The joy of plain language; my Bob Ross inspired approach to content design

Jonathan Vaughan
Published in
4 min readMay 31, 2023

I imagine reading that title might have sparked up a couple of early questions. One of these being “What on Earth has content design got to do with painting a happy Alaskan mountain range?!

Please bear with me, I will make some sort of sense!

Bob Ross achieved incredible success with his TV show, The Joy of Painting. He produced many seasons of this show where he encouraged people to paint along at home. His wonderfully soft tone and likeable nature made him a cult hero to many, as did his hair. The way he taught so many to paint was by taking something that seemed complicated and making it simple.

Painting an entire landscape is a big task, but even I’ve managed to produce something that’s not too rubbish! Thanks to the simple guidance, and plain presentation Bob gave.

Despite being artistically inept, I actually painted this!

Bob’s approach

“I talk to only one person when I’m filming, and I’m really crazy about that person. It’s a one on one situation and I think people realise that, and they do feel that they know me, and I feel that I know them.” — Bob Ross, 1986

This is why I consider myself to take a “Bob Ross” approach to content design. When I’m working on content I always picture that one person on the other end of all these cables and screens. I think of the one person that this content is for, at this very moment.

I don’t consider myself to be creating content to just go up online, somewhere in the ether of the internet. It’s not something for someone to then simply stumble across. I am giving this information personally, to this one person, and that helps me make it as clear as possible.

How I do this

To follow Bob’s method, and present content as simply as possible, I stick to 3 basic principles. I do it to make sure that this one person I’m speaking to understands me. These principles all focus on plain language.

Principle 1: Reading age

I always aim for a reading age of between 9 and 11 years old in my content.

Two great ways of doing this are to use short sentences and everyday words.

Keeping sentences to around 15 words helps make everything simpler. It also helps to make sure each sentence only has one main point.

It’s common to skim read when reading online. Using words that are well known helps to read more quickly. Pausing to be sure you know what a word means can break the flow.

Principle 2: Use active language

The most straightforward way to use active language is to say “we” and “you” in your content. It’s easier to understand when it’s more personal.

(See…Bob Ross!!! It all makes sense!)

Using “we” and “you” removes the feeling of being an outsider, scrambling to get information. It gives more of a feeling that help is being provided.

With this in mind, don’t be afraid to give instructions. Actively telling someone how to do something can help them achieve their goal.

Sentence structure can also help with active language. You should always try to keep “subject, verb, object” as the structure.

The subject is the person doing the task.

The verb is what they do.

The object is what they’re doing it to or with.

For example:

“A hearing test can be taken…” doesn’t tell someone how to achieve what they need.

“You can take a hearing test…” feels more like useful guidance. It’s also helping to provide the instruction that is needed.

Principle 3: Simple structure

The first thing that’s important is to frontload information. As said before, online content is often scanned. The further you get down a page, the less that content is seen. If the information is important to someone, don’t make them search for it. The most vital information should always be at the top of the page.

Another barrier to getting information is large blocks of text. You can break these up by using headings and lists. Headings split the content into manageable chunks within the same topic. It can help let someone know they’re in the right place.

Lists are a great way of breaking up content. They’re especially helpful if you need to remember a few things for one task. For example, when designing content it helps to:

  • consider the reading age
  • use active language
  • simplify the structure.

So that’s my Bob Ross approach to content design. Thanks for taking the time to read my happy little blog. If you have any comments I’d really love to hear from you.

Oh just one more thing! If you see a PDF, do as Bob always said and “just beat the devil out of it.”