Content Management is Design

Ezequiel Bruni By Ezequiel Bruni  |  Dec. 04, 2018

Content management is design.

I usually try to start an article with some sort of joke or metaphor for flavor, but I’m not going to do that this time. Content management is design, and that’s an important enough concept that it warrants a simple, clear statement, and needs no warm-up time.

I’ll say it again for the people at the back: content management is design, and everyone who does it is a designer.

Good content can carry a bad UI, but no UI can carry bad content

In fact, it is the biggest factor in any user experience besides (perhaps) the navigation. Every word, every picture, and every decision about where all the content goes is a design decision. Good content can carry a bad UI, but no UI can carry bad content that the user finds pointless.

Bold text is a design decision. So is the placement of a link within a paragraph. Everything done in the process of creating and managing content is a design decision.

The writer is therefore a designer. So is the editor. So is whomever decides whether images should be floated to the left, or fill up the width of the container. The client or manager who signs off on content is a designer, too. And they all need the tools to do their job right.

You might be starting to see a pattern in my article, here. Feel free to widen your eyes and hoarsely whisper something like, “It’s all connected. I see it all so clearly, now.” (Well I had to put a joke in somewhere.)

I am hardly the first person to realize this, of course. The design community as a whole has been slowly adapting to this principle in recent years. Most notably, they’ve been producing content management systems that restrict our formatting and layout options so we’ll stop screwing things up.

You think I’m kidding? Look at Medium, and the proliferation of services like it. Instead of the range of options provided by something like TinyMCE, we’re seeing more and more restrictive content editors used in an effort to make all the content look equally good. Further along this end of the spectrum, we come to CMSs that use nothing but plain old Markdown. It’s an approach that simultaneously limits our design options, but allows us to focus on the writing itself, and nothing more.

This, of course, does not entirely solve the problem of poorly designed content. If you’ve handed your client control of their site, you can’t stop them from typing in all caps, even if you strip out all other formatting options.

I contend that stripping away control is not what is best for the Internet

I truly do understand the impulse to strip away control in favor of simplicity. Making it harder to make bad decisions is a strategy that has served us well in society. For example: a padlock won’t keep a determined thief away from your bike, but it will probably keep an otherwise honest person from riding off with it while they’re drunk.

Perhaps this is just a bit of leftover idealism from my missionary days—or worse, from my Linux obsession days—but I contend that stripping away control is not what is best for the Internet. We should be encouraging web content administrators and creators to be more creative, not less. Yes, that creativity is going to result in mistakes, and even some god-awful websites, but that’s called “the learning process”.

The ’90s and early ’00s might have produced some of our worst-looking work, but even now, we look back on that time with nostalgia and not a little reverence. It’s because that was when the Internet felt creative, personal, and alive.

Of course I’m not advocating the return of auto-playing audio and other horrors best forgotten, lest they be summoned once more by children saying foolish things in front of mirrors. But we need room in our content management systems for a bit more art direction, and personal flair. Above all, we need these two things: beautiful defaults, and education for the people who manage the content.

With all of the recent focus on design systems, the smart designers have already seen the need to include content patterns in the systems. These pre-defined content patterns, the beautiful defaults, should be our bike padlocks, in a way. Instead of being restrictive, though, they rely on our natural laziness. If the text already looks beautiful, why would a user try to format the heck out of it? If the default image embedding looks great, users will feel less of a need to try to shift it all around.

At the same time, these beautiful defaults should allow for flexibility and creativity. WordPress’ new Gutenberg editor really is a step in the right direction, I think. The custom blocks will allow theme developers to implement flexible design patterns for people to choose from, so they can safely express their own creativity. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s not nearly so restrictive as Medium’s editor, and I think that’s a good thing.

Above all, we need these two things: beautiful defaults, and education for the people who manage the content

Of course, that’s all predicated on the idea that people will actually know how to take advantage of that flexibility in a way that doesn’t completely break a page’s design. That’s where education comes in. It’s a time-consuming thing, but it’s already a part of the job description. Paul Boag and others have been preaching about the need to educate your clients for years, and that hasn’t changed.

So yeah, you’ll need to have some long conversations about why italicizing every second word is bad, and they may not listen. That’s not on you. In the end, they should have control of their website, and it’s as simple as that.

Besides, there’s no reason you couldn’t charge extra for an advanced course on how to use their content management system of choice. I never said you should give away your expertise for free.


Featured image via DepositPhotos.