Why editors need to design

Sarah Winters, , Content design

Designers do ‘look and feel’ and editors just write words, yes?


While you may be constrained by the template you’ve been given, as content people you have a lot of control over the look and feel of the page. Your choices can actually help your audience consume your content.

First 5 seconds

I heard an old saying years ago when I worked in advertising: “You have 5 seconds to get my attention, and 11 to keep it.” I have no idea if that’s steeped in research or not but I have held to that saying for years and it’s worked for me.

When you look a text-heavy page with no subheads, do you dive in all excited or think ‘oooo might have to slog through that one…’? If you want to know about the subject, you’ll carry on reading anyway, but you might get bored and leave early or go looking for easier text to consume.

Tell a story in subheads

You break up a page with subheads. They tell a story. Your audience should be able to skim down the page and get an idea of what they are going to get.

Subheads also add gaps and breathing space for readers. Time to process your information. A new study shows when you blink, it’s not just to keep your eyeballs wet. It may be that blinking helps the brain to process information.

Subheads are a bit like that.

When you add subheads you are breaking up the page. You are telling your audience that the last paragraph – the last idea – is over and they need to make space for a new idea. Not only are you making the page look pretty – you are helping your audience understand your content.

Pictures speak a thousand words

Pictures that are just for decoration and don’t add to the content are ‘eye-candy’ and research says people ignore them.

But if you can use a picture to get the information across – particularly complex information – more quickly, then consider using it. You’ll need to make sure you have an accessible version of the image.

Tools, calculators and calendars can save a thousand words

When I worked on GOV.UK, one of our design principles was ‘do the hard work to make it simple’.

Design principles are as much about words as design and how they can be applied to most of the sites we see every day.

As a content person, you have as much skill in not writing words as you do in choosing the right ones. If you have access to designers and developers and can ask 5 questions to give a tailored answer, rather than 500 words of text, you are changing the whole look of a page.

Your audience

As always, it all comes down to what your audience needs from you. And they will always tell you if you ask.

Is your page overwhelming? How many of your users prefer to get information by video or audio?

You may not design the page but you can design pages to help people read, consume and remember the information.

Content design

All this, incidentally, is why Government Digital Service (GDS) content people were called content designers. We don’t just write words, we look at all elements on the page and display them in the best way possible for the audience.

The overall look of a page should be the responsibility of design and content – preferably working together, but I know this doesn’t happen a lot.

I can’t really see how a designer can effectively design a page without knowing how many words are going to be on it. I don’t see how an editor can make decisions about the weight of text on the page without knowing how it is going to look.

We can all make assumptions and guesses but a site can only be exceptional if design and content work together. But as a content person, you do have some control as to how the content actually looks.

Time to move out of editorial and into content design.

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