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Career Q&A: 14 senior content designers (from companies like Instagram, BT, and HubSpot) share advice on starting and progressing your career

Published 6th October 2021 20 minute read Career Q&A

Whether you’ve recently decided that you want to add more focus to progression in your content design career, or you’re a content person itching to make the transition to your first content design role, you’ve come to the right place!

Like several other content roles in the market, we’re seeing a consistent increase in the number of content design roles out there. At the time of writing, c.5,200 organisations are hiring in the UK alone.

Happily, an increasing number of organisations are realising and recognising the added value this discipline can offer.

In the next instalment of our career advice mini-series, we ask senior content designers from the industry (some of whom you may recognise!) for their tips and thoughts on several important career scenarios; from preparing a portfolio for interview, to working towards clinching that promotion.

Keep your eyes peeled for some insight-rich words of wisdom from the likes of Selene De La Cruz (Mastercard), Beth Dunn (HubSpot), Rachel McConnell (BT), Gina Pensiero (Instagram) and Mario Ferrer (Shopify)…

Photo of Helen Lawson
Helen LawsonLead content designer at Co-op
Photo of Aladrian Goods
Aladrian GoodsSenior Content Designer at Intuit
Photo of Beth Dunn
Beth DunnContent and Communications at HubSpot
Photo of Andy Welfle
Andy WelfleCo-author of Writing Is Designing. Building a UX content strategy practice at Adobe.
Photo of Rachel McConnell
Rachel McConnellAuthor, co-founder of Tempo, content design manager at BT
Photo of Candi Williams
Candi WilliamsHead of Content Design at Bumble. Published author.
Photo of Mario Ferrer
Mario FerrerStaff Content Designer at Shopify
Photo of Elizabeth McGuane
Elizabeth McGuaneCurrently leading UX for Shopify’s admin and mobile teams
Photo of Selene De La Cruz
Selene De La CruzDirector, Content Design & Strategy at Mastercard
Photo of Gina Pensiero
Gina PensieroDirector, Content Design at Instagram
Photo of Carole Ray
Carole RaySenior Content Designer at Capgemini
Photo of Mary van Ogtrop
Mary van OgtropStaff Content Designer at Duolingo
Photo of Lizzie Bruce
Lizzie BruceContent strategist, course creator, author
Photo of Ben Barone-Nugent
Ben Barone-NugentContent Design & Product | Google, Netflix, Facebook

Starting out in content design

Looking to make a career transition into content design sometime soon?

Whether you’re a recent graduate or working in well-established fields such as journalism, copywriting, content writing, or marketing, we want to put your mind at ease right now – you can make that leap into content design!

“But how?” you ask…

We asked some senior industry experts for their advice on how budding content designers should approach that first rung on the ladder…

Photo of Mario Ferrer
Mario FerrerStaff Content Designer at Shopify

For someone considering a career change into content design from say, a more traditional role in marketing, journalism, etc., what should they know upfront/what advice would you personally give them?

“Content design is not about writing. I mean it is, but way less than you think. This role is about using design tools and processes applied to writing within a product design team to help you focus on user needs.

“My advice is to read everything you can about the fundamentals of UX design, human-computer interaction, and systems thinking, so that you can get familiar with the main concepts, the technical language, and how to apply those learnings to your writing.

“After you get done with that, then read Podmajersky, Yifrah, Winters, Welfle and Metts, Hall, Covert, Halvorson, McConnell, and Kubie. I’d also recommend you bookmark the UX Writing Library (created by Kinneret Yifrah).

“Lastly, you need to learn how to work in an agile environment (no more going off to your magic corner and waiting for inspiration to hit you!). Stakeholder management will also be a huuuuge part of what you'll be doing, so you need learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable whilst talking to devs, project managers, designers, et al.”

Photo of Candi Williams
Candi WilliamsHead of Content Design at Bumble. Published author.

For someone considering a career change into content design from say, a more traditional role in marketing, journalism, etc., what should they know upfront/what advice would you personally give them?

“Be clear on your 'why'. I don't want to go all Simon Sinek, but I see a lot of CVs from folks working in more traditional content roles that talk a lot about what they've done in those roles but with no mention of why they want to move into content design.

“I came from a more traditional copywriting background, but I was able to articulate why I wanted to move into content design and what I loved about it; the people focus, the insight, the collaboration.

“Cover letters seem to be getting a lot of stick lately, but when you're reading 10+ CVs at a time, a unique cover letter that explains why you really want to work in content design and for the company is so important.

“Also, there are many similarities between the roles but differences too. It's well worth doing the research into content design beforehand so you can articulate that 'why'.”

Photo of Selene De La Cruz
Selene De La CruzDirector, Content Design & Strategy at Mastercard

For someone considering a career change into content design from say, a more traditional role in marketing, journalism, etc., what should they know upfront/what advice would you personally give them?

“I personally moved from traditional advertising copywriting to a brand content strategy role, to my first job as a content designer.

“My advice for those working in more marketing/advertising-based roles: Be ready to swap out the kind of creativity you might use to write snappy headlines and promotional content for a different kind of creativity. User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) content will exercise a different part of your creative brain – how to find creatively strategic approaches, how to creatively problem solve and how to find new, creative ways to help your users.

“We specifically love to see journalism backgrounds when we’re hiring for content design and strategy roles at Mastercard because journalists are experts at asking smart questions – and getting answers (here’s a bit more about my thinking on the relationship between UX writing and journalism).

“Get comfortable talking about APIs, SDKs, text strings, and CMSs. No need to be an expert, but get comfortable working with tools like Invision, Sketch, and Figma. The better you can navigate the technology that you’re helping bring to life, the more valuable a collaborator you’ll prove to be.

“Also, never underestimate the power of networking. Networking was invaluable to getting me to where I am today. Along with Melinda Belcher, I co-run a meetup for UX content professionals in NYC, which is basically the dream meetup that I wish had existed when I was trying to get into the field. We’ve already hired from people in that group.

“My last bit of advice is to be open-minded about where you can do content design. Before Mastercard, I wouldn’t have thought to investigate the financial services vertical, but more and more companies are understanding the power of content design, so these roles are popping up in less expected places.”

Photo of Aladrian Goods
Aladrian GoodsSenior Content Designer at Intuit

For someone considering a career change into content design from say, a more traditional role in marketing, journalism, etc., what should they know upfront/what advice would you personally give them?

"What I wish more folks knew about content design is that it is rooted in solving a customer problem and it’s not only about the words."

— Aladrian GoodsTwitter iconTweet this

“Yes, being a strong writer is essential, and content should deliver on business goals and traditional metrics à la click-throughs, conversions, etc., but solving the core customer need comes first.”

Photo of Beth Dunn
Beth DunnContent and Communications at HubSpot

For someone considering a career change into content design from say, a more traditional role in marketing, journalism, etc., what should they know upfront/what advice would you personally give them?

“First, I say go for it. I’m obviously biased, but I think content design is one of the most exciting and rewarding fields to be in. It’s still relatively new, so you can have a huge impact on how the field itself evolves over time. You can pioneer or advance the practice in your organization and have a huge impact on how it works in that part of the world. And of course, you can have a huge impact on the lives of the customers you serve.

"Content is a truly intimate experience when it’s done right, and the human connection and value you have the opportunity to forge is pretty unique."

— Beth DunnTwitter iconTweet this

“One thing I would definitely advise is to get in the middle of the content community, speak up, ask questions, and don’t be shy. It’s a very welcoming and open community, and there are so many people who are willing to help.

“Lastly, find a mentor or a coach. I’ve been working with a coach for a few years now, and it’s been transformative. Having a coach is really so many people’s secret weapon, you’d be amazed. I think that’s why so many of us have started coaching others as well; we’re hoping to pay it forward and help raise up the next generation of leaders and voices in this great field.”

We’re only one topic down, but there’s already a great deal to take away and consider based on the expert input above.

Next, we asked our content design pros how they think someone without any specific content design experience should approach making previous work experience relevant in an interview.

Photo of Mario Ferrer
Mario FerrerStaff Content Designer at Shopify

For someone looking for their first content design role, how can they persuade an interviewer (or recruiter) that they’re worth a shot?

“You might not have ‘direct experience’, but you do have ‘relevant experience’. There are a lot of transferable skills that you can bring over to this role from previous roles besides the ‘writing part’.

“Show them that you are eager to learn and ready to take on challenges that might go beyond what's written on that job description. Also, ask lots of questions. It shows that you're curious, and that's a huge part of this role. Try to understand what's expected of you, and then explain how you could provide value.

“Oh, I almost forgot! You have what's called in mindfulness 'beginners mind' and that's an amazing perspective that most of us who have been doing this for a while have mostly lost along the way. You'll be capable of seeing the problem definition from a completely different perspective and bring that into the team.”

Photo of Candi Williams
Candi WilliamsHead of Content Design at Bumble. Published author.

For someone looking for their first content design role, how can they persuade an interviewer (or recruiter) that they’re worth a shot?

“I think about this a lot! Interviewers are essentially looking for confidence that you can do the job. So, I’d really suggest carefully going through the job description and matching your experience to the criteria (you'd be surprised how often people don't seem to read the job description!).

“When you're answering questions: think STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result). In interviews, people often spend a lot of time focusing on the situation and context - but be super clear on the actions you took and the impact of those actions. You can even use language cues to do this.

“For instance:

‘The problem we as a team faced was (situation)...so I decided to approach this by doing X, Y, Z (task + action). The impact of this was (result)...and what I learned was X, Y, Z.’

“You can use 'we' statements for the situation but be clear on what you did for the task and action. Your result doesn't have to be big numbers and stats either. The result could be that you saved time through less re-work, working more efficiently, readability scores improving, page reduction, or many other things.

“I would say to people looking for their first content design role: Start thinking STAR for all you work on. Even though your title might not be content design, you can start considering the problem you're trying to solve, the actions and metrics you're focusing on, and the learnings for every project you work on.

“You don't have to be a content designer to do content design, so start applying the principles and processes to your work today, and you'll have plenty to talk about by the time you interview!”

Photo of Aladrian Goods
Aladrian GoodsSenior Content Designer at Intuit

For someone looking for their first content design role, how can they persuade an interviewer (or recruiter) that they’re worth a shot?

Identify key examples that highlight your understanding of a customer need and how you solved it with content. If you have none, create one. The Daily UX WritingChallenge is a great place to start. Also, consider including any past work where you implemented brand voice and tone guidelines to improve the customer experience.

Showcase your process: I love to see the ‘ugly’ parts of writing and designing in portfolios because it displays the evolution of a project and helps me understand the thinking behind the final recommendations.

“Be sure to include your rationale, how feedback from stakeholders and/or customers influenced iterations, and the performance of the work you delivered when available.

Connect the dots through storytelling: Interviews are your chance to make the case that you’re the best person for the job. Own your story, acknowledge the gaps, but confidently display how the experience you do have connects to the opportunity you’re being considered for.”

Photo of Lizzie Bruce
Lizzie BruceContent strategist, course creator, author

For someone looking for their first content design role, how can they persuade an interviewer (or recruiter) that they’re worth a shot?

“OK I’m going to go wide here with relevant experience! Content design is a discipline within user-centred design, so any experience where you have thought from the user (or customer’s) point of view can be relevant.

“Have you organised an event, thought about what guests would need, then communicated relevant information and organised their experience of the event to meet their requirements? Mention that.

“Have you redesigned a physical space to fit the tasks that will be performed in it? Try referencing that.

“Have you cut an essay, a news article or a blog post in half by getting rid of superfluous words? That could be helpful!

“Made decisions based on data? Changed tone and language for a particular audience? Added subtitles to a video? Go for it.

“If you can match your experiences with principles of user-centred design and content design processes, you will demonstrate a thorough understanding of content design with your examples - even if they don’t seem direct, or digital, enough.

“Also, emphasise any research you carried out that helped you make decisions.”

Photo of Selene De La Cruz
Selene De La CruzDirector, Content Design & Strategy at Mastercard

For someone looking for their first content design role, how can they persuade an interviewer (or recruiter) that they’re worth a shot?

“This is all about understanding what it takes to be a content designer, and then finding reflections in your current role.

“For example, when I worked in advertising, I had clients in the medical industry. I hadn’t taken science since high school, but I was able to dive deep into the studies, learn about disease states, and distil complex concepts into clear, compelling, consumer-facing language. Although it wasn’t content design per se, the skill sets were directly related.

“Also, recognize where you’re strong in your current role, but more importantly where you might be weaker – and work to build those muscles. When I was looking to move from copywriting to content design, I would partner with researchers to define questions, craft messages for testing, and translate the findings. It meant that I was able to develop a practice of basing my writing on user insight and referring to research findings when presenting my work.

“You might also be able to find little ways to sneak more content design practices into your current work, for example:

  • Can you help reformat your company newsletter?

  • Can you make a template for client-facing emails so they’re more scannable?

  • Can you create a tone of voice guide for other writers on your team?

“You will, of course, need to learn new skills as a newbie, but try to showcase how you are quick to learn, that you prioritize continuous learning, and that you take initiative to figure things out on your own. No one is ever done learning, so hiring managers will want to see that you’re not afraid to take on new challenges.”

Starting out in content design: useful resources

Book coverConversational Design
by Erika Hall LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 01 Jan 2018

Research and information design expert Erika Hall explains what makes an interaction truly conversational and how to get more comfortable using language in design.

Book coverHow to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody
by Abby Covert LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 04 Nov 2014

Each chapter contains a set of lessons as well as workbook exercises architected to help you. There’s a free online copy of Abby Covert’s book available too.

Clinching that content design role

You’ve decided to go for that content designer role. Great.

But do you know exactly how to prepare for the recruitment process?

Putting your best foot forward is important when pursuing a new job, so we asked our senior content designers to think of their own personal experiences and how they’d prepare for a content design role if they were planning on moving jobs tomorrow...

Photo of Helen Lawson
Helen LawsonLead content designer at Co-op

If you were applying for a new content design role right now, how would you prepare?

“I would research the company I was applying to, and I would want to understand what they do and why they do it. And I'd want to be sure about my own reasons about I applying to work there.

“I like to get to know the people that work there and would always check the 'About us' bit of their site; maybe having a cheeky look at their LinkedIn profiles too(!) or just Googling them.

“This research wouldn’t need to necessarily be brought up in the interview, it’s just for you to know.

“I've sat in on a few interviews, and it does show if interviewees haven't done their research.”

Photo of Andy Welfle
Andy WelfleCo-author of Writing Is Designing. Building a UX content strategy practice at Adobe.

If you were applying for a new content design role right now, how would you prepare?

“If I was applying for a role based on what I know now, I’d definitely do research about that team’s organizational structure as part of my prep.

“It’s something that didn’t even occur to me to care about for a long time, but now I realize that it could mean the difference between success or failure, whether or not I am supported in my role and able to make an impact, or if I’ll be automatically set up for failure and destined to be a glorified text string-writing factory.

“Success could mean something very different from company to company - and for my goals and strengths - but generally, I know that I want to work in a team that:

  • Sits with the design team

  • Is organized in a way where we’re not a service layer to the designers; we can embed on product teams and have enough autonomy to say ‘no’ to work when we need to

  • Considers content design a ‘design discipline’, and therefore a content designer is paid like a designer

  • Is led by a VP of Design or a Chief Design Officer who has been documented or proven to understand the value of content design.”

Photo of Rachel McConnell
Rachel McConnellAuthor, co-founder of Tempo, content design manager at BT

If you were applying for a new content design role right now, how would you prepare?

“I would definitely spend time looking at the brand's website or app and have a good view on what I would change about it, or what I would want to investigate further. I would never say 'it's great as it is' because the hiring manager will be looking for someone with ideas and informed opinions.

“I'd also think about everything I want to know about the culture and the company. For example:

  • How is the team structured?

  • Where do they sit in the organisation?

  • What potential is there to be part of the discipline growth?

“I'd also want to ask the interviewers what they like or dislike about working there. This is as much an opportunity to work out if the job is right for me.

Photo of Ben Barone-Nugent
Ben Barone-NugentContent Design & Product | Google, Netflix, Facebook

If you were applying for a new content design role right now, how would you prepare?

“There's something I've been doing ever since I first started out as a copywriter, and I still do it to this day. I visualize the interview, imagine all the possible questions I could be asked, and I write them out.

“Once I've done that, I quickly write out how I'd answer them. I try to picture myself in the interview answering the questions. This has always meant I've had an answer ready to go, and I feel more confident going in.

“I try to answer questions with examples, and this helps me have a bunch of anecdotes from my career ready to go.

“Interviews can be really nerve-wracking! One thing I'd encourage everyone to keep in mind is that it's ok to pause and think about your answer or what you want to say next. I'll often say, "great question" and take a few moments to think about how to respond. This shows maturity, care, and confidence in how you engage with people, so don't let it rattle you.”

Like many other design roles, it’s essential that content designers regularly deploy a large range of specialist skills to get the job done. So, if you’re planning to go through the application/interview process for a new role, it’s going to be crucial to be aware of and understand the kind of skillset your potential employer is looking for.

We turned to our content design experts to ask their opinions on what they look for when they’re interviewing – but also, how they want you to show them what you’ve got to offer!

Plus, is there anything ‘extra’ you can do to help you gain the edge on your competition? Read on to find out.

Photo of Helen Lawson
Helen LawsonLead content designer at Co-op

What skills do you believe make a content designer stand out during an interview process?

“Show a real interest and passion in content design.

“Show that you have a love of words and of making them clear and understandable above all else.

“Show that you will fight to get it right for the person using the service you're designing.

“Show that you want to consider who they are, where they are and their state of mind when using your service and put that first.

“Be confident, kind and interested.”

Photo of Andy Welfle
Andy WelfleCo-author of Writing Is Designing. Building a UX content strategy practice at Adobe.

What skills do you believe make a content designer stand out during an interview process?

“The thing that always stands out to me is a candidate’s systems thinking skills.

“If you’re reviewing a message with them, do they:

  • Think about the bigger picture and the system that it lives in?

  • Consider how changing language affects other parts of the experience?

  • Think about how terminology and action words might be used or introduced to the user earlier or later (or at all)?

  • Ask about the audience and their perspective?

“To me this shows that they’re not just thinking about what words to write, but they’re thinking about how those words solve problems.

Photo of Rachel McConnell
Rachel McConnellAuthor, co-founder of Tempo, content design manager at BT

What skills do you believe make a content designer stand out during an interview process?

“To stand out, content designers have to demonstrate to me that they can think more broadly than just the page or feature right in front of them. It's great if they can talk about how they've worked cross-functionally to successfully solve a problem – for example, with call centre teams or marketing – to show that joined-up thinking really translates into how they work.

“I also want to know how they go about breaking down their work – can they explain the process they go through to get from an idea to their final designs?

“What also often stands out to me is the difference between people who can confidently say all the right words at a surface level – such as ‘communication’, ‘collaboration’, ‘user-centred’, ‘data-informed decisions’ – and those who can really go into depth with their answers to prove they know what they're talking about.

“I also like it when someone shows a real passion for the job they're applying for. Passion and potential are a winning combination.”

Photo of Ben Barone-Nugent
Ben Barone-NugentContent Design & Product | Google, Netflix, Facebook

What skills do you believe make a content designer stand out during an interview process?

“For me, it's always about clearly understanding their work. ‘What did you contribute, how did you guide things, what were the challenges, and what did you learn?’

“It's essential to see a cohesive story about the work; think a ‘beginning’, ‘middle’, and ‘end’. ‘Where did the project start?’, ‘How did you solve the problems?’, ‘What were the end results/outputs?’

“Candidates who nail these things really stand out for me.”

Clinching that content design role: useful resources

Accelerating your progression as a content designer

If you’ve been working in a content design position for a year or more, you might have thought about your next move up the ladder. So, what should you be bearing in mind and working on if you’re looking to progress to a more senior role in future?

These content designers from Shopify, Instagram, HubSpot, Duolingo and CapGemini reveal what they’ve generally observed in the industry - and what they think made the difference in terms of their own progression.

Photo of Elizabeth McGuane
Elizabeth McGuaneCurrently leading UX for Shopify’s admin and mobile teams

What should someone be thinking about and demonstrating if they want to move into a senior role?

“Being a senior content designer is about two things: ownership and leadership. What it means to ‘take ownership’ varies with how familiar your colleagues are with what you do.

“In a company with an established content design practice, you might own (or co-own) a design project from concept to execution. In other companies, you might need to proactively bring ideas and solutions to the table - even when your colleagues aren’t asking you for those solutions. You're also someone who's comfortable challenging designs that haven’t examined core concepts or haven’t considered the language needs of your audience.

“A senior content designer is also a leader. Not usually because they manage people, but because they mentor other content specialists and become someone people go to for advice — not just about the content in their design, but for clarity in shaping the design.”

Photo of Beth Dunn
Beth DunnContent and Communications at HubSpot

What should someone be thinking about and demonstrating if they want to move into a senior role?

“It’s really no different from how you’d become senior in any role: find ways to have an increasingly positive impact on your customers’ lives.

  • How is what you’re doing adding value for them? How do you know?

  • How do you work with others in your organization — across functions and silos — to create new pathways to help your customers reach their goals?

“As you become more senior (and remember the idea is to start doing more senior work well before you get that more senior title or role), you’ll find ways to drive customer value in increasingly complex and innovative ways.

“I think this is true of any functional Individual Contributor (IC) who aspires to leadership; you need to be able to step outside of your functional mindset as a ‘content person’ and step into the higher altitude view of becoming a ‘customer person’ first.

“When you’re part of an emerging discipline like content, it can be too easy to let all the (important and good) discipline-specific advocacy work you do take you out of the awareness of the fact that the customer’s benefit often derives from a more holistic and multidisciplinary view.

"You have to see content not as an end in itself, but as an integral part of a system that has the customer firmly in the center of gravity. That should be where you feel the most pull."

— Beth DunnTwitter iconTweet this
Photo of Gina Pensiero
Gina PensieroDirector, Content Design at Instagram

What should someone be thinking about and demonstrating if they want to move into a senior role?

“I think, honestly, the answer to this question is somewhat organization-specific and depends on how functions collaborate, how functions are scoped and, at a high level, what your team, company or org is trying to accomplish.

“Generally speaking, some approaches I've seen work across many different kinds of organizations include proactively identifying and seeking out missed or unseen opportunities, working more strategically and independently, and developing skills around influencing or rallying others (or forming working coalitions) in order to solve a problem or hit a goal.

“The core ‘deliverable’ of content design is user-centered writing and information organization, so there's a need to uphold a certain amount of rigor and quality on the work too, of course.

“Related to this: not everyone ascribes to this school of thought, but I believe in coloring outside the functional lines.

“Consider what your team needs and/or what your product may be missing, then consider what skills you have as a content designer and what you think and know as a smart person working in the field.

“How might your unique abilities be able to move the work forward and better the outcome?

“Senior content designers do that very, very effectively.”

Photo of Carole Ray
Carole RaySenior Content Designer at Capgemini

What should someone be thinking about and demonstrating if they want to move into a senior role?

“I think in a senior role, it's already expected you have a very high level of skill and experience – the extra you bring at that level is your strategic thinking and interpersonal skills.

“It's not just a matter of just doing a great job on the content, you also need to be managing client expectations and project deadlines, thinking strategically about what the project/department/company needs now and in the future, and keeping everyone happy and informed.

“I expect a senior to be personable, pragmatic and solution-focused, as well acing all content tasks.”

Photo of Mary van Ogtrop
Mary van OgtropStaff Content Designer at Duolingo

What should someone be thinking about and demonstrating if they want to move into a senior role?

“There’s a lot of discussion in our industry about what defines a content designer vs. a content strategist. But for senior content designers, I expect you to think deeply about and own the content strategy for a feature or product area.

  • What’s the terminology we use to describe something?

  • What actions do we want users (or “learners” at Duolingo) to take?

  • What messaging is proven through testing to best help them take those actions?

“At the senior level, you should think strategically and then make content design decisions — the particular words and their placement — rather than using clever turns of phrase in ad hoc ways screen by screen. Turns out, having a strategy makes writing the words that much easier. I expect senior-level content designers to have already learned that lesson.

“Then, there are presentation skills. Owning your work in the room, thinking about edge cases before someone asks about them, and bringing all your recommendations back to that original content strategy — those skills should come across both in interviews and in your portfolio (you’ve got have a portfolio! That’s recommendation #1).”

As Mary’s just mentioned above, portfolios are important. They can be a big piece of your ‘armoury’, whether you’re a candidate looking for a junior role, or an experienced content designer going for an internal promotion or a new, external senior position.

So, if you’re looking for tips on how to compile and collate an impressive portfolio, look no further as we’ve got our experts from Mastercard, Bumble and Shopify on hand to share their advice.

Photo of Mario Ferrer
Mario FerrerStaff Content Designer at Shopify

For people who have already been working in content design: what advice would you give to someone piecing together/updating their portfolio?

“The first thing I look for when I'm going though portfolios is the structure. That's how I can understand how you are applying content design principles to the portfolio itself.

“I'm also super interested in your process (much more than the final result). I want to understand how you framed the problem to solve, what were the design decisions that took you there, and what were the mistakes you made along the way (yes, mistakes are part of learning and growing in this role). Sure, the nice final interface screens help, but the ‘how the hell you landed there’ is waaay more relevant - at least for me.

“Keep your portfolio clear, concise, and useful because hiring managers have to go through a bunch of them.”

Photo of Candi Williams
Candi WilliamsHead of Content Design at Bumble. Published author.

For people who have already been working in content design: what advice would you give to someone piecing together/updating their portfolio?

“OK. So firstly, start collating your examples of work now. It can be a real blocker otherwise. I know from being on both sides of the hiring fence, and my biggest learning recently has been to keep my own portfolio more up to date so it's not a last-minute rush.

“Apart from that, the most important thing is remembering that your outcomes are as important as your output. Make sure you have rationale as well as screens and visuals. You can keep the format for this simple, such as:

  • Why (problem)

  • What (what you did)

  • Who (who you worked with)

  • How (how you worked) and;

  • So what (impact and results) or problem, solution and results.

“In my opinion, it is more important that you can confidently talk through the rationale, thinking and approach than seeing shiny screens or prototypes.

“Also, don't stress about fancy websites or iPads. Examples of work in any format are fine!”

Photo of Selene De La Cruz
Selene De La CruzDirector, Content Design & Strategy at Mastercard

For people who have already been working in content design: what advice would you give to someone piecing together/updating their portfolio?

“Some of the best portfolio advice I have received is:

It doesn’t have to be ‘real’ work: Not enough previous experience to show in your portfolio? That’s ok! The most important part is to see your process: show how you approached the problem, show iterations and what improved.

“Spec work can also be a great way to showcase a bit of personality. Are you a musician? Maybe rework a specific flow on the Spotify app. Do you love working out? Maybe share how you’d introduce a new feature on the Nike running app.

Include the kind of work that you want to do: Be sure to prioritize projects that highlight the kind of work you want to keep doing – even if it means a smaller portfolio! Hate maintaining style guides? Never want to do another content audit? Lose them.

“Show that you can do the kind of work that you love, and you’ll be asked to do more of it. Focus in on a few strong pieces (with perhaps an honorable mention to your other, less personally enjoyable talents!).

Content design your portfolio: I can’t stress this last point enough. Be clear, concise, and user-oriented.

  • Apply information hierarchy to guide your reviewer to the most important bits of information.

  • Employ the UX writing best practices of simple sentence structures and active voice.

  • Highlight your process, thinking, and approach.

“To me, this is even more important than any results or smart bits of language. If you can, user test your portfolio with some peers to get feedback before you send it out. Your main goal is to make it easy for a reviewer to see why your work is awesome.”

The brilliant thing about working in content (no pun intended) is that there are already a multitude of active, bustling content communities out there to engage with.

And being part of one or some of these communities can really help you get noticed. More than that though; it can lead you to new connections, useful knowledge-sharing opportunities, and even provide a helpful ‘heads up’ on an interesting new role somewhere…

But how (and where) should you look to get involved? How can you become more visible in this industry?

Our senior content designers share their top tips for those of you looking to start conversations and forge new bonds with your professional peers.

Photo of Helen Lawson
Helen LawsonLead content designer at Co-op

People can struggle to market themselves. What suggestions do you have for those who want to become more visible in the community?

"The content community is growing and growing, and now is a great time to be a part of it."

— Helen LawsonTwitter iconTweet this

“To be more visible you need to go to talks (virtually, these days), and get to know who's out there. You should also:

  • Follow people on Twitter and Medium, but also, start chatting with them.

  • Read other people's blog posts and comment.

  • Write blog posts yourself and share them far and wide.

  • Apply to talk at conferences, you've got nothing to lose.

“Be excited by it and enjoy it. Content people love content people that care about content. And we're all still people just trying to figure it out.”

Photo of Andy Welfle
Andy WelfleCo-author of Writing Is Designing. Building a UX content strategy practice at Adobe.

People can struggle to market themselves. What suggestions do you have for those who want to become more visible in the community?

“It’s simple: Participate in it! Be an authentic, genuine participant. Show your curiosity, and your collaborative spirit. Engage in conversations.

“Content designers are finely tuned to detect people who participate in community events or spaces primarily to sell to them. And if that’s why you’re there, that’s ok too, but you definitely need to participate in good faith as well. Be genuine, honest, curious and friendly, and you’ll stand out.”

Photo of Rachel McConnell
Rachel McConnellAuthor, co-founder of Tempo, content design manager at BT

People can struggle to market themselves. What suggestions do you have for those who want to become more visible in the community?

“I don't think you need to be a daily tweeter or a book author to be visible - but getting involved in content communities is a good start. Join a Slack community, attend some events if you can, and follow other content designers on Twitter. If you're on Twitter, don't be afraid to join in with any content design conversations too.

“Keep your LinkedIn profile up-to-date. A lot of hiring managers start there to search for talent.

“An online portfolio is also very useful so potential employers can see the kind of work you do.

“Also, ‘lightning talks’ at meetups are a great way to get started if you want to raise your visibility. Our UX writers Europe meetup offers a safe space for anyone to speak.

“Consider writing blog posts too if you have time, it's nice to see content designers so passionate about their craft that they spend their free time sharing their knowledge (but it's not essential).

“If I'm hiring for a more junior role, I don't expect someone to be highly visible.

"When hiring for more senior roles, it's always nice to find someone with external influence, because you know they'll also be a big advocate for content within your company."

— Rachel McConnellTwitter iconTweet this

“And most companies need all the help with advocacy they can get.”

Photo of Lizzie Bruce
Lizzie BruceContent strategist, course creator, author

People can struggle to market themselves. What suggestions do you have for those who want to become more visible in the community?

“Writing a blog post is a great way to join the conversation and build connections through contribution. Medium is hugely popular and allows you to tag, and tap into, existing topics. You can also request to be published by a publication that uses that platform, like UX Collective.

“You might think you don’t have anything new to say, but you’d be surprised how much nuance each person can bring through their own observations! In user-centred design, transparency is a big thing and people are very used to people writing honestly about things that slow them down, confuse them or otherwise find difficult - so you can really take it from any angle.

Twitter has a very strong content community. Following and using hashtags like #ContentDesign #ContentStrategy #UserCentredDesign #Accessibility #ProductDesign and #ServiceDesign will help you find discussions to join in with, or you can just ‘Like’ or retweet stuff to start with, until you feel more confident.

“Twitter also has great regular group content chats like #ContentClubUK. Or you could concentrate on finding content designers working in your sector and following them.

“Look out for meetups too, there are several content design, service design and user research ones. These tend to be affordable and a good way of connecting on a person-to-person basis.

“The Content + UX Slack Group is a brilliant professional community, and LinkedIn has become more social lately.

“Lastly, while not necessarily making you any more visible, keeping up to date on content thinking with some regular reading, like the Scroll newsletter and Lauren Pope’s 'Ten Things', can make you feel more connected. Plus, you’ll learn some great things to share; thus being even more valuable when you are visible!

Photo of Ben Barone-Nugent
Ben Barone-NugentContent Design & Product | Google, Netflix, Facebook

People can struggle to market themselves. What suggestions do you have for those who want to become more visible in the community?

“Great question! I actually don't think visibility in the community pays off as much as you expect. The things that have gotten me great jobs weren't conference talks or publishing articles - it was having a solid portfolio of work and telling a good story about my journey.

“In that sense, I think a really neat portfolio website, a polished LinkedIn profile, and a solid resume are more important.

“Networking also helps, and that's where the community has a real role to play. Going to meetups is a great place to start - especially in this new virtual world. I'm pretty ‘gonzo’ about things, so I just like to reach out to people that I admire (and there's a lot of them!) and ping old friends and co-workers to stay in touch.

“From my end, I've literally never not loved hearing from someone out of the blue -so don't be nervous, just reach out. We love it!”

Accelerating your progression as a content designer: useful resources

General advice for content designers

So far, we’ve received a plethora of super useful tips and advice from our industry experts on topics such as:

Now it’s time to take a deep dive into some personal insight from our content design experts.

What have they learned from their own professional experiences?

Have their expectations of the content designer role matched with the reality of being a content designer?

And what would career advice would they give themselves if they could go back in time?

Photo of Elizabeth McGuane
Elizabeth McGuaneCurrently leading UX for Shopify’s admin and mobile teams

Are there any expectations you had about this career path that you have found different to reality, in either a good or negative way?

“The job didn’t really exist when I started working in design and UX. I started working as a manager of a team of writers, so I can’t say that I had specific expectations, but my understanding of my job has matured over time.

I definitely had imposter syndrome and didn’t think of myself as a designer for a long time - even when I was extolling the importance of content in design. I found that when I started to think of content design as an equal partner, rather than a supporting role, it freed me to just contribute, rather than worrying about my seat at the table.

“This wasn’t just an internal change; reality changed around me as content design started to become an accepted discipline in UX - but my perspective changed as well. The change had to happen inside and outside.”

Photo of Beth Dunn
Beth DunnContent and Communications at HubSpot

Are there any expectations you had about this career path that you have found different to reality, in either a good or negative way?

“Not really, since the career path sort of ‘grew up around me’, while I was in flight.

“I didn’t have any expectations because it was only in retrospect that I realized I was in the middle of the emergence of this fresh discipline.

“I think I had more expectations around what start-up life would be like; that it was always a grind, that the famous ‘hustle culture’ was unavoidable, that I’d have to change myself to fit into a more aggressive, extroverted, ‘elbows out’ sort of mold than I’m comfortable with.

“I’m delighted to say that that old type of start-up/tech culture — while certainly still present in places — has largely (I’ve found) been discredited and discarded in favor of a far more humane, balanced, and inclusive culture that, frankly, fits me to a tee.”

Photo of Gina Pensiero
Gina PensieroDirector, Content Design at Instagram

"One of the beautiful things about content design is that it's still a young discipline."

— Gina PensieroTwitter iconTweet this

Are there any expectations you had about this career path that you have found different to reality, in either a good or negative way?

“The drawback around this is that we have to do a lot of education about what it is, how it works, how it adds value to organizations, etc. I think across the board, the fact that the discipline is still so nascent can lead people to not feel included sometimes - to have to fight for a seat at the table because the discipline is so new.

“I've seen this, to some extent, at every company I've worked at in my time in content design/content strategy.

“The upside though is that we still have the opportunity to define our discipline and find new ways for it to add value to a design process. We can be the ones who help our partners understand the power of content in a product context, which is an incredible opportunity.”

Photo of Carole Ray
Carole RaySenior Content Designer at Capgemini

Are there any expectations you had about this career path that you have found different to reality, in either a good or negative way?

“I definitely assumed people who hired a content designer actually wanted you to do content design – that's often not the case! But with patience and openness, you can usually win them over once they see the value that good content design adds.”

Photo of Mary van Ogtrop
Mary van OgtropStaff Content Designer at Duolingo

Are there any expectations you had about this career path that you have found different to reality, in either a good or negative way?

“I’ve realized my dream of getting paid to write words, but it’s not always the look-dreamily-out-the-window lifestyle I’d envisioned when I was studying literature in college.

“My work involves a lot of ‘creating structure’. I spend a whole lot of time in spreadsheets and in conversations around process and operations. But all that structure sets my content design colleagues and me up to do that creative, look-dreamily-out-the-window work.

“Constraints always help art take shape, in the same way that users can better enjoy content and take action when it takes a structured form. So, spreadsheets and meetings! They’re the scaffolding that allows creative, impactful work to get done. In Duolingo’s case, it’s helping people access high-quality education all over the planet — and so I love them.”

Photo of Elizabeth McGuane
Elizabeth McGuaneCurrently leading UX for Shopify’s admin and mobile teams

If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice early in your career, what would that be?

“It’s not your job to train people in content design; there’s a difference between problem-solving and instruction.

“I started my career very early on in the ‘visibility’ of content strategy and content design as a practice, and I thought it was my job to educate everyone around me about what content design was.

“Now I see that there’s a fine balance - it’s my job to bring solutions to the table. If people learn about content design by working with me, that’s great. But it’s not my job to educate them, any more than it’s an engineer’s job to teach me to code.

“My job as a designer is to identify problems and solve them, using the tools and expertise I have.”

Photo of Gina Pensiero
Gina PensieroDirector, Content Design at Instagram

If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice early in your career, what would that be?

“This is not necessarily strictly career-related, but I think it applies to career too: follow your curiosity.

“It's understandable that people are performance-oriented and want to do well (I've certainly had that as a core driver at times in my life, too), but I've found that focusing on what interests you about something, asking a lot of questions, fully understanding all the complexities… those are the aspects of work that keep things interesting and help you succeed.

“And if you don't succeed, at least you're learning and growing; at least it's interesting. In our hyper goal-oriented culture, we are always trying to get somewhere we want to go. But getting where you want to go might not feel how you want it to feel.

“Over the years, I've found it's better to focus on learning and growing - which is sometimes very uncomfortable, and can be unpleasant, but has better long-term upside.”

Photo of Carole Ray
Carole RaySenior Content Designer at Capgemini

If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice early in your career, what would that be?

“Take more risks. It's easy to get comfortable when you love what you're doing and the company you work for, but you really only grow with change.”

“I was pushed into contracting, for example, but in hindsight I wish I'd done it earlier. Realising I had the skills and confidence to hit the ground running in any contract, situation or organisation was a real turning point in my career.”

Photo of Aladrian Goods
Aladrian GoodsSenior Content Designer at Intuit

If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice early in your career, what would that be?

“Listen, you have time. You don’t need to solve all the problems in ‘30’, ‘60’, ‘90 days’ - or ever.

“Focus on the most important work (core customer problems and top business priorities), and do it well.

Photo of Lizzie Bruce
Lizzie BruceContent strategist, course creator, author

If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice early in your career, what would that be?

“Probably the most useful, practical – and perhaps very obvious – piece of advice I’d have would be to keep a record of your work for your portfolio.

“Take screenshots and document your contribution, and how that made a difference to the overall design. Write about the biggest content blockers the project came up against and how they were overcome - or what constraints this meant you worked with and around.

“Consider turning your project documentation into a blog, for easy sharing, and also so you have a good point of reference about the project‘s barriers and wins for your future self.

“I don’t think I’d ever have been disciplined enough for Weeknotes, but a good download after each project could have been incredibly valuable - and cathartic too!”

Photo of Mary van Ogtrop
Mary van OgtropStaff Content Designer at Duolingo

If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice early in your career, what would that be?

“First, grab project files, high-quality screenshots, wireframes, initial drafts, user testing results… all the things that help tell the story of how a project went from an idea to a finished product.

“Second, make time when a project’s done to turn those files into a case study for your portfolio. As a minimum, jot down the key storylines from the project and the role you played. Better to do it now than later when you’re applying for a job and don’t quite remember.

“Take it from someone who started their career in 2005; don’t let your work get lost to time, and the whims of the internet.”

General resources for content designers

  • Value of content design to your business Read about the business benefits and how best to convince an organisation that the content design role is needed.

  • UX Writing Library A library of useful resources - whether you’ve already got oodles of professional experience or not.

  • The Content and UX Slack Group Join more than 10,000 content and content-adjacent professionals who support each other, share knowledge and understanding, and help shape the field of content strategy

Book coverContent Design
by Sarah Winters LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 05 Aug 2017

Discover the power of designing completely user-based content, grounded not on what organisations think their users want, but on the needs, actions, and motivating forces of your site visitors.

Book coverWhy you need a content team and how to build one
by Rachel McConnell LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 06 Nov 2018

Understand your content maturity and how to increase it. Discover the different content roles and the nuances between them. Find out how best to build your team.

Book coverStrategic Writing for UX: Drive Engagement, Conversion, and Retention with Every Word
by Torrey Podmajersky LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 09 Jul 2019

A practical book about how to write strategically for UX and use tools to build foundational pieces for UI text and UX voice strategy.

Book coverWriting Is Designing: Words and the User Experience
by Michael J. Metts LinkedIn icon Twitter icon and Andy Welfle LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 14 Jan 2020

This book will show you how to give your users clarity, test your words, and collaborate with your team.

Book coverContent Strategy for the Web (Voices That Matter)
by Kristina Halvorson LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 10 Feb 2012

This second edition is an essential guide for anyone who works with content.

Book coverMicrocopy: The Complete Guide
by Kinneret Yifrah LinkedIn icon Published 23 Jan 2019

The book includes principles, practical tips, and dozens of screenshots from actual sites and apps of corporations, start-ups and SMBs.

About the author
Photo of Fi Shailes
Fi ShailesLinkedIn iconTwitter iconDigital Drum

Alongside Fi's full-time role as a social strategist, she freelances part-time; writing content and articles for the likes of Working In Content, GatherContent, The CMI and Better Marketing. She has also edited the Digital Drum Blog for over five years. It won a UK Blog Award in 2019.

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