The three sees of content design

When designing an experience, principles can help you feel confident choosing among different approaches. But it’s tricky. There is no absolute right” way to design because there is no absolute user.” Every experience is designed for a multiplicity of users who each work in a multiplicity of contexts.

Principles can help in different ways. Some constrain, like lane markers on the highway, keeping a car safe from oncoming traffic. Some illuminate, like a magnifying glass, revealing hidden possibilities. Principles are tools to help you take action.

It is this author’s opinion that whatever principles you follow (and it is likely that yours are different from mine), all principles should ladder up to some universal notions that define/contain/glob together this discipline called content design.

The Three Sees of Content Design

I call these universal notions” the Three Sees, because they help you see” what content design is about and also because I’m a weirdo. Someone else might call them pillars.” You could call them pilaf” for all I care. For me, the Three Sees of Content Design are how you can tell if your principles are any good.

In my humble opinion, good content design is:

  • Consistent
  • Cohesive
  • Clear

In that order. The order is important.


The first job of content design is to make experiences consistent. You don’t want to say the same thing five different ways, so you Look for patterns and create templates. This in turn makes it easier to design. And when you simplify the process of design, it tends to simplify the user experience.

Consistent experiences are easier to use because they are predictable. They help users find their way around by muscle memory, which accelerates both their learning and their ability to do things.

How to keep things consistent

  • Define standards and patterns (a.k.a., cookie cutters) for content
  • Establish a glossary to prevent semantic collision
  • Work with tested language
  • Don’t introduce new patterns unless they perform 10X better

Consistency is also the basis of meaning. I don’t have to explain that red means stop and green means go. Because these norms are applied so consistently across the world, you can easily borrow them for other domains. (This is known as forward transfer.) Semantics rely on consistency.


Sho Kuwamoto, Figma Sho Kuwamoto, Figma

The next step is to turn consistent experiences in cohesive experiences. This is where content design becomes more than just style linting.” Making something cohesive means making the elements fit together. You started by figuring out what everything was (perhaps through an audit and defining standards), now you line things up into a story and remove anything that doesn’t fit. This is harder.

To be absolutely vulgar about it, consistency is the spellchecky” part of content design. It is the part of this job that is easily automated. And it’s the part of the job we do mostly for ourselves. (Beware the lure of consistency.) Consistent experiences are good, but cohesive experiences feel good.

How to make things cohesive

  • Establish the jobs to be done so you know who you’re designing for and what matters to them
  • Create an ontology of what things are and how they fit together
  • Eliminate anything unnecessary from the design, keep the story simple

Why a story? Because stories are easy to follow and they are how people think. Yes, you can sort of push users around with click-bait language and bright colors, but the impact of that is short-lived. Great software experiences lead the user some place meaningful, and meaning is formed in narrative.


Welcome to the top of the pyramid; the self-actualization” part of the content design process. It happens after significant effort in making things consistent and cohesive. Clarity is not guaranteed. For most products it will never happen. Instead they will get more bloated and confusing.

But if your heart is pure, you can make things clear. People think clarity is the first stop on the content design train, but it’s the terminus. Clarity is an emergent phenomenon. Clarity is like enlightment. You do not find it. It finds you.

How to make things clear

  • Know thyself. Establish a detailed conceptual map of your product with no redundant terminology, nothing undefined, and nothing ambiguous
  • Have a firm grasp of who you user is and what makes their heart sing (I’m not joking)
  • Be able to rattle off the ways in which your system model differs from the user’s mental model, and understand why this is the case

Delivering a clear experience means being able to articulate the constellation of value proposition statements related to your product (and I mean all of them) in a cohesive story that connects every node in the web.

And not just you, but your product partners need to get it too. Otherwise this will never happen. (Which is why I say this might never happen.)

All together now

Once your experience is consistent and cohesive and clear, you can move from telling a story like see spot run” to telling a story in a elegant, artful, impactful way: baby shoes for sale, never worn.” Design is ultimately narrative.

The result is an experience that’s builds on itself, one that helps the user get better as they use it, and that rewards them for understanding it and revisiting it.

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