It began with a pandemic.
At Edgar Allan, we’ve been working from home since March 16, 2020 (with any day before that heretofore known as “the beforetimes”). Like the rest of the world, we had no idea we’d be cobbling together offices in our homes for this long, and we’ve had to make some adjustments for sure. But one thing helped a bunch that we never expected: embracing a culture of Content Design
When we moved all of Edgar Allan’s operations virtual, it felt a bit like driving off a cliff. We’re a small group with a focus on flexibility and a directive to treat our employees like responsible adults. So, we had always allowed employees to work from home when they needed to, but like most companies, we’d never had everyone work from home at the same time. It was kind of scary.
We cycled through all the typical fears:
- How will projects get finished on time?
- What if we can’t find someone when we really need them?
- How will we know everyone is focused and working on the right things if we can’t see them heads-down with our own eyes?
But if that wasn’t enough, we also had some deeper, existential crises:
- How do we stay a close, effective team when we can’t see each other face-to-face?
- How do we keep up morale?
- How do we keep making great work without many of our normal modes of communication, like popping over to someone’s desk, impromptu coffee walks and working something out informally over lunch?
Yeah, these fears aren’t unique to us — they’re the things that pretty much everyone had to muddle through over the past year. Within our small team, we implemented a few things that helped (open and closed-door indicators on Slack, bi-weekly socially distanced outdoor meetups at a city park, zoom happy hours with beverage delivery, among others…), but one of the most surprisingly helpful things we did was start focusing on content design.
One of the best things we did in 2020 to smooth over the remote work transition was adopt a culture of content design.
Content Design is entirely built on communication and collaboration between people in very different but connected roles: strategy, UX, writing and design. As such, the content design process doesn’t allow for a lot of radio silence between team members. Since no person can do all four jobs at once (I mean, if you can, for sure send your resume our way.), there just isn’t a lot of tolerance for quietly doing one’s part. While quiet is fine at times, remote work sneakily invites not just heads-down focus but increasing distance between team members if you’re not careful. We wanted to preserve our collaborative culture. So, we became more careful and started building that connection into not just the process but how we approach the work.
Here’s some things we do now. Tomorrow, we might do them differently. Something else we’re learning? Refining the process is part of the process. Always.
Everybody in the Pool
Our design director coined this phrase when describing how Figma allows everyone from our team and our clients’ teams to pile into the design and UX files to comment and view things in browser and in progress. The Content Design process has us all floating around in various shared documents throughout the process. One new way and really productive way we collaborate however is by pair writing.
In pair writing a content designer pairs up with someone else — maybe another content designer or a UX designer — and the two work together to write the same thing at the same time. Maybe it’s headlines or a site outline, or a block of particularly technical text. The pair goes back and forth, editing and refining, blurting out ideas and back-spacing. Google docs work great for this. At first it’s uncomfortable, but it also makes great work, since two brains really are better than one.
You don’t have make the leap to something like pair writing however to see how the content design process can improve distance work. We used to do brand sprints and other brainstorming sessions in person, in a room with physical sticky notes and giant Post-it pads. We also used to do big exploratory meetings around the center table in our physical office. But today, we really like to use Mural (maybe even more than we like the old, in-person way honestly). It’s just so easy to get participation from a group, simple to get lots of ideas out in a short period of time, and it’s all captured beautifully; no need to decipher cruddy handwriting.
In our process, we invite our clients to Content Discovery sessions in Mural where we walk them through a hand-picked variety of exercises and we still do brand sprints that get everyone from CEOs to client-side creatives talking about their brands, but we’re also using virtual brainstorms more internally too. Next: I want to incorporate them into crits…stay posted for what happens there.
Cultivating Beginner’s Mind
We’ve worked to make the processes, order of events and basic guardrails of the content design process pretty straightforward, but with an undercurrent of “if it’s not working, change it!” that belongs to everyone on the team. That combination allows new people to say “Hey, I’ve never done this before. How should this work?” and get a clear answer quickly. It also gives old pros the chance to say “We always do it this way, but I have a better idea,” and immediately have permission to make a change.
Call it freedom within a framework or cultivating a “beginner’s mind,” it’s all about knowing that we’re all working outside of our comfort zones and making it up as we go along. The next big change might be one we make ourselves, or it might be pushed on us by circumstance, but if we work on it together, even if we’re apart, we’re going to do better than if we go it alone.
We’re hardly done. So. Many. Questions. (And so much more to tell you.) So, come back and read more as we figure Content Design out together.