A guide to content design for charities, nonprofits, and the third sector

Learn what content design is, why it matters to third sector organisations, and how to implement it with this comprehensive guide.
A team of people stand at a whiteboard designing content together

Despite proven benefits in the government, health, and technology sectors, content design hasn’t been widely adopted by the third sector. In this guide to content design, I’ll explain what content design is, why it’s crucial, and show you how to start implementing its principles. We’ll explore how content design can improve user experience, clarify your content, and support data-driven decision-making. Finally, I’ll provide practical tips on how you can begin applying these concepts, even with limited resources.

What content design is

Content design is the practice of creating and organising content to meet the needs of users in a clear and accessible way. It involves:

  • Researching user needs
  • Structuring information for clarity
  • Writing for simplicity and accessibility
  • Presenting content in the most appropriate formats and channels

It’s an approach to creating content, a set of skills and ways of working. It can also be a designated role (but it doesn’t have to be).

Content design started in the UK’s Government Digital Service. Sarah Winters – who now leads Content Design London – is the founding figure. Content design is now embedded in governments, healthcare, and tech companies the world over. It was one of the 10 fastest-growing job titles on LinkedIn in 2022.

Why content design matters

Content design matters because it will lead to a better experience for the people who use your services, and better performing content and services. Now let’s unpack that further:

  • More user-centric content and services: content design will increase your focus on the user, their needs, and reducing barriers to understanding, engagement, and action
  • Clearer content: content design is all about creating content that’s clear and easy to understand
  • More readable, accessible content: readability and accessibility are big areas of focus within content design
  • More data and research-driven decision-making: content design is evidence-based, using data, insight, and testing to make decisions about content

I think it’s relevant to all organisations. But I think there’s a special relevance for the third sector. We’re focused on building digital experiences that meet user needs and make change. And if we’re not doing content design, we’re missing out on a very important tool to help us do that work brilliantly.

There are some key kinds of content and digital activity where content design is especially beneficial, too:

  • Services and products: Content design can really help digital services and products. This includes things like donation and booking processes, web chat, forms, or anything else people interact with.
  • Advice and information: If you provide advice and information content to help users, content design will make that content user-focused, clear, and actionable.
  • Campaigns: If you’re campaigning or trying to influence people, content design can make your message clear, and make the process of taking action simpler.

The state of content design in the sector

There’s some exciting adoption of content design in the sector, but these organisations are pioneers, rather than the norm.

GOV.UK and the NHS provided inspiration and lots of practical tools and learnings that have had a big influence on parts of the sector, in particular larger and service- or product-focused organisations. There’s a small but growing list of charities with content designers on staff, including Shelter, Scope, Action for Children, Parkinson’s UK, and British Heart Foundation. There are many universities with content design teams, and some larger museums and galleries. There are other organisations hiring agencies, consultants, and contractors to fill a content design-shaped hole in a specific project.

But in the wider nonprofit sector, there are fewer examples. I speak to nonprofit content people day in and day out, and very few have content designers on staff or content design principles and practices embedded. And there are plenty that have not heard of content design in any capacity.

How it’s different to other disciplines

Part of the problem with adoption is people can get confused about how content design works with digital, design, marketing, and communications.

There are three areas in particular where I see that confusion manifesting:

  1. User experience design: Content design and UX design both use user research and work on designing digital experiences. But content design focuses on designing information, while UX design focuses on visual and interaction design. You need both to create a great experience.
  2. Content strategy: Content design and content strategy are both focused on creating content that meets user needs and supports organisational goals. The big difference is the scope. Content strategy provides the overarching plan and governance for an organisation’s content. Meanwhile, content design focuses on crafting user-centric content within specific products or services. A content designer might never write a line of content, because they’re focusing their time on planning, stakeholder management, processes, governance, operations, and more. But again, they’re complementary disciplines that work together. Read my guide to content strategy for charities.
  3. Content marketing: Content marketing focuses on creating content to attract customers, drive leads, and support sales. It is primarily a marketing function focused on ‘push’ content. Content design aims to develop solutions that address users’ problems, make content accessible and usable, and improve the user experience. Content marketers can adopt content design practices to enhance their content.

Content design complements all these areas. The key is collaboration and getting comfortable with working across silos.

10 content design practices

For me, the practice of content design is characterised by 10 main practices:

1. Think ‘design content’ and not ‘write copy’

The most important one. Here, I’m paraphrasing Sarah Winters in Content Design, where she writes “Instead of saying ‘How shall I write this?’, you say ‘What content will best meet this need?’’’ 

2. Start with a user need

The idea for a piece of content starts with a clear idea of why the user needs this information or service. 

The GOV.UK Service Manual has a great guide to learning about users and their needs.

3. Make evidence-based decisions

Look for evidence rather than going on gut feelings. That evidence could be research insights, analytics, previous relevant experience, or learnings from other organisations.

Jack Garfinkel’s post about making decisions based on evidence is a great case study with useful examples.

4. Structure content for clarity

Content is structured and presented in the simplest, most straightforward way for easy comprehension and task completion.

The Australian Government’s Style Manual has a good basic introduction to structuring content. 

I also like the NHS Design System’s guide to components. And there’s no simpler place to start with structure than the good old inverted pyramid.

5. Use appropriate language

Use language that’s appropriate for the user and easy for them to understand. Consider the emotional impact of your words, too.

The Conscious Style Guide* is a new book from Karen Yin, who has been featured a lot in 10 Things over the years. It provides ​​a roadmap for communicating with sensitivity and awareness – no matter how the world around us progresses.

6. Strive for accessibility and readability

Put a high level of focus on making content that is accessible to all, including people with disabilities. Follow accessibility guidelines, pay attention to readability, and listen to disabled people when they tell you what they need.

The Readability Guidelines by Lizzie Bruce are still hands-down one of the most useful tools around for learning how to write readable, accessible copy.

7. Promote consistency

Maintain a consistent voice and style across all your content. Build a style guide that gives clear direction on how to do things, from your brand voice to the right way to write link text.

Rob Mills has a great detailed post looking at the anatomy of Mailchimp’s excellent style guide.

8. Seek out feedback

Get and give feedback on content to improve the quality. Content critique sessions are a great way to do this.

There’s an excellent post by Dominic Warren about accepting edits and feedback.

9. Iterate and improve

Continuously improve your content based on analytics, testing, and feedback. Implement a cycle of regular reviews and updates.

Shelter’s Digital Framework includes an interesting section on the content lifecycle and how iteration fits into that.

10. Collaborate across your organisation

Take a collaborative approach to content. Work closely with different teams like design, UX, development, fundraising, and more to make sure content is cohesive.

One of my favourite reads on collaboration is Beth Dunn’s book, Cultivating Content Design.

Implementing content design

Even if you’re sold on the promise of content design, the idea of‌ implementing it can be daunting.

One implementation option is to build a dedicated content design team. But that’s going to take a high level of buy-in, a reorg, lots of money, and a whole lot of work.

The more pragmatic approach is to adopt the mindset and principles, and just start doing it. You don’t need to have the job title. You don’t need to have a qualification. There shouldn’t be any gatekeeping with content design. There are some incredible free and low-cost resources out there to help you learn the basics (see the reading list at the end of this article).

The important thing is to take other people on the journey with you. Share what you learn, share the best practice, share the impact you make. You could even build a community of practice of people who are working with content or are content-adjacent and go on the journey together.

Reading list

Content Design, second edition, Sarah Winters and Rachel Edwards

What is content design, Content Design London

Cultivating Content Design, Beth Dunn

A guide to content design, Shelter

Readability Guidelines, Content Design London/Lizzie Bruce

Content guide, NHS

Content design: planning, writing and managing content, GDS  

Why content design is important for your charity, Catalyst

Content service thinking, Lauren Pope

Key takeaways

  • Content design involves researching user needs, structuring information for clarity, writing for simplicity and accessibility, and presenting content in appropriate formats and channels.
  • Content design leads to a better user experience, clearer and more readable content, and more data-driven decision-making.
  • Content design is beneficial for services and products, advice and information, and campaigns.
  • Content design can be implemented in a pragmatic way by adopting the mindset and principles and starting to apply them.

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