Design

Don’t try to hire a designer who will also write copy

4 min read
Juli A. Herren  •  Feb 9, 2018
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The job posting appeared innocuous at first. “Wanted: UX designer,” it read. “Strong portfolio and 5-7 years experience required. Responsible for visual design for a wide range of channels. Write all copy.”

Wait, what? “Write all copy” is where this job post turned evil for me. Because if you seek to hire a designer who is also a content creator, you’re doomed to fail.

Here’s why: Designers and content creators possess very different skill sets. Maybe you’re a graphic artist. Maybe you’re an art director, a print designer, or a UX designer. Whatever your design role, you have honed your skills to meet the needs of your market and your users. The same goes for writers.

“Don’t try to hire a designer who will also write copy.”
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To show the folly of hiring one person to fill two roles, let’s turn that job posting around.

Wanted: UX content creator. Strong portfolio and 5-7 years experience required. Responsible for copywriting for a wide range of channels. Create all visual design.

This reads as if design were an afterthought, a throwaway. Which we all know it’s not.

Is it possible to find one talented individual who do could both jobs, and do them extremely well? Sure. They’re called creative directors, and there aren’t many good ones, and they’re earning hefty salaries.

Unless you have the budget for a true creative director, it’s better to hire two skilled people. Don’t try to find one person whose combined skills might be “good enough.” Don’t give your competitors the advantage because their messages are more clear. Don’t disappoint your users with messages that are wordy, confusing, or lame.Twitter Logo

5 things content creators do that designers don’t

Just like designers, content developers must hone their skills to meet the needs of the market—and the user. Count on a skilled content creator to provide these five essentials:

  1. Thoughtful SEO. The right content strategist knows how to incorporate SEO tenets into copy.Twitter Logo This person will understand the realities of search-engine algorithms. Look for a writer who can effortlessly incorporate keywords into a variety of content channels. You want someone who salivates over metadata.
  2. Short, relevant messages. Professional content creators know that one rule reigns: know your audience. This rule applies whether they write CTA microcopy or a long thought-leadership piece. You can’t write copy that’s relevant or resonant if you can’t speak the nuanced language of your audience. Because of allegiance to this one fundamental rule, the best writers were UX before UX was UX.
  3. Brand voice. Which specific combinations of words reflect your brand, and which don’t? Only the seasoned writer knows. “Good enough” writing is never good enough when it comes to branding. Nobody wants to present a message that dilutes the brand. Or flat-out harms it. The best writer will document a style guide as a way to keep messaging on-brand.
  4. “The best writers were UX before UX was UX.”
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  5. Mitigation of legal risk. Sure, you want to show off your offerings to their best advantage. But beware. Words such as superlatives—best, most, easy, fastest—are a great way to get in trouble. Even the word “free” could be fraught with danger. A skilled content creator will make the effort to find out. The best writer will document a style guide as a way to alert colleagues.
  6. Clarity for non-native speakers of your language. Make life easy on users who don’t speak English as their native tongue. Hire a content writer who values the crystalline clarity of a short, strong message. Corporate jargon is the enemy of translated copy.Twitter Logo Business jargon is unacceptable.

What makes a great content creator?

When you send messages using words, two things happen.

  1. You strengthen or weaken your relationship with the user
  2. You strengthen or weaken the authenticity of your brand

Look for a content creator who can shoehorn relevance into 110 characters-with-spaces. In today’s cluttered world of business haiku, every word is precious. Words (like images) have the power to stop your audience in their tracks. Words have the power to make people pay attention. Words communicate value in a way that’s relevant to your audience, in the context of that moment, on that platform.

Hire somebody who can tell a story

“Storytelling” is not some flash-in-the-pan trend. It’s innate to humans. This is why great stories (like great jokes) are lasting. We all want to hear a good story, well told.

Individual storytellers, not surprisingly, come with various levels of skill. The best joke isn’t as funny when the joke teller doesn’t do a good job. Setup, pacing, reveal, and payoff are important, whether you’re telling a joke or telling a story.

Related: You don’t need to lower your rate. Just tell better stories.

The content creator’s goal is clear: to change human behavior using words.Twitter Logo So hire someone who reads. Hire someone who’s observant and articulate. Consider people with an academic background in the dramatic arts; they understand the concept of empathy. They understand storytelling. And they usually like to read.

Hire somebody who can “write short”

Designers are aware that most people have a circumspect relationship with the aesthetics of visual design. “I’ll know the right image when I see it,” your client says, running a finger round his collar, eyes askance. Most people don’t create art every day. But because people use words every day, everybody thinks they can write.

Maybe everybody can write, but I’ll guarantee you that not everybody can “write short.” The fewer words you get to send your message, the more difficult the job becomes. Here’s an exercise that I sometimes use when colleagues say, “It’s only a seven-word headline. How long could that possibly take?”

Think you can write short copy? Take this test.
You have 30 seconds to define the essence of your personal character. You get two words. You can’t use adjectives. Go.

Rare is the person who can complete this exercise in the time allowed. Especially if I’m standing there tapping my foot and calling out the countdown. “Okay, now you have 20 seconds. Now 10. Hurry. Okay, five seconds! Four! Three!” Even the Supreme Subject Matter Expert finds it difficult to create a short message that holds real meaning—particularly when a deadline looms.

Hire a lover of words who doesn’t eschew analytics

I believe that writers are a lot like developers. Both desire the most value in the least amount of space. Content creators believe that every line of copy should be clean, just  as developers seek clean code. So look for a content writer who has a scientific mindset.

Look for someone who is enthusiastic about changing their copy based upon metrics and A/B testing—but who will defend the brand like a warrior. You want somebody who can look up from those precious words to see the bigger picture.

Hire somebody who plays well with others

It’s actually fun to have the right content creator on your team. Forget all those stories about Us vs. Them, writers battling with art directors. That’s an old-school myth. It’s siloed thinking.

In the new world, nobody has time for silos. We expect developers, designers, and content creators to think like entrepreneurs. We expect our teams to create for every possible device. These days, content creators, developers, and designers work hand-in-hand toward the greater good.

As a word person, I learn from my design team every day. When the depth of my ignorance about artistic aesthetic is on full display, my colleagues do not judge. Instead, they help me to learn. And this response makes me unafraid to appear unenlightened, willing to ask questions. Because in a healthy relationship, partners trust each other to reach the shared goal. Together.

Hire for the success you desire

Here’s a recent job posting for a UX copywriter/content strategist at Blue Owl in San Francisco. It does a good job of detailing the skill set required for the success that this company’s leaders envision.

  • You have honed your chops creating standout digital products and user experiences
  • You think holistically about context, design, insights, and words
  • You are about frameworks, content strategy, and style guidelines
  • You enjoy strategizing, prototyping, and executing
  • You strive for clarity and an intuitive flow
  • You understand the value of A/B testing, analytics, and SEO
  • You enjoy collaborating across departments, especially design and marketing

If somebody suggests that you skip out on hiring a dedicated content creator, just say no. Then explain why that approach is doomed to fail. Especially in our UX world, talented writers are as valuable as talented designers. Scrimping on talent serves no one.