Introducing Elizabeth McGuane
Elizabeth is an independent content strategist, empowering companies all over the world to get the most out of their content. A seasoned writer and speaker, Elizabeth brings a personal and honest perspective to the topics of collaboration and storytelling.
She will be giving a talk at Rebase on Friday October 2nd.
First off - how did you become a content strategist?
Like a lot of people in my discipline, I moved into content strategy from journalism. I was obsessed with the web and how it worked, though I literally didn’t even know what a <p> tag was at this stage. I discovered iQ Content (now Each & Other) and wrote to them — they weren't actually hiring for a writer or a 'content person', but ended up eventually hiring me, as an 'Analyst with responsibility for content services' (content strategy is much shorter).
How does your role work day to day? How does your work overlap with other departments within the organisations you work with?
I'm a consultant, so the day-to-day depends on the project, but that would be the case if I were in an agency or even working in-house because of the nature of content strategy. At the moment, I'm doing a lot of advising on content structures and processes within organisations (of all sizes – one client has a content team of two, the other a communications department of over a dozen). I'm also usually reviewing existing materials and advising on tone of voice and core messages, as they relate to the brand — which sometimes also requires some redefinitions of the brand’s vision and purpose, or conducting some user research, before I create guidelines or structures for content itself.
At the other end of things, I work on content design – creating models and taxonomies for products or websites, then working hand-in-hand with UX and visual designers to create content around which design is shaped (even if it’s just indicative content, though we aim for it to be as 'real' as possible). It's in the modeling and writing that I explore the nuts and bolts of the design, how elements should be structured. From that, we create a thought-through, visually and informationally functional design we can test.
You've worked both freelance and for agencies, and we've heard recently about the so-called 'death of the design agency'. What's been your experience?
This has been in the air since about 2007 or maybe even earlier. There is a real trend of large companies and organisations taking design work in-house — though you’ll find that many of those in-house design teams are supported by agencies and contractors. The thing is, hiring specialists isn’t something a lot of organisations are set up to do. That’s because it’s not just about bringing agency skills like copywriting and design, or even UX and development in-house, it means bringing the methodology and ideals of product design in-house, and to some extent replacing the existing departmental structures with a design-led, user-centred structure. That means changing how the business operates on a fundamental level — or keeping two realities existing under one roof, which leads to waste and friction.
We’re definitely in a transitional time, but I think agencies are doubling down on what they do really well, rather than trying to be all-rounders. While everyone wants to be able to answer every brief, agencies are organisations too, and they have their own legacy structures that make change difficult. Also, as organisations get more design-aware, they know the kind of agency they look to to solve specific problems, and (one would hope) the briefs will get more well-defined and the work more precise. Lots of organisations are still behind, digitally speaking, but agencies can’t go in and sell ‘digital’ as a big idea anymore. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real business problems they can solve.
Content strategist, information architect, UX designer.... As an industry, design seems to be obsessed with defining and specialising these roles. Are they all the same?
Nope, they’re not. But they’re all related. We’re all playing on the same field, but we bring different skills — and different points of view — to the work, which is what matters. As a writer, you only learn certain things (albeit really valuable things) from other writers. When you work with other specialisms, you learn from people who see the same problem in a different way: designers who think in terms of visual elements, interactions and hierarchies, or in terms of informational structures and mental models, or engineers, or product specialists, or researchers. The idea that ‘design’ is one thing, or ever was one thing, is a fallacy. There have always been engineers, and designers, and artists, and writers, and often these people brought their skills together to create one thing. Also, people who try to do too much under one banner can burn out and it’s not fair to expect them to build the ship and shovel the coal and hoist the sails, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors. That said, it also makes sense that people worry about what they should call the work that they do, when the already-intangible edges of the thing they’re working on keep moving.
For myself, I’ve grown to like the different versions of job titles I hear when I go into a new workplace — it’s kind of like picking up bits of a language when you’re traveling. I like to see if I can figure out the nomenclature without having to ask anyone about it.