First off, to answer this question I need to make one thing clear: the design is not the thing. It’s the thing that makes the thing the thing.
If you’re confused – let me put this into context.
There’s a very good chance that at some point you’ve stumbled upon a website, some printed material, or some other piece of content and thought man, that’s a really nicely designed [thing]. We’ve all done it, I’m sure. We’re visual animals and it’s natural to notice something that is visually appealing.
It’s a well-worn adage that “good design is invisible”, the idea being that you don’t really notice that something is well-designed if it just works. This applies to so much more than just content, from electrical products like toasters and car stereos, to something as simple as a paperclip or a post-it. You don’t often look at these simple things and notice that they are well-designed, but the truth of the matter is that if they weren’t, then you really would notice.
With content the same is true, but like in the real world, beauty will only get you so far (take note, pretty people!). It’s important to understand that a piece of content shouldn’t be relying on being nicely packaged. The design is only what helps connect the message with the audience. Bad design will get in the way of it, and good design will make it better.
Choose substance over style
You can have the flashiest website/video graphics/page layouts in the world, but if the core message in your content – its purpose – isn’t up to scratch then the design won’t count for zip.
This is why I tend to work best with people who get content marketing. Not those who just believe it works and have been told it can raise their bottom line, but those who want to do the best thing by their customers or their audience. Content marketing in a nutshell is all about producing content that attracts and retains an audience of customers, but I believe to do it well you should look past the ROI and concentrate on who you’re producing content for. If you think about your customers needs before your own, what you produce will provide a lot more value.
If your customers have questions – answer them.
If your audience wants to be educated – educate them.
If your audience wants to be entertained – entertain them.
To wildly misquote JFK: think not what your content will do for you but what your content will do for your audience.
So how can design make better content?
The design is what helps connect the content and the audience (whether it be a reader, viewer, listener etc.)
This is a question that has many different answers depending on the type of content and the medium it’s being delivered in, but here are a couple of brief examples to give you an idea:
Example 1 – Written word
Say you have a piece of long-form written content, whether it’s a blog post, a white paper or something similar. Despite having a lot of information I would expect that you’d still want the piece to be easy to consume. I’d start by addressing the copy itself and how it could be broken up into sections, with a clear heading and subheading structure that makes sense and is easy to follow. Depending on the piece, it could then be accompanied with illustrations or photographs, and if the content is statistical then some visuals could be thrown in to help key figures stick (think infographics).
If this content is being produced in a white paper or ebook, then similar considerations such as the brand’s visual style come into effect, where suitable fonts and colours are used to produce something that reflects your business, and the pages would be designed to suit the readership – should it feel fun and energetic, or sophisticated and authoritative?
Example 2 – Video
You’ve recorded a video of yourself, face-to-camera addressing some customer questions or some other useful advice. Great! Video is a wonderful medium for getting your personality across, and in a lot of ways the ‘raw cut’ without any editing or polishing is all you need (livestreaming platforms such as Periscope and Facebook Live are brilliant examples of what I’d call ‘raw video).
If you are producing videos for YouTube, I’d recommend spending a bit of time polishing your videos. I could go on for a long time on the things that can be done, but things like editing out superfluous chat and nervous ‘umms and ahhs’, or even restructuring your recording to help with the flow can go a long way in making this content better for the viewer.
Just like the written copy example earlier, videos can also benefit from a little branding and visual tweaks – it’s best not to overdo this, but it’ll tie all of your content together and make it part of your entire brand experience.
The better the experience for your audience, the easier it will be to gain their trust.
Be mindful of how design can help you communicate your message, but also hold on to the fact that the message has to come first.