Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Illustrating Content Strategy

Marcel Duchamp - Nude Descending a Staircase

Above is my favorite painting by Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2.

Conceptually, it’s simple. But describe it out loud. Preferably, do it to a person across the table, and watch their eyes shift nervously as you talk about the gold/brown/flesh colors, angular line technique, incongruent staircases, overlapping legs and torso, lack of heads, and weird inside-out light. Suddenly, the difference between telling and showing is stark.

Describing Abstractions

Out of context, the words make no sense. Trying to describe abstractions is often a circular, frustrating activity because no matter how articulate your delivery, the mind’s eye of your audience is trying to formulate a picture of what you are saying.

Humans are painfully reliant on vision to understand ideas. It is our prime mechanism for rationalization. (“Seeing is believing.”)

This is our challenge when describing content strategy to a client. We’re using words to describe words. We’re breathlessly elucidating how key messages woven into campaign landing pages reinforce the tiered brand architecture developed to establish a hierarchical path to introductory- and deeper-funnel stage content and how this all addresses the lack of customer-centric messaging discovered during the audit. Most likely, you’re gesturing wildly at this point, drawing boxes and lines in the air and maybe making airplane noises.

Some clients will understand this. If they’re educated in writing, or marketing, or just the value of consistency and clarity, they’ll try to follow along. If they’re nice, they’ll nod. But they still don’t see it.

Diagram Content Ideas

To get humans to truly buy into an idea, show them the idea.

This does not have to be complex. In fact, simpler is almost exclusively better. Boxes and lines, some triangles and a circle, a smattering of color, a pictogram or two; impressionistic versus high-resolution. Think water lilies, not garden of earthly delights.

The point is to illustrate a content concept, not paint a picture that needs to be described. Supportive graphics, not infographics.

Some examples from my last year:

Brand Architecture
Example 1: Brand story. This is an extremely simple diagram that shows three messaging components, separate but intrinsically linked, and where each moves through the Anecdotal, Emotional and Intellectual layers of a brand. Alone, not much; when used as a reference graphic, invaluable. (Done in PowerPoint.)
Map of a PowerPoint Presentation
Example 2: Mapping a presentation. This gives guidance on how company representatives can use a standardized deck when talking to prospects. Some slides are mandatory, others optional, some can even be customized. The concept was a river everyone follows, but some may need to explore certain tributaries depending on their audience. (Also done in PowerPoint, with great refinements by a co-worker.)
Illustrated Site Map
Example 3: Detailed sitemap. We’re all familiar with boxes-and-lines sitemaps. They are very useful. This tried to bring an extra layer of detail by including rough thumbnails of the various templates in use, emphasizing landing pages, and color-coding writer responsibilities. It served as a go-to graphic to answer the big question “What content will this site have and who’s writing it?” Very useful for executives. (Done in Illustrator.)

The medium doesn’t much matter, as long as you’re rehearsed. Whiteboards can be powerful, but PowerPoint is just fine. If you are savvy in the ways of Adobe, Illustrator can offer more precise layout tools. Whatever.

The goal is to complement and enhance. If faces around the conference table don’t light up like Christmas decorations, you missed.

Unintended Side Effects

Here’s the bonus part. As you sketch your content concepts, clarity will come to the very idea itself. Because you’re now trying to package the ideas into different mediums, you’re forced to examine little angles, nooks, arguments and assumptions that might have been glossed over by simply talking. Ideally, this visual take provides an internalized first-pass vetting.

When you’re done, your strategy should be crisper. Clarity, brevity and sincerity is what we’re after, which is why sketching all of your important content strategy concepts — whether you intend on sharing the sketch or not — can become invaluable to the process.

But if they can be shared, do so. When communicating your idea, everything in your arsenal should be brought to bear.

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commentary + criticism

Matt Mehlhope

wrote the following on Sunday December 30, 2012

I envy the fact that content strategy goes into your decision making process when developing the site. We often get asked to, “Make it awesome, build it fast, have it work on everything,” with the time and resources to accomplish any two (sometimes fewer).

In projects where content strategy is considered at the beginning of a development process, I’ve found that you accomplish all three objectives not only much quicker, but the communication process along the way is significantly less painful. Business owners can approve of the content and the development team can more quickly and accurately create the visual and/or interactive experience.

Unfortunately, like many things in the software/web industries, these concepts and processes are new, while the old and inefficient remain dominant.

Rachel Lovinger

wrote the following on Monday December 31, 2012

I love this idea, but my first thought was “how do you know which concepts need to be illustrated?” Especially concepts like your first example. I tend to sketch diagrams when I need to explain something to my team members, but these rarely make it to a polished form, to be presented to a client, usually because I feel like they’re too vague and probably won’t communicate anything useful. Maybe, like visual artists do, I just need to practice sketching every day.


wrote the following on Saturday January 5, 2013

Rachel, this is an excellent question.

To me, even the simplistic visual ideas can help convey a message. Think about a whiteboard. If I give everyone a piece of paper with a circle on it, I get blank stares. But if I draw a circle on a whiteboard (or via PowerPoint), and explain concepts with it, then suddenly even the most basic drawing is with 1000 words.

However, context is everything here. If the visual is going to be a deliverable unto itself, then detail matters and being discriminating about which illustrations get produced makes sense.

That being said, I am a big believer in sketching ideas, even if just for myself. My notebook is full of lines, triangle and scribbles I wouldn’t let my best friend see much less a client. :)