How to get your first job as a content designer

Guest author, , Content design, Opinion

This guest blog post is written by Sally Schafer. She's a senior content designer with a passion for creating accessible, user-centred content.

LinkedIn listed content designer in its top 15 emerging jobs in the UK in 2020. But with any new or emerging role, there’s often no clear or well-worn path into the career. With more of these jobs being created all the time, what does it take to actually get one? I asked a few fellow content professionals the best way to go about getting that first job as a content designer.

Analyse your skill set

Most content designers told me that they’d moved sideways from a different role. Many started out in journalism, marketing, communications, publishing or editorial jobs.

A lot of the skills you gain in these professions are great building blocks for a content designer position. Demonstrating an ability in one or more of the following areas had helped people make the jump into content design:

  • writing,
  • editing,
  • illustration,
  • graphic design,
  • image research,
  • digital literacy,
  • user research,
  • content management,
  • SEO,
  • user experience (UX) design,
  • accessibility,
  • data analysis,
  • information architecture.

It’s also easy to worry that you don’t know how to use a certain type of software. With so many different tools on the market, and organisations regularly changing to different platforms, the programmes you can use are generally considered less important than the practice and ideas you can bring.

Do some research

It’s a good idea to make sure you understand the basics of content design and what a content designer role will involve. The UK’s Government Digital Service has a comprehensive description of what a content designer is and what they do.

There’s also a wealth of information out there on content and UX design, but here’s a short list of resources that make a good starting point for further research.

Books

Websites

Podcasts

Content designers I spoke to also mentioned the importance of getting used to the language and practice of UX design. Talking to product managers, user researchers, designers and developers can be helpful in working out how things fit together, and allowing you to sound informed and confident.

Get some training

The single most helpful thing I did to get a job as a content designer was doing a course with Content Design London. The 2-day workshop gave me an invaluable grounding in content design principles and also the opportunity to meet other budding content designers.

If a paid-for course is not an option, Future Learn offers a great free online Introduction to Content Design. You can also find ways to improve specific skills, like taking a UX writing challenge, or getting familiar with accessibility or UX design in general.

Join a community

Conferences and meet-ups

Networking at conferences and meet-ups is a great way to make contacts in the content-design world. It’s not always comfortable to introduce yourself to complete strangers (virtually or otherwise), but I’ve found that a simple Linkedin request and ‘I loved your talk!’ is appreciated by speakers, and a great way to start making connections.

Conferences and meet-ups to look out for include:

Some events have ‘job boards’ where you can post your details if you’re looking for work, or connect with employers who are recruiting.

Online communities

It can be intimidating to join in with online discussions when you feel a bit out of your depth. But there’s a lot to be gained by just ‘lurking’ until you find your feet. Twitter is a good place to find content professionals discussing ideas and current practice as well as sharing useful articles.

And specific communities like the Content + UX Slack channel are great places to gather information and get help and opinions on content questions.

I’ve also recently taken part in CDL’s pilot Content club. This has been a fantastic way to connect with content designers and people keen to take on content design roles. The club has allowed us to connect, ask questions, practice skills like crits, and share experiences and doubts in an informal and supportive environment.

Analyse your current role

You may well already be a content designer but your organisation just doesn’t call it that. I spent the first part of my career creating travel guides. I had always seen this as a drawback to getting a content design role because it was print based rather than digital. But a lot of what I did was essentially content design:

  • analysing travel trends and sales patterns,
  • talking to travellers about what they think, feel, want and do,
  • understanding different markets, audiences and competing brands,
  • creating content and chapter structures that mirror (literal) user journeys,
  • calling destinations by the names travellers commonly use,
  • deciding when we needed text, an image, an illustration, a map or a timetable to best meet the user need,
  • working with designers on the layout of guides,
  • testing iterations of the product with travellers,
  • presenting publishing plans to stakeholders,
  • negotiating with and working alongside subject matter experts (travel writers),
  • writing, editing and proofreading text,
  • analysing travel trends and sales patterns, and repeat.

Take a look at what you currently do and see how much of this mirrors a content designer job description. You can then use these examples in an application and interview.

Introduce content design to your current role

Is there a way to start introducing content design into what you currently do? It’s not always easy but there are sometimes small steps you can take. For example:

  • measure everything you do, even if it’s not expected or asked for,
  • volunteer to help with any user research your organisation is conducting,
  • look at ways to conduct your own user research, even if it’s just 30 minutes desk research
  • ask people to test your ideas – asking 5 people for feedback can give you a perspective on what works and what doesn’t,
  • ask a colleague to crit your work and offer to do the same for them,
  • test an idea and write down the results and don’t worry if it doesn’t improve things – understanding what doesn’t work and acting on it is also valuable experience.

If it’s just not possible to fit this into your day job, is there a way to volunteer your time with a local charity or organisation that might benefit from some content design?

Transfer at a different level

Some of the content professionals I spoke to said they’d never really done content design themselves, but were leading teams of content designers. A passion for, and training in, content design principles, together with experience and skills that they could transfer from other roles, was enough to get them the job.

Track your competencies

While you’re gaining knowledge, skills and experience, make sure you’re tracking it. For each relevant task or project you’ve done, see if you can write it down using the ‘STAR’ format (situation, task, action, result). Even better add an L for learning. If your task or project ‘failed’ don’t discount it – just make sure you have a clear idea of what you did, or would have done, differently.

You can use this list of competencies to:

  • update your CV and fill in applications,
  • plan interview answers.

It can be helpful to take a screenshot of whatever you’re working on before you start (if it’s not brand new), and then one of the completed iteration, so you have a visual reminder of what you’ve done. Screenshots of heatmaps and data can also be useful. This is especially handy if you want to create an online portfolio of your work.

Although some recruiters may ask you for a portfolio, no one I spoke to mentioned that they’d needed one to get their content design job.

Everyone’s winging it

When you’re trying to get a new role, it can sometimes feel like there’s a secret sauce that you just haven’t found. But speaking to other people working in content and content design, I was surprised by how many admitted to feeling imposter syndrome.

There’s such a range of skills involved in content design, it’s unlikely that you’d be expected to be an expert, or even have experience, in all areas of the job. Passion, commitment and the ability to demonstrate relevant skills and experience can definitely be enough.

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