Content Strategy in Design Thinking

When executing on a revolutionary idea, design thinking and content strategy should evolve along a similar axis, and also inform each other through every step of the design process.

According to Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, the goal of design thinking is “matching people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and viable as a business strategy”. The method for employing design thinking is an ongoing process of empathizing and research, synthesizing, ideating, prototyping, testing, and repeating where necessary. To get a bigger picture for some of the strategies used, you can check out Design Kit for methods.

Design Thinking from Stanford’s dschool

User Experience design always employs design thinking, and content strategy falls under the larger UX umbrella.

According to Kristina Halvorson, author of the book Content Strategy for the Web, the goal of Content Strategy is that it “plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content”. Content Strategy focuses on the type of audience that is being reached, the brand, word count, SEO, messaging priorities, and call to actions. To spread a coherent message that matches the needs of the business and the audience it’s trying to reach, content may include images, words, and multimedia that are researched, tested, and iterated throughout the entire design process and beyond.

The similarity here is focus on the intersection between business and audience, thorough research to make sure people’s needs are being met, and designing effective as well as aesthetic solutions that evolve and change as the business grows. Both Design Thinking and Content Strategy also highly involve organizing and prioritizing what to do, and when to do it. Design Thinking focuses on the “big forest”, while content strategy are “the trees”, that the user can see, read, hear, and interact with.

Content Strategy methods from Lynda education

To get a more thorough understanding of Content Strategy, I recommend the article A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Content Strategy. A big rule for content, much like for design guides and user interfaces, is that the content should be consistent across the brand. Otherwise conflicting messages are going to confuse the audience, and they will feel like something is “off”.


Compare the commercial to teen factory workers on their lunch break.

A recent example of lack of consistency was H&M’s Autumn Collection 2016 Commercial. While the content of the commercial is incredibly liberating and inclusive across race, genders, age, and body types — the reality of the company paints a grim picture for women.

H&M employs 14-year-olds working 12 hour days, fires women for becoming pregnant, and pulled all their plus size clothes in stores after this collection was announced — keeping what they consider to be plus size women hidden away from the public, forced to purchase online.

The one ideal that matches their PR move, is H&M’s transgender specific workplace initiatives include non-discrimination protection based on gender identity and transgender inclusive healthcare coverage.

Even so, overall H&M’s audience was outraged at the discontinuity and disingenuousness between their messages and their actions.

While the commercial is a breakthrough, H&M’s actual treatment of workers and it’s plus-size shoppers is not as kind.

Bad design in-consistencies are quite easy to spot. I want to talk about how I was confused today when I tried Neuro drinks. The packaging had these large words: “vegan, gluten-free, lactose-free, natural flavors”, yet with unnaturally bright colors, a link to clinical trials, and a picture of a brain, I guess to make me feel young and smart? I’m pretty much their target demographic. I reached for it and put it back, reached for it and put it back, and repeated this five times, because something felt “off”. For the sake of UX research, I ended up buying a bottle of the Sonic energy version for $2.

Bright branding for Neuro “natural” drinks.

Neuro honestly looks like an aerosol canister of Febreeze, so I was very suspicious. Models have dyed hair, caked makeup that may not be vegan, and air-brushed armpits. A far cry from “natural”. I took a taste and immediately regretted it. This was like cough syrup, acidic, and sugar-filled. You know what else is vegan and can test humans as “smarter” in clinical trials? Coffee. Also Red Bull, Rockstar, Monster, Sambason, and Guayaki energy drinks, and many brands of vitamins. Suddenly I felt Neuro did not stand out as any healthier, nor smarter.

While I deeply support founder Sanela Diana Jenkin’s philanthropy work and entrepreneurship, I can’t help but imagining that the design team is a bit “try hard” in their cool science, packaging too many millennial motivations onto one small label, to the point where it becomes suspect. Their website has far too many words and varied image styles for me to understand clearly what I’m buying into.

When content aimed at the millennial generation is trying way too hard.

Now I’m going to give an example of two companies whose content is consistent and minimize their message, to provide more clarity over clutter.

Apple comes out on the top for me. From their latest commercials, to their imagery, packaging, products, and stores — you can see it from a mile away and identify it as an “Apple” product. The current look is clean, sleek, clear, futuristic, lightweight, and minimal. Words on their site are used sparingly, because there is so much white space, but words like “Light. Years ahead.”, “Wireless. Effortless. Magical.”, and ““All the power you want. All day long.” signaling to futurism, control, and reliability in the simplest of forms.

Apple store on 5th Avenue, New York City

The brand has evolved along with the times. Apple used to have it’s effective “Think Different” campaign back in the day, with rainbow colors, inner company pirate flag, and some anarchy hammer-smashing commercials as well. (Differentiating the company as younger and more creative than IBM and Microsoft.) and while the company has had some mistakes, there was never any glaring discontinuity towards it’s smart and youthful audience.


ESPN’s logo

The brand my husband Mark chose that has consistency is ESPN. The wording on their site includes, “The worldwide leader in sports” and headings like, “What kind of lineup will Joe Maddon use in Game 3?”. Pictures are of baseball and football players in action. Their logo is a fast and fierce red wording with a line through it as if a baseball has been thrown straight through. Videos have announcers at a desk commenting on sports games. It is clear who the audience is — sports fans!

ESPN launched in 1979 and is an American-based global channel that focuses on sports-related programming including live and pre-taped event telecasts, sports highlights and talk shows. Mark says, “If you like sports, and you like to argue about in stupid ways, like you would find in a sport’s bar — they do that.” The type of talking is similar to early radio shows beginning in 1921 America covering details of baseball games and other sports, where announcers also sat at desks and narrated, as well as commented on the sports action. Following this long history, there’s no surprise that ESPN made Forbes Most Valuable Brands list at #31. (Apple was #1! I win!)

Mark then pondered about ESPN’s sports articles website Grantland as being superior to The Ringer (independent from ESPN). He says that “Grantland is consistently intelligent and has the writers I’m looking for without clutter, but The Ringer has too many writers” and it goes into other pop topics and news. “You have to search harder.” So the key here is word count, message priority for the intended audience, and lack of clutter. Critics are not sure that Bill Simmon’s The Ringer will succeed outside of ESPN.

Here’s a great example from a designer’s portfolio on some new ESPN experiences with both design thinking and content strategy. See if you can now spot the similarities and differences between the two processes, after what you’ve learned in this article!


I’m Kasey Wang, a student at UX Academy by Designlab in the Fuller Cohort. Please this article to support, and connect with me on LinkedIn.