Strategic traits of content #1: Purpose

Jeffrey Zeldman famously tweeted back in 2008 “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

I’d like to add:

Purpose precedes content. Content in the absence of purpose isn’t content, it’s masturbation.

Books have purpose. Writers don’t give readers a bunch of pages and then hope they’ll put them in the right order. Cars have purpose. Religions have purpose. In fact, most manmade things have purpose. Sometimes purpose is complex, sometimes it is simple.

Effective web content is no exception. It must have purpose. And the purpose of web content isn’t to be well organized, findable or grammatically correct. Those are just consequences of the purpose. Content has a job to do.

The job is contributing to the creation of “strategic meaning”, as per Axel Albin’s definition (Thanks to Nicole Jones for re-introducing me to communication design and Albin).

Alignment and focus

How well content creates strategic meaning depends primarily on two things: alignment and focus. Misalignment is the mismatch between a visitor’s intent and the content (or site’s) purpose. Like trying to open a can of spinach with a toothbrush. Extreme misalignment is called irrelevance. Basically, it’s a purpose for which there is no real intent – what I call “who cares” content.

Focus is best expressed by the adage “don’t try to be all things to all people”. Poor focus results in either too much content — because you don’t want to miss a purpose — or content that’s too fuzzy — because you want it to be multi-purpose, like a Swiss Army knife.

And this is why one of a content strategist’s most important responsibilities is getting into the design process as early as possible. Because the purpose of a website isn’t solely to be a library, any more than the purpose of a kitchen is to be a storage room for pots, pans and appliances. It is high time that websites aspired to be more than just glorified repositories of passive, aimless content.

Next installment: Staging



  1. Tweets that mention Strategic traits of content #1: Purpose | RICHTEXT -- - October 22, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Agneta Kendall, Richard Thompson. Richard Thompson said: Strategic traits of content #1: Purpose Feel free to RT […]

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