aspect of Content Infrastructure Design comes into play. Think: spreadsheets, Gantt charts, re-prioritisation. These are all things that are ideally done around 6 months before going to print, so there’s time to properly troubleshoot, implement, and customise workflows before less-than-useful practices become entrenched in the working style.

Expecting to have a solid framework with sustainable workflows and operating practices which minimise errors and time-suck is a reasonable expectation—a given, even.

However, don’t forget to scale your expectations to the time and human resources at hand. If your CID is working on their own and there are just a few weeks to design and implement, make sure to factor in things such as editor’s fatigue. Asking your CID to work marathon hours can be risky and increase the likelihood of inconsistent quality control or proofing. Even the sharpest of proofers will become text-blind after a nonstop 8-hour day. A good CID will make their limit known; a good client will heed it.

If you call in a CID 4 months before print or launch, chances are you’ll get a relatively complete and sustainable framework on your hands. Call one in 6 weeks before, and it’s more likely that they’ll be spending the first weeks sifting through existing material and structures, reorganising them in a time-optimised way to get at minimum the most critical things set up and populated with content.

Communicate your expectations clearly, but let your CID help you manage them realistically.

2. Be clear about your needs, but take their word for it.

A lot of times, CIDs don’t start at zero. They get dropped into a well of communications, information, and content which needs to be filtered, and then bring themselves back up to the surface before they can start building the basic skeleton of the platform in question.

The best thing you can do is listen to your CID’s assessment of the project and their structuring and project management plan, then make an effort to adopt the best practices they suggest or implement. If they’re on point, they’ve asked you about or already understand the stakes you hold, and are trying their best to make sure that together you can produce the best result in the time given.

This becomes especially important when establishing production and quality control workflows. These two aspects go hand in hand. If your CID has suggested a particular workflow, information management, or versioning system to minimise errors and to make things more transparent, it’s likely they’re not trying to make things difficult in the short term but much easier in the long run.

Most CIDs remain with a project from anywhere between 4 weeks and 2 years. Their ultimate goal is to leave you with a system you and your team can operate and use to produce content even after they’ve moved on.

If your CID implements some spreadsheets to manage information, or introduces a card-based management framework for transparency and milestoning, don’t leave it up to them to hound the team to use it. Try to understand the motives behind it, and give it an honest try. In the end, if the system doesn’t work for you, instead of bypassing it, tell them.

An experienced CID’s goal is to find a system that suits your working style— not one that’s driven by them. After all, they may not always be there; they’ll want the legacy of their work to continue on.

3. Don’t ask them to work for peanuts.

You have a budget. We get it. But that’s no reason to ask a consultant whose job it is to build the framework of your project, one that they rightly want to last a long time, to work for next to nothing — or even nothing at all.

Much like a house, the long-term sustainability depends on the solidity and adaptability of its structure. Your project infrastructure should be viewed not as a one-phase process, but rather an investment in the longevity of your platform. Even the most dedicated and professional CID has to draw the line when they’ve done the best with the time and available resources and reached their limit of work.

Asking people to work for less than they’re worth (or convincing them that they should) isn’t a good start unless you have some very real perks to balance it out. If your budget is minimal but your concept and content are fantastic, a good CID will be able to see the worth in participating in a project that will produce a high-quality result once they’ve done their job. This is where CID will often take a managed risk by putting a time limit on their time with the project. If one party isn’t happy, then it leaves room to talk it out, or for things to end with less chance of anyone feeling used.

Publishing and publishing platform development isn’t easy. Most people never see or hear about what goes into creating a magazine or content outlet. They’re usually only interested in the final product since that’s what’s useable to them. However, as the producer of such a product you must be concerned with the process — and it’s an intense process no matter how perfectly planned things are.

When you’re asking your CID to not only design the infrastructure and project manage, but also produce content, you’re actually asking them to fulfil the roles of 3–4 people. It’s not impossible, and can even be done well by experienced, organised people. But it should be compensated accordingly.

Few CIDs hold personal stakes in a project other than doing an excellent job so that the quality and sustainability of the platform can speak for them. This is negatively affected by demotivating factors such as overwork and disproportionate returns for that work.

If your CID is enforcing time and performance boundaries that you think undercut what you are expecting of them, you might want to re-examine two things: your expectations, and their compensation. Then, talk with them about it — if they haven’t already tried to talk with you about it first.

The Takeaway
Working with a Content Infrastructure Designer might just be one of the best investments you can make if you want to have a print or digital content platform that has a life of its own in the long term.

They can help you to see where your knowledge gaps lie, assist you in building a solid team, build a network of content creators or writers, and save you lots of headaches and money in the long run. Their job is to pull your head out of the short term and refocus you and your team to look at the big picture.

If you keep a few things like managing your expectations, listening to their advice, and respecting their work by compensating them fairly in mind, then you’re already in good shape.

But remember, the best thing you can do to help your CID help you is to talk with them and in turn listen to what they have to say.