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Being a content designer: six values to consider

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Defra content design, Defra digital, User centred design

Laura is wearing glasses and smiling at the camera. She’s stood in front of a large tree trunk, with more trees and blue sky behind her.

Content Designer is the 9th fastest-growing job role in the UK, according to a LinkedIn article from 18 January 2022. Not bad for a role that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

And I should know how fast it's growing. Last September, I moved from a small team of content designers at the Office for National Statistics to the rapidly expanding content community at Defra.

There were around 60 of us when I started, and we’re aiming for around 100 by April. We’ve had lots of great candidates from both inside and outside government apply for roles, encouraged by our Lead Content Designer Jeni Street in a blogpost last June.

The breadth of talent I’ve seen so far at Defra has been amazing. Both in terms of content design skills and experience, but also with things like leadership and how people adapt and develop through content projects and experiences. I feel like I'm involved in something big and important.

But my move felt a little strange for a while. I went from a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a very big pond. I wasn’t used to it, so at times I wasn’t quite sure where I fitted in. This made me think hard about my abilities as a content designer and then, more widely, what makes a good content designer?

An icon of a computer screen with a hand pointing to it. There are other computer-related graphics around it, including a paper document, cogs, a cloud, speech bubbles and a speaker.

Who are the people behind the skills?

The standard skills and tools needed for a content design role are well established. But who are we? What strengths and attributes make us good at what we do? What trends are developing among content designers at Defra, across government and the profession globally?

I’ve written a list of ‘things’. If you’re thinking of moving into content design, you might find my list useful alongside a traditional job specification.

This list is not ‘official’; it’s my personal thoughts. And in no way is it exclusive. You don't have to be a 'type' of person or from a certain group – in fact, the more diverse content designers are, the better for the profession and our users.

We need to be able to think about the needs of many different types of people to do our job well. To do that we need content designers from a range of backgrounds with differing life experiences.

Rows of yellow diamond-shaped stickers with ‘Accessible’ printed in the middle.

So, to the list. What are content designers good at?

1. We question

A content designer does not just write the words. We start by asking the questions. Often a lot of questions. We ask questions about who the content is for – who are the ‘users’? Why do they need this content? Is it available elsewhere? What’s the best way to deliver it to them? We need answers before we can create successful user journeys.

2. We listen

Not only do we listen to the answers to those questions, we listen to the users. That might be through observing user research, listening to feedback or hanging out on social media. We are good at listening to the words of our users and designing content that uses their language.

3. We empathise

Understanding human behaviour and a degree of empathy is key to good content design. Paul Cannon, a student from Content Design London’s Academy, refers to “Content Design as a form of digital ethnography”. I’m not saying all content designers need a social science degree like me (although, best 3 years of my life, no doubt!). We do need to be able to consider how a person’s interactions online are affected by their lifestyle, beliefs and situations. By understanding users, and the subject matter experts who help us craft our content, we can put the right content in the right place at the right time.

4. We are bold

Content designers need to be the class nerds. If we don’t know what something means, our users probably don’t either. So we need to be brave and stick up our hands. We ask those, often difficult, questions to make sure we get the content right.

5. We share

Content design is not a one-person job. Content designers need to be happy to share their ideas and designs. We need to accept feedback from other content designers and user-centred design professionals, stakeholders, our grandmothers (well, maybe not them!) Good content is not created in a vacuum.

6. We are resilient

A colleague told me recently that she found it hard moving from another content role into content design. Surprisingly hard. I remember being heartbroken in my early career when a stakeholder ignored all my hard work to publish just what they wanted. It’s not an easy job - we need to be able to bounce back and move on.

As I said, this list is not official or exclusive, nor is it the be-all and end-all. Content designers don’t all have these qualities in equal measure. And each one takes practice.

Before you take the plunge, check out the supportive content design community on Twitter. Follow #contentdesign to see who's tweeting about it and help decide if it’s for you.

Laura Churchill is Senior Content Designer at Defra. Anna Scott, who edited this post, is a Content Designer at Defra. Follow @anna_d_scott on Twitter

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  1. Comment by Sarah posted on

    Great blog Laura. My client just sent me this link, told me it was an interesting read. (Emailed back saying "she was my line manager at ONS!")
    I'm the only content designer on my project at the moment and that list really resonates.

  2. Comment by Olivia Hall posted on

    Thank you Laura, this was a brilliant read. Completely agree with being resilient. Every day can be a challenge which gives us another opportunity!

    I love being the class nerd. I think my team have started to get used to me and my many, many questions.

    So good to see you're enjoying your role as a content designer at defra and that the team is growing!

  3. Comment by Laura Churchill posted on

    Thanks, both. Great to hear that you got so much out of my blog.

  4. Comment by Stephanie posted on

    Often feeling like we are the “no, you can’t publish this but have you thought of…”.Also fighting the endless requests for publishing inaccessible documents…. I agree resilience isn’t key. Not taking no for an answer is key. Using data as evidence will help.

    • Replies to Stephanie>

      Comment by Dave Thackeray posted on

      Bang on, Stephanie!

      I love to adopt the improv approach of 'yes, and...' whenever I'm in challenging situations requiring guile and moderation.

      People love to be validated, and in many cases, that's absolutely justified. Being additive, rather than reductive, also gets to where we need to be - and regularly surfaces questions that resolve stakeholders' initial concerns.

      • Replies to Dave Thackeray>

        Comment by stephanie hill posted on

        My mistake - typo - I meant to write': 'I agree resilience is key."
        is key - not isn't... oops.

  5. Comment by Dave Thackeray posted on

    Bold, resilient, tenacious, persevering, gritty.

    I love these words. You mentioned bold, Laura - the crown prince of them all. And I frame them all as among the most positive traits, because we are driven by the visceral need to see better for our citizens.

    The marathon/sprint analogy has never been so apt as to the life of a content designer!