Content design part 3. [Thing] Design

With my design review of the About page said and done, I’m back to questioning how it’s not simply the ‘copywriting’ that I’m appreciating, rather than the ‘content design’, and I’m led yet again to thinking of The Blind Men and the Elephant, in the sense of a struggle to describe a thing, when perhaps the problem is just your perspective:

The story of a group of blind men (or men in the dark) who touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement. The man who feels a leg says the elephant is a tree; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is a snake; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is rug; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is spear.

I swear this Elephant is my spirit animal, as I’ve been obsessed with it since 2008 when I found this illustrated version by Kevin Cornell:


Funnily enough, I’ve just remembered that I found it on an article titled The Disciplines of Content Strategy, reminding me also of that previously more popular term, before the recent favouring of content design (within my circles at least). In fact, on rereading the article, it’s scary to think how little has actually changed in the last 8 years, other than some terminology.

Then though, as now, I think it’s semantics that cause most of the issues, and none more than with the meaning and use of the word ‘design’, a designation in the past that I’ve likened to being as useful as word the ‘smurf’:

The Smurfs frequently replace both nouns and verbs in everyday speech with the word “smurf”: “We’re going smurfing on the River Smurf today.” When used as a verb, the word “Smurf” typically means “to make”, “to be”, “to like”, or “to do”. Source

Like Smurfs, those of us involved in the production of a website or app or any product or service, have the temptation to throw around the word design (content design, user experience design, user interface design, graphic design, typographic design) in lieu of a unifying term that we all agree just means ‘the elephant’ or ‘the whole’. 

Perhaps that word is simply ‘design’? And we need to suffix it even more consistently when talking about the creation and formulation of things. In this sense, copywriting and content strategy are out, and content design in. Also, no one is allowed to call them themselves just ‘a designer’ anymore. Everyone has to prefix their particular focus. 

Alternately, perhaps the elephant is ‘the content’, and everything else is just a part of presenting the intended messages. Someone might touch the typography and think it’s all about the font. Another that it’s all about the well written code. Another about the cleverly crafted words. But each has to recognise that they are all just part of producing the whole. Less arrogance is needed in thinking that any single role is the most important. 

Again, I really don’t know, and in my quartet of ‘content design’ thoughts, this one feels most confused, and like a projection of my own frustration with knowing what to call myself and what I do, and, whether a more specific title might result in the exclusion of me touching on some of the parts I like. Maybe Alex is right and I should be thinking more about the more broad Design Director role. Humm, where’s that GDS jobs board…