If Design Is King, Content Is Prime Minister

January 26, 2017 | Donald Carson

Donald Carson

For years, those of us who work in digital content have heard the phrase “Content is king.” So how has that worked out for us? More than two decades after Bill Gates wrote an important essay titled Content is King, do we give content the respect it deserves as our rightful monarch? Not really.

Why don’t we all just come down off our thrones and admit that content isn’t king? We desperately want it to be. We are oh-so-aspirational about it. Granted, some companies do create mesmerizing content that yours truly consumes the hell out of. But design still gets the budget and the attention in most companies.

For example, there’s the website redesign project. “Hey, let’s keep the design the same and overhaul the content”—said no one ever.

I don’t think this is all bad. Content will rarely be as flashy or immediate as design. But it can quietly satisfy users and methodically rake money into the organizations that invest in it.

“Hey, let’s keep the design the same and overhaul the content”—said no one ever.

That’s why I want to popularize a new phrase: “Content is prime minister.” Say it with me.

People usually have instant, visceral reactions to design. That makes sense—we evolved to see the “design” of a tiger’s face in the tall grass (language, writing, and content marketing about tigers arrived much later). Content takes time to consume. Just as you’re running your eyes (or screen reader) across this text, you’re developing reactions to it—whereas you reacted to the design about a nanosecond after this page loaded.

Yet content can create change, inspire, delight, and inform in ways that design never will—much as a prime minister gets things done while the king glides by waving a gloved hand from a gold-plated coach.

“Content is prime minister.” Say it with me.

There are plenty of forces conspiring against content. Your average corporation isn’t helping. Executives love to have design presented to them. Then they lean back in their chair, gesture at the screen, and say, “I want THAT.” I’ve never had this happen with a page of text. I spent many years thinking that was a bad thing, but now I’ve accepted human nature. It’s the tiger in the grass.

So, design stands above the crowd and waves the bejewelled sceptre and content quietly runs the government. I can live with that. Now that we’ve established how hard content works, let’s look at a few ways content does—or should—get respect:

1. Content is what people search for.

This is huge. Every second, Google processes more than 40,000 searches. People want answers, and the design of the app or website that gets them to what they’re looking for is important. But in the end, it’s simply a conduit that dumps users into the content they want (or into a giant heap of hippopotamus droppings, which they have to use the browser back button to climb out of).

Design stands above the crowd and waves the bejewelled sceptre and content quietly runs the government.

2. Content is what users focus on after the novelty of the design wears off.

Let’s face it—we humans very quickly become blasé about mind-blowing new things, especially in this century. Remember the first time you swiped the very first iPhone? It felt like magic. Now, 6,578,032 swipes later, you don’t think as much about the design or the swiping. Once you become a customer, the design that lured you in becomes invisible. It’s the content that develops loyalty, cuts down on service calls, and encourages good reviews. If Apple hadn’t opened up its App Store to third-party content, would we still love the glorified PDA that was the original iPhone?

3. Content needs a strategy to thrive.

According to a blog I found on the internet, in 2013 there were more than 92,000 new articles published online every day and nearly 36 million new WordPress posts each month. I only bring up these stats to remind us that we are sprinkling our content droplets into the largest firehose the world has ever known, and if they don’t sparkle, they’ll be lost in the flood. This is why it’s critical to have … a content strategy. (I’m a director of content strategy and you thought I wouldn’t mention my keyphrase?) So your content has to be published with intent. In a world drowning in sponsored content, genuine content with a genuine voice can bob to the surface when published strategically.

4. The process of making and creating content must improve.

With solid processes and useful tools, better content can be published more frequently. This sounds like a no-brainer, but over the years I’ve spoken with a number of people who work for Very Large Organizations That Should Know Better who admit their content process is a shambles. “Author experience” is a phrase that should be getting even more attention than it is. The theory is, if you make it easy to create and manage content, companies will be able to publish more quickly to keep up with user needs. So, better author experience=better customer experience. As CMSes become easier to use for non-technical people, I suspect we’ll begin to see better digital content, published more often. Meanwhile, you can read the book Author Experience, written by a very smart person who introduced me to the term.

In a world drowning in sponsored content, genuine content with a genuine voice can bob to the surface when published strategically.

6. Content is a business asset.

Everyone who works in content knows that it can make money. Just ask PewDiePie. But have we really considered what this means for modern companies? Content is a product, and it deserves the people, processes, and political power of any manufactured item. Rather than an afterthought, it deserves to be measured, tested, and improved like any product.

7. Content may yet ascend to the throne.

Interaction design patterns are becoming standardized. We can see this happening with the widespread influence of Google Material Design. Once everyone agrees on design patterns that work, content will likely become the main differentiator between brands. Perhaps then it will be treated like royalty. But until then, content will be very, very busy behind the scenes.

Donald Carson