How can learning to speak the language of your visual creative partners ensure that their contributions aren’t reduced to “just providing some copy”? A great place to start is by incorporating design thinking into your content creation strategies.

As the champions of content strategy continue to clamor for clarity around the state of the practice (and answer the question, what’s in a name?), where it fits organizationally (UX or marketing?), and what actual skillsets define the discipline (marketing, user experience, technical?), the lines between content and visual design are blurring as well.

Whether or not a singular consensus will ever be reached — or if it’s even necessary to reach one — one thing all content creators can agree on is this: we need a seat at the proverbial product table early and often. Content is a driver of most (dare I say all) products and services. Without it, it’s difficult for prospects and customers to connect the dots — to travel down the marketing funnel from curiosity to conversion without friction or confusion.

But how does a content creator, designer, or strategist — take your pick — ensure that their contributions aren’t reduced to “just providing some copy”? And more broadly, how do we ensure that the role of content is elevated to the place of integrity it deserves, whether it be in marketing campaigns, digital experiences, and wherever content is consumed?

One way to achieve this level of parity is by learning to speak the language of your visual creative partners. And a great place to start is by incorporating design thinking into your content creation strategies.


A brief history of design thinking.

A brief history of design thinking

While the ubiquity of the term “design thinking” seems to be enjoying a recent surge in popularity, according to author Jo Szczepanska, “Being in the news… doesn’t make design thinking anything new. Unlike the radical outcomes it promises, design thinking as an approach has been slowly evolving since the 1960s.”

Szczepanska’s Design Thinking Timeline takes readers on a fascinating journey of significant milestones in the movement, from Design Science in 50s-60s America, to the impact of Scandinavian cooperative design from the 60s-80s, to a third resurgence that happened between 1990-2005.

It was during this time that the design consultancy IDEO was formed and, according to Szczepanska’s research, gave the concept of design thinking a “foothold in the business world.”

From Szczepanska’s article: “Over the past fifty-plus years, design thinking… has appropriated many of the best tools and techniques from creative fields, social and computer sciences.”

Thinking by design: a definition

Just as there have been many contributors to the emergence of design thinking as a practice and approach, there are just as many definitions of what design thinking is:

  • Harvard Business Review: “A set of principles collectively known as design thinking — empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and tolerance for failure chief among them — is the best tool we have for creating those kinds of interactions and developing a responsive, flexible organizational culture.”
  • Forbes: “In its simplest form, design thinking is a process — applicable to all walks of life — of creating new and innovative ideas and solving problems. It is not limited to a specific industry or area of expertise.”
  • IDEO-U: “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”
  • Interaction Design Foundation: “Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems, and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases — Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test — it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown.”

For the sake of simplicity, this last definition — and the phases it’s comprised of — will guide the conversation for the remainder of this piece.

The design-thinking framework...

The design-thinking framework

The Interaction Design Foundation summarizes the five phases of the design-thinking process (or framework) based on the Stanford description of the process:

  • Stage 1: Empathize — Research Your Users’ Needs
  • Stage 2: Define —State Your Users’ Needs and Problems
  • Stage 3: Ideate — Challenge Assumptions and Create Ideas
  • Stage 4: Prototype — Start to Create Solutions
  • Stage 5: Test — Try Your Solutions Out

As you consider these stages, as the Interaction Design Foundation reminds us, “Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test… these stages are different modes which contribute to the entire design project, rather than sequential steps. Your goal throughout is to gain the deepest understanding of the users and what their ideal solution/product would be.”

A word (or a few) about design research

Now that we’ve walked through a very brief history of design thinking — and we’ve bandied about the names of organizations like IDEO and Stanford’s to help define and give context to the term — you may be wondering whether design research is the same as design thinking.

In two words: not exactly. But close.

In the first edition of their book, ‘A Designer’s Research Manual’, authors Jennifer and Ken Visocky O’Grady introduce “the concept of research-driven design… and what tools today’s designers are using to inform and ensure the success of their creative projects,” and “how research-driven design can help define an audience, support a concept, advocate for an aesthetic or measure the effectiveness of a campaign.”

As we shift our focus to content, let’s agree that design thinking is a framework — an approach to design — and that design research is a methodology (or collection of methods) that support design thinking.

And because there just aren’t enough models and frameworks already, IDEO introduced the Design Kit, a set of tools to facilitate creative approaches problem solving using Human-Centered Design. At the center of the toolkit is the ‘Field Guide to Human-Centered Design’, described as a “step by step guide that will get you solving problems like a designer,” as well as the Design Kit travel pack, a deck of cards described as “bite-sized design tools to spark creativity and collaboration.”

Whether you call it design research or human-centered design, what these methodologies have in common is the placement of the consumer (user, customer, end-user) at the center of the design process.

Frameworks that make the dream work

1. The Quad

Chances are if you are a practicing content strategist, somewhere along the way in your career you’ve come across ‘Content Strategy for the Web’ (2nd Edition) by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach.

Halvorson’s book — and her definition of content strategy — has been credited with giving the practice legitimacy, and establishing the practice as essential to agencies and enterprises.

In the third chapter of the book is a simple but impactful illustration called “The Quad,” described as “…an image that displays the critical components of content strategy,” or, how content strategy works.

A simple but impactful illustration called “The Quad,” described as “…an image that displays the critical components of content strategy,” or, how content strategy works.

Created over a decade ago, The Quad also addressed substance and structure — the content components needed to implement and support the core strategy, as well as workflow and governance — the people components needed to implement and maintain the strategy.

Or as Rach wrote in a blog post for Brain Traffic, Halvorson’s content strategy consultancy, “Substance, structure, workflow, governance. Now there’s a recipe for content strategy success.”

Of course, as the discipline of content strategy has evolved and expanded to include content design and related disciplines, so too has The Quad, which was updated in 2018.

Halvorson writes, “As conversations have progressed in the field, we’ve found that our original content strategy quad hasn’t quite held up in terms of capturing what content strategy is today and where it plays in both project processes and operational frameworks.”

A simple but impactful illustration called “The Quad,” described as “…an image that displays the critical components of content strategy,” or, how content strategy works.

The new quadrants include Editorial, Experience, Structure, and Process. For our purposes — to show the intersection between design thinking and content strategy — we’ll focus on Editorial and Experience.

According to Halvorson:

Editorial strategy answers the following questions:

  • What is our editorial mission?
  • Who are our target audiences?
  • What is our point of view?
  • What is our voice and tone?
  • What brand and language standards do we need to comply with?

Experience design answers the following questions (among many others):

  • What are our users’ needs and preferences?
  • What does our content ecosystem look like?
  • What are our customers’ journeys?
  • What formats will our content take?
  • How will design patterns shape our content on mobile and beyond?

Editorial considerations draw parallels to the first two phases of design thinking:

  • Empathize: the audience point of view
  • Define: voice, tone and language standards

The third phase, Ideate, sits nicely between editorial and experience design, where you take what you know about your mission, audience, voice, tone and brand standards and use that knowledge to move into experience design, and the last two phases of design thinking:

  • Prototype: content ecosystem and format
  • Test: design pattern impact on mobile and beyond

2. The content lifecycle

Kevin P Nichols, author of Enterprise Content Strategy: A Project Guide, defines the following seven basic phases of what he calls the content strategy project lifecycle:

  •  Plan — define what will happen in the project at a high level
  •  Assess — identify and survey the content ecosystem
  •  Define — gather inputs from the Assess phase to determine what you need to do for the future
  •  Design — design the future-state experience
  •  Implement — build and execute the design
  •  Publish — distribute content to a consumer
  •  Measure — evaluate the performance of your content
  •  Optimize — review the findings from the measure phase to make recommendations, and decide which content to invest in

At the center of these seven phases sits “Govern,” which includes the “development of a governance model to ensure that you… can maintain the effectiveness of all phases.”

The heavy lifting – and the parallel to the first phase of design thinking — Empathize — happens during the Assess phase, where you take a closer look at your content ecosystem, including:

  • Effectiveness, relevance, quality, and timeliness of the content
  • User feedback

As the Interaction Design Foundation puts it: “Empathy is crucial to a human-centered design process such as design thinking because it allows you to set aside your own assumptions about the world and gain real insight into users and their needs.”

Nichols’ next phase — Define — includes gathering the inputs from the Assess phase to “determine what you need to do for the future. This phase frames the project by defining what you need to do with content…” Much like the Define phase of Design thinking, in this phase, you’re defining the problems you’ve identified with your team.

The next phase of Nichols’ approach — Design — involves designing future state content goals. “Think of this phase as designing the necessary future-state experience, such as what content and information go on a website…” Like Design thinking’s ideation phase, this is where you and your team will begin identifying and drafting content that meets the needs of users or consumers.

Next up in the Nichols approach is Implement — the phase where you’ll build and execute the design, and where new and relevant existing content will bring the future state experience to life. While not an exact match to design thinking’s Prototyping phase, which is scaled-down and a bit more experimental, as a content creator, you’ll ideally have an opportunity to see how the content fits in the overall experience and will be able to make any necessary adjustments before the final phases in the Nichols approach.

The final phase of design thinking is the Test phase, where solutions created in the Prototype are being tested. The last phases of Nichols’ content lifecycle — Publish, Measure and Optimize — encompass testing once the content has been distributed (or published), measuring the performance of that content, and making recommendations to further optimize content, which may include making decisions about removing or rewriting content that may not be performing well against future-state goals.

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, during the Test phase, “Teams often use the results to redefine one or more further problems.” And, much like the concept of the content lifecycle, in Nichol’s Test phase, “…you can return to previous stages to make further iterations, alterations, and refinements — to find or rule out alternative solutions.

Content marketing strategy framework

3. Content marketing strategy framework

The frameworks we’ve reviewed to this point can apply to most, if not all, flavors of content strategy. However, if your focus is distributed content — content that you publish and push to third parties, or to social media and other marketing channels — you may be wondering if there’s a content marketing strategy framework that aligns with design thinking.

That would be a yes.

In fact, in 2017, the Content Marketing Institute published the following five-phase framework that indeed draws parallels to the phases of design thinking:

  • Purpose and Goals: Why you are creating content, and what value it will provide
  • Audience: Who you are creating content for, and how they will benefit
  • Story: What specific, unique, and valuable ideas you will build your content assets around
  • Process: How you will structure and manage your operations in order to activate your plans
  • Measurement: How you will gauge performance and continually optimize your efforts

And while not exactly apples-to-apples, when you take a closer look you’ll find that many of the phases above align nicely with design thinking:

  •  Empathize: Why are you creating content, and who are you creating it for?
  •  Define: What specific, unique, and valuable ideas will you build into your content?
  •  Ideate and Prototype: How will you structure and manage your operations in order to activate your plans?
  •  Test: How will you gauge performance and continually optimize your efforts?

In summing up the purpose and goals of the updated CMI framework, author Robert Rose writes, “…each of the five nodes serves as a trigger point that helps you understand how to grow stronger, more agile, and more innovative in your approach to creating content that builds value for your customers, as well as for your business.”

Or as the Interaction Foundation Design put it: “With design thinking, teams have the freedom to generate ground-breaking solutions. Using it, your team can get behind hard-to-access insights and apply a collection of hands-on methods to help find innovative answers.”

No matter which framework you use, it all boils down to using insights to innovate and find solutions that benefit the audience you are trying to reach.

4. Leveling up your content

If you’re still with me to this point, hopefully, you’ve got a good idea of how design thinking complements strategic thinking around content creation, and you sufficiently armed with three complementary frameworks that you can apply to your next content project.

However, if you’re still wanting more, I’ve got you.

Defining the levels of content of your brand experience is another structured approach that you can apply to your strategic thinking around content creation.

A content level refers to the level of content in a brand hierarchy. This paradigm, comprised of 11 levels of content, can be used to better understand the interconnectedness of the branded content you create for your organization.

Justin McKinley, Head of Content at ClearVoice and the creator of the 11 levels paradigm writes: “In my paradigm, each level of your brand’s content is supported by content in the levels beneath it, with the higher levels being more rooted in your core brand experience than lower levels.

The 11 levels of brand content are:

  1. Core
  2. Vertical
  3. Hub
  4. Franchise
  5. Campaign
  6. Pillar
  7. Ladder
  8. Skyscraper
  9. Foundational
  10. Asset
  11. Element

As McKinley explains, “Using content levels is just one way to organize the structural abstracts of your brand content. Your content might not have all levels, or perhaps your brand might have additional levels. In general, the use of content flows up from lower levels to higher levels. Nonetheless, view this approach as a mental exercise to apply to your own content.”

Establishing a single source of truth: principles

While it’s great to know that there are parallels between design thinking and content creation and that there are many, many frameworks, approaches and paradigms that you can use to apply to your next project, you may be wondering, “How do I get started?”

For there to be a team or organization-wide acceptance of the notion that design thinking approaches to content can (and do) provide outcomes that are both meaningful and measurable, we return to where we started: the notion of having a seat at the proverbial table from the inception of a product or project.

The relationship between the disciplines of content creation and visual design isn’t always adversarial, and yet even with the rise in the ranks of content strategists and marketers, there still seems to be an underlying tug-o-war — a vying for a place of product prominence – that sometimes stymies even the most stringent of deadlines.

If the parallels drawn between design thinking and content creation has done nothing else, it’s shown me that much of what we want from both sides of the table is the same: to create a product that meets the needs of users in the most creative and consumable way. So if “agreeing to disagree,” doesn’t cut it, then how do we make peace so we can make progress?

Perhaps an agreed-upon set of principles is a good place to start.

The Oxford Languages definition of principle reads, “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.”

Establishing an agreed-upon set of principles from the start of a project can help foster a partnership. And starting with a common language — design thinking — can facilitate a collaborative process to avoid pitfalls as timelines progress.

In her book ‘Content Strategy at Work,’ author Margot Bloomstein describes what can happen when content and design don’t start with equal footing: “The problem is this: rather than allocation of time between design and content, some teams address only the design.”

The effect of this approach? According to Bloomstein, “Content undermines what should be a unified and informative experience [and] content and design don’t play off of each other: in some cases, old copy breaks the template it must now inhabit – or leaves it noticeably empty, creating odd gaps in the density of information.”

There are principles of each discipline that overlap, and others that are distinct. In an article republished by UX Magazine, author Whitney Hess shares a set of guiding principles for user experience designers that should be a shared goal for both content and design:

  • Understand the underlying problem before attempting to solve it
  • Don’t hurt anyone
  • Make things simple and intuitive
  • Acknowledge that the user is not like you
  • Have empathy

From there, each discipline can – and should – dive deeper into principles that, while distinct from each other, ultimately share the goal of creating an end product that benefits the target audience.

How design thinking and content marketing work together in the real world

So what does adopting a design thinking mindset, along with agreed-upon principles, look like in the real world? Here are two (very) high-level examples:

Mini case 1: Digital Discovery

The problem: A website that fails to surface current and useful information where the “solution” has been to redesign the site visually, with little attention paid to the management of the content.

The design phases applied:

  • Empathize — Research Your Users’ Needs: understand from users what content they’re seeking and how they go about looking for it
  • Define — State Your Users’ Needs and Problems: what are the pain- points users have encountered when trying to find useful information?
  • Ideate — Challenge Assumptions and Create Ideas: Do problems stem from a lack of clear visual on-page hierarchies, or from an outdated content management system that impedes a user from getting what they want?
  • Prototype — Start to Create Solutions: Can a combination of clear visual cues and assistive content solve the problem, such as the clear visual designation of a search box combined with predictive text that, on the back end, is assisted by tagging content for easier discovery?
  • Test — Try Your Solutions Out: Test a combination of approaches, including a search field with and without predictive text; visual cues that help users know

The solution: Adding a persistent search box that is clearly labeled and intuitive, with predictive text that saves the user time by suggesting search phrases, ultimately leading to increased engagement and reduced abandonment due to failed searches.

Mini case 2: Campaign Cohesion

The problem: A brand’s image, voice, and tone on digital channels are at odds with other levels of content, such as campaigns that fail to resonate with the target audience. There’s a disconnect, and content and design need to work together to solve it.

The design phase(s) applied:

  • Empathize — Research Your Users’ Needs: Which digital campaigns are performing well with your audience? What needs are being met and how?
  • Define — State Your Users’ Needs and Problems: What are the complementary campaigns that are falling short of goals? Is there consistency from one content level to the next? Is the voice and tone the same, or does it change with the medium (i.e. assuming a more casual tone on social media, while taking on a more formal tone in campaign collateral?
  • Ideate — Challenge Assumptions and Create Ideas: Is there an assumption that those engaging digitally “expect” a more playful (aka youthful) tone, while those who encounter other forms of content – perhaps a brochure, blog post or product insert – “expect” a more serious tone? And how are visuals treated in each instance?
  • Prototype — Start to Create Solutions: Can a unified approach across channels — one that takes into consideration what the brand stands, the message it wants to convey, along with visual elements that are consistent across all channels help foster a clear sense of the brand’s identity among the intended audience?
  • Test — Try Your Solutions Out: Again, test a combination of approaches that include variances in voice and tone, as well as visual presentation. Consider how you might reuse existing content at a variety of content levels, adding design elements that are appropriate to that level.

The solution: Create and deliver a unified content marketing experience by using what resonates with your test group to inform a cohesive end product that consistently delivers value to your target audience.

Tools of the trade that will help with design thinking and content marketing.

Tools of the trade

You’re seated at the project table with your design partners, with whom you’ve co-authored shared principles for design and content (and have identified additional principles unique to each discipline).

You’ve spoken to representative users or members of your target audience, and you have a clear understanding of the problems you need to solve or the experience you want to create.

So now what?

Even when approached with the best of intentions and clarity of purpose, collaboration can sometimes be a bit awkward. Everyone is here and wants to have a good go at things, but no one quite knows where to start the conversation.

Here are some tangible tools of the trade that can help break the ice and get the conversation going:

  • IDEO Design Kit (Travel Pack) – A deck of cards curated by and based on the field experiences of designers from designers, “this tool can be used by anyone tackling big challenges to designing more creative, impactful solutions to big challenges. The deck includes methods for building empathy, unleashing creativity, and getting your hands dirty, and show how ideation, prototypes, and iteration can guide the creative process while maintaining a human-centered mindset. Format: Card deck available for purchase
  • BrandSort Cards – This card deck, created by Appropriate, Inc., and based on Margot Bloomstein’s book, ‘Content Strategy at Work,” focuses on a brand attribute exercise Bloomstein calls the message architecture. She writes in the book, “A message architecture is a hierarchy of communication goals; as a hierarchy, they are attributes that appear in order of priority…[that] typically focus on establishing three to five main communication goals.” Bloomstein says that “visual designers and content strategists (and later, copywriters)” can use this exercise “to develop a cohesive, consistent user experience.” Format: Card deck available for purchase
  • The Designers Critical Alphabet Cards – As shared in my article on incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion in content marketing, this card deck was designed by Lesley-Ann Noel, Ph.D., “to introduce designers and design students to critical theory and to help them reflect on their design process.” Format: Card deck available for purchase