Sarah Richards, Content Design London
How did you get into content design?
I studied design at art school but fell into copywriting. I ended up in editorial and government. There, I joined the Government Digital Service at beta stage. I wanted to change the conversation about what content people were doing. At that time, content editors were very limited in what they could do. GDS removed all of that. So I took advantage of our multidisciplinary team, took all the best bits, considered all my design and content training and expanded the team’s remit.
We went from limited to almost limitless. We could present content in whatever format made sense for the audience — if we could build it in time! That’s when I started using the term content design and the rest… is history.
What does a normal day look like?
I have a cat-based alarm clock. He just purrs in my face until I get up. *sigh*
We work all around the world so we don’t have a physical office. I have an office in my garden so my day starts with sauntering up the garden with a cup of tea and looking at the list I left for myself the night before. Then it’s catching up with the team on Slack, emails and Zoom calls. I don’t have a typical day. I could be running training, creating new courses, coaching, running CDL, creating our yearly plans… Anything. We’re still a start-up so if it needs doing, I may well be doing it.
What are the top 3 apps you use?
Where do you go and what do you do for inspiration?
Conferences. Conferences do all the hard work for me. I take a look at what they do, follow all their speakers and learn from them.
I also read and watch a lot about accessibility and neuroscience, including how we make decisions, psychology and language processing. Humans are fascinating (and terrible at times). At the moment, I’m looking into racist language and bias. It’s unnerving how easily our language shows our unconscious bias.
We have a wonderful and generous industry. We’re all writing and sharing knowledge so there’s no shortage of inspiration.
Are there any books or blogs you’d recommend?
Everything is pretty much here on the Brain Traffic’s blog post: The content strategists reading list.
Or our courses page (books are at the bottom).
What’s the best thing about your job?
Talking to people. We work in all industries. We’ve worked with tiny charities, law firms, banks, governments and travel companies. To be honest, the problems are almost always the same, but the outcomes are very different and very exciting. I think I’m privileged to work with so many industries over so many cultures and countries around the world.
What have you worked on that you’re most proud of?
Too hard to say. I’m pleased with different things on different projects. GOV.UK is probably the defining project because it started content design as we do it now. I think my next favourite is our academy. We took 18 students through an end-to-end content design project for Action Duchenne. Watching 18 people give up their evenings to learn and work on such an amazing cause was brilliant to see. They gelled as a team pretty quickly and produced some great content.
How do you approach getting stakeholders and other teams on board?
Journey mapping. Always. We don’t move without it. Whether we’re running content strategy workshops, content design work or delivering an organisation-wide introduction to content design we always start with journey mapping.
We need to show all the parts of the business that it’s relevant to them; that the content design process will get them to where they’re going. We invite social media, comms, legal, digital, product and services people — everyone. We show how content can make or break a service just through not having joined-up, consistent comms.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a content designer?
People accepting the skill. Anyone can write, right? Many are still running with skills they learnt 20 years ago and to be fair, often it works. But as tech changes, as we learn more, we can do better. Content designers practice their craft. They read, learn, and contribute. It’s a skill like any other. I can draw. I mean, you’ll probably guess what I’m trying to draw but that doesn’t make me an artist. Practice and learning is what differentiates ‘can do’ and ‘can do well’.
What’s your biggest content pet peeve?
People being purest about content design. People say ‘content design was never intended for anything but government’. Given I was the one that coined the term, and started the discipline (as it’s being used now) with my team, I can tell you that’s not true. It started in government and was for government — I had no idea it would go wider — that’s not all it’s used for.
Many in copywriting and tech writing use some or all of the content design techniques. They have done and will continue to. We have a lot of comms and marketing people on our courses. Content design is understanding your audience and working to a tangible goal. There’s no place for purist views. It creates silos and we have enough of those as it is.
What principles do you try to stick to when writing?
- What’s the best way to get this to the audience?
- Would the audience need this, or trust this, from us?
- What’s the perception/thought/belief that our audience have when they get to this point?
Writing is the last, and shortest part, of our work. Before that, it’s content strategy, research, sketching… then writing. By then I have all my answers so my principles of what I’m writing, in what tone, on what format, to whom, on what channel and in what way are already defined.
Do you have any advice for aspiring content designers?
Dive right in. You probably have a lot of the skills anyway. There’s a stack of reading you can do and courses you can do.
I’d be wary of job descriptions. Some organisations ask for content designers but they actually mean writers. There’s no research, data, format changes…nothing. You’d be sitting down and just writing. Ask a lot of questions before applying, like: is there a user research team? Will I be in on projects at discovery stage? Do you follow all the accessibility and usability guidelines for content? If all those are no, you may wonder if it’s a job where you’d be able to use all of your skills. It may be the organisation is just waiting for someone like you to bring those skills in! But you may want to understand if you’re teaching and pioneering, or part of an established team.
Is there anything you want to promote?
We have a bunch of stuff on that people might be interested in:
We’ve taken Gerry McGovern’s WHO top tasks work and we’re working on a bank of user needs around covid.
Where can people find and follow you?
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every word matters is curated by Dominic Warren.
Thanks again to Sarah Richards for taking the time to answer these questions.
And thanks to Dickon Gray for helping with the design.