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13 February 2023

What’s the difference between content design and writing?

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Ben Webster

Despite being one of the most in-demand professions in the UK, there’s still some confusion about what content designers actually do. One misconception is that a user experience (UX), or interaction designer (IxD), will build a space, and the content designer will fill it up with words. 

This approach reminds me of the film Field of Dreams. In it, Kevin Costner’s character builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield with the hope of attracting the ghosts of legendary players. ‘Build it, and they will come’ is the basic message he receives. Unlike many real-world design projects, (SPOILER ALERT) it actually works. 

Sadly, ‘build it, and they will come’ only tends to work in the real world if there is a solid use case for it. As content designers, we’ve all been Kevin Costner, looking at cornfields, wondering what magical words are going to make it useful to ghosts. It’s far too common an occurrence, particularly for something that includes the words ‘ghosts’ and ‘cornfields’. 

In these instances, what someone is looking for is a content writer, not a content designer. 

While a writer might look at an empty space, roll up their sleeves and start tapping away, a content designer will ask why we need the space. While this means Hollywood is unlikely to start making emotionally compelling, award-winning films about us, it also means we tend to only work where there is a genuine user need. 

Common misconceptions

A senior stakeholder recently questioned the need for a content designer. Their argument was answered when a complex sign-up process was streamlined to be user-friendly while fulfilling their business needs. It turned out that their definition of a content designer was a content writer. So while they were expecting a spell check and a bit of editing, what they found was a transformative journey for users. 

Why does this confusion happen? 

I suppose our role is still being defined. Even the initial article suggests Content Coordinator and Brand Designer as similar titles for the same job, and I have no idea what either one of those does. Also, content designers are often described as wordsmiths and will be asked all kinds of spelling and grammar questions. We tend to do our profession no favours by answering them. 

So what’s the difference? 

A photo of a dictionary page open on the word definition.

Content writers

I occasionally write in my free time. This has brought me next to no financial gain and no shortage of disappointment, but it has allowed me to:

  • have something you can buy on Amazon and Audible
  • use ‘award-winning writer’ on my LinkedIn page     
  • meet the Hairy Bikers  

Writing is almost a totally different discipline. Writing in a commercial capacity, which is closest to content design, is more emotive, even when you have:

  • an objective like ‘inform’ ‘sell’ or ‘sign-up’
  • a word count    
  • brand or editorial guidelines to follow

You make sure to avoid spelling and grammar mistakes, and you’re away, taking your reader somewhere, though often via a slower, more scenic route.    

Content designers

Content design is direct and logical. The language used is spare, and then it is further refined until it meets its purpose. This is often to help someone do something.

Unlike writing, content design is more collaborative. User research feeds it, and you work in step with other designers, stakeholders and subject matter experts to assemble and then improve it.  

One huge difference is that content design is an objective exercise. You cannot be precious about your work. In fact, it helps to want to have your work scrutinised and cut down. 

This is something I hated as a writer but love as a content designer. I suppose it’s about focus: a good content designer should be almost invisible; a good writer often stands out. 

Design versus writing: an example

Most writers suggest reading as the single best exercise you can do to be a better writer. As such, I try to read broadly and often. 

Does it work? I have no idea, but I can tell you that The Hound of the Baskervilles was one such book. In it, legendary detective Sherlock Holmes uses formal and complex language to demonstrate his intelligence to someone asking for help solving a case.  

A photo of an open book.

While I try not to engage my content design brain while reading, this sentence set alarm bells ringing:

I think, Dr Mortimer, you would do wisely if, without more ado, you would kindly tell me plainly what the exact nature of the problem is in which you demand my assistance.”

Aside from being:

  • an ironically complex way of asking for clarity
  • really rude
  • super patronising

it also made me want to content design it. So I pared it down to: 

What do you need?

There’s no room to get lost in such a short sentence, plus it means Holmes has a few seconds more to solve the case without compromising his reputation as an elite-level tool. 

In conclusion

What content designers do compared to content writers is clear: they make the language more accessible and easy to understand.

This should only become clearer as the role becomes more established, defined and specialised.

In the meantime, we can all go home happy knowing that content design is transformative for users and might even make you smarter than Sherlock Holmes.