Content modelling and design diplomacy

5 minute read

This much I know: there is no such thing as a blank slate when it comes to content.

On web design & build projects - despite doing ‘capital S’ strategy and design copywriting - we still sometimes forget about the old content that sits, lost and forlorn, soon to be replaced. This is because we believe we can start from scratch. Blank slate, tabula rasa. Where no man has gone before.Then, projects are halted and delayed - even fail - while that content is shoved into a design that at best stretches awkwardly to accommodate it, at worst is defeated by it.

This doesn’t happen because no one has done a content audit, or because people haven’t considered brand objectives as part of a governing strategy. It happens, I believe, because those strategic decisions don’t easily translate into actionable design tasks - and even more because all of us, writers included, struggle to think of content independent of its context.

This past year, I’ve begun to use a more structured approach to working content through design, trying to circumvent turmoil by making something pragmatic for design teams to work with. And that pragmatic thing is the content model.

Modelling is harder than it looks

When we analyse content, structure comes into play as well as theme and quality. So alongside a robust qualitative audit, I began to try more stringently to bridge the gap from substance to structure.We were already in the habit of creating a visual glossary of content types based on our source material. But usually we stopped there - grouping the types by theme, with only oblique consideration of structure, and that always at page level.

A table showing content types and their definitions.

This is not to say substance isn’t the right place to start - it absolutely is. But it’s just one aspect, as insufficient on its own as structure would be. If you hope to be able to bring content into a new design with little mishap - and make it malleable long afterwards - you need to dig deeper and broader. You also need to look at structure and how it flexes across any digital property your content types are associated with. In essence, this means translating source content into a source content model - a set of content types from a range of sources that are broken down into components, with each of those components explained by its purpose, as well as the structure or style they currently inhabit. And that might make for a lot of analysis. So why go into this detail?

There are two hidden benefits: migration sanity, and design diplomacy.

Never arrive at a party empty-handed

On one project, we struggled with the usual demand for ultimate flexibility. The client wanted a kit of parts but wanted those parts used for all kinds of purposes.With that in mind, I returned to the source content structure. We were tasked with coming up with a standard editorial page, so I gathered the various different ‘editorial’ article page types - there were six, in total, across various properties - to get a superset of components that comprised them. I was left with about 16 components: simple, common, flexible things, like headings, blockquotes, video and image styles:

A gray table showing content types, what they are now, and what they are for.

Before I’d done this, the design and UX team were stumped, as the page type they were tasked with designing was not intended for a particular site section or a particular journey. They had no idea where it should fit, and so no basis for knowing what the edges of the design should be. So when I introduced the components that were derived from the analysed source content - with descriptors, but agnostic of messaging - the team were made confident of creating a system that would marry well with future content requirements. Of course, we knew we’d need to keep an eye on how the page played out in the real world, but we had a foundation.

A colour coded content structure layout. It's linear and includes a H1 main title, a H2 secondary title, some body text, an image/ pull quote and another block of body text

A system in the making

Building a content system that builds on old structures without remaining tied to the way they’re used, or the exact content that fills them, is a way of handing over content requirements that allows for change and creative decisionmaking. It’s supported by source material, but not tied to that source’s past mistakes.And it’s flexible, too - we were able to dig back into the audit with focus and intent to answer tricky issues not just when the audit was finished, but continually. That in turn created trust and easy give-and-take between content and design, before a new word was written.The output of all this is a content model for the new design: a living specification that translates design into an array of necessities, from content templates and guidelines, to CMS labeling and configuration. Ideally, it becomes a kind of throughline for content from analysis through to build.This is a process we’re still playing around with, one that’s malleable rather than rigid. And we’re not there yet. But I have reasons for believing in it.

Design with guidance, not goalposts

There’s a school of thought that says the setting of goals is detrimental. We do better when we don’t know exactly where we’re going, but are encouraged to perform at our best - rather than aiming for a predetermined destination. It allows us to excel, rather than simply succeed.I’m drawn to this idea, though it feels shamefully unstrategic. High level visions don’t do much for the way I think about content and what it can do. Perhaps this is a kind of apathy in the face of ever-changing brand repositionings. Or perhaps it’s more of a natural affinity for the design process, that means I have no desire to make broad statements and then run away. Or perhaps it’s pure strategic laziness, albeit a kind of uninformed laziness that ends up with me doing a hell of a lot of work.I’m also aware there’s a danger in allowing that much freedom - that we’ll swing too far away from things we can measure and record, that outcomes are less sure. It also forces me to trust my content expertise in analysing all kinds of inputs and then helping to guide a many-legged process toward something that’s ‘just right’.Where I find confidence, though, is in the skills of the rest of the design team - the copywriters who bring the source material to life, the designers who shape and illuminate it, the UX experts who guide and form its journey.

Why it matters

The balance of content design and layout with content flexibility and mobility is a finely measured act. It affects the potential of individuals and businesses to be successful in the longterm - and that’s really not an overstatement. So how free we make our content, and how we even begin to think about that content and what it’s for, is as much a design decision as the choice of typeface or adherence to a grid. And, to me, that’s why both delving into detail and foraying into diplomacy are so necessary.


Content Model Template

A template to work out the finer details and practicalities of how you write and manage your content.

About the author

Elizabeth McGuane

Elizabeth is a content strategist, speaker and writer living in London. She’s part of the content strategy team at @LBiLondon, where she guides content strategy work – from the big idea to the smallest detail – within large multi-discipline teams. She’s on twitter as @emcguane, and writes occasional content strategy, language and design thoughts on

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