I used to think “inspiration” was one of those words like “passionate”, or “empowered”. People love to use it to mean anything and everything. As the artist Chuck Close said: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
But then I started to think about how I make choices as a content designer. Sometimes my choices are guided by rules, like a content style guide. Sometimes they’re made for me by technical constraints, or by the need to keep content consistent with the way we’ve done it before. Sometimes I look at competitors’ apps to see how they do it. But I’ve realised my best work happens when I make choices by tapping into my empathetic and creative brain. That kind of choice relies on inspiration.
So I started looking to the old-fashioned, analog, offline, non-digital world (AKA the real world) to find inspiration. I found that reminding myself of how content design is tied to the real world helped me refocus on the user and avoid getting lost in constraints, jargon and technical thinking.
Does making content design choices based on real world situations sound awkward, or difficult? I’ll give you some examples — a series of moments that illuminated how the real world can teach content design and spark inspiration. And at the end, I’ll explain how to blend real world inspiration into your content design process.
Text on the gallery walls in the Tate Modern
When I visited the Tate Modern to check out the incredible Olafur Eliasson exhibition, I took a look at the words on the gallery walls. An overview of the artist was by the gallery door, and then each individual artwork had a shorter description next to it. The short descriptions were small pieces of a bigger story, and they also had to work as standalone stories for a strolling visitor who might not bother to read them all. But given the complexity of the subject matter (an artist’s life and work), the longer text overview by the door gave a visitor who was interested in going deeper a way to get more insight.
What this means for content design: In content design problems, we often don’t know the path a user will take, and moments need to make sense regardless of what they’ve seen before. Like the longer intro copy by the gallery door, good content design can be wordier than you think in the right moment — it just has to not get in the way of a user getting stuff done.
A weathervane, and the fill line on a cup of ramen
The Deliveroo offices are housed in the beautiful Cannon Street Station building overlooking the River Thames. The building has two Christopher Wren-style towers, which are all that survive from the original, 1866 structure (thanks, Wikipedia!). Each tower is topped with a weathervane. One day I was staring out our office’s skylight, trying to think of the best way to label something, and I saw a weathervane pointing “E”. Have you ever seen a weathervane that has the full words “east”, “south”, etc, written out? No, the four points are always labelled E, S, W, N. Similarly, the fill line on a cup of ramen doesn’t say “fill this cup with 12 ounces of boiling water which is approximately here on the cup and then the noodles will get soft and you’ll have a soup in this cup which formerly only contained dried noodles, freeze dried green onion bits, and a sachet of mysterious, chemical powder.”
What this means for content design: People need less help with familiar tasks, and we shouldn’t overburden them with labels that are written to read, rather than to point the way. Labelling can be incredibly brief when the context is clear.
My son may not be able to understand the books we read to him (he just turned one), but he loves “The Going to Bed Book” by Sandra Boynton. It’s about a group of animals living on a boat who have to go to bed, and it has a repetitive rhyme scheme (“With some above/And some beneath/They brush and brush and brush their teeth”) that finds humour in subverting your expectations or startling you (“And when the moon/Is on the rise/They go back up… to exercise!”). When the book does take a sudden turn, it never breaks the tone. The reader doesn’t wonder what’s going on when something weird happens — they’re amused and know they’re still in good hands with a trustworthy storyteller.
What this means for content design: Maintain a consistent voice and tone. When users are shown something that doesn’t sound right, they’re taken out of the experience, and begin to doubt the validity of what they’re reading. We’re conditioned to treat online typos and weird word choices as evidence of wrongdoing — think about phishing emails, or the scams cluttering up your spam folder.
A road works sign that apologises for traffic
A roundabout on my commute is in the process of being dug up and turned into an intersection. The construction is wreaking havoc, and some official person has decided to put a sign alongside the snarl of traffic saying “Apologies for any delay.” It’s not clear who is the one saying sorry, or why, and I imagine that the hundreds of commuters inching slowly by the sign each day don’t really feel better about their plight because they got an anonymous apology.
What this means for content design: This is a moment of inspiration that illustrates why we shouldn’t do something. When you write a message like “Sorry, your phone is offline,” you apologise for a problem you didn’t cause, which makes a user assign blame to you, rather than whatever really caused the issue. Plus it seems insincere when the message is impersonal and not attributed to anyone. Things don’t say “sorry”, people do.
And finally, a chicken suit in a dry cleaners
I was walking by a random, average dry cleaners with my son on our way home from his nursery. My head was filled with miscellaneous thoughts from the workday, and vague plans of what I’d make for dinner. Glancing in the dry cleaners window as we hurried by, I saw a giant yellow feathered chicken costume, the body of the bird sitting on a chair with the removable head perched next to it. I laughed for some reason, and tried to get a good picture of it. What was it doing there, and what chicken/person was wandering around underdressed and waiting to pick it up?
What this means for content design: We can add joy and fun to user experience. It can’t be too in-your-face or common (if I saw a chicken in a dry cleaners everyday, it would lose its magic), and it has to be unexpected without breaking the voice and tone of the experience (like the children’s books example). Pulling this off successfully can be one of the hardest content design challenges, but it is possible and something to aspire to.
So what you can you do with this real world inspiration?
One way to weave inspiration into your design process is to ask yourself: “If I saw this content in the real world, what would it be?” and then add that into your copy doc. It can flesh out and bring to life the ways you’re making choices about your content. Here’s an example:
A modal can be a “news article that sums up complicated geopolitics into a few bullet points”. A piece of micro-copy a user sees when they get a loyalty bonus can be the elusive “chicken in the dry cleaners”.
You can use the real world as a metaphor to explain to stakeholders why you made a copy choice, or to share context of how you plan to approach a project when you’re in the early stages. You can use the real world to teach other people about content design, whether they’re interns or experienced product designers who aren’t used to focusing on the words.
You can also just use real world inspiration to make your craft more creative, get yourself away from the pixels and make life inspiring.