Think outside the bento box to improve content design

Bento boxes satisfy the OCD side of my personality, organizing these pieces of sushi goodness fish into visually stunning patterns of color and flavor.

The bento box is a great visual metaphor for the role of information design in content marketing. Information design is the art of presenting content on the page (or screen) in a way that makes it easier for your reader to understand and remember your message. Much like the bento box, a well-organized article or report should include highly visual modular elements that separate sections of your work and embellish key points.

The lesson struck me personally when Responsible for content (CCO) launched in January. A few bloggers commented (thank you) that our posts were too long and linear. Readers wanted to be entertained both in the form of words and in the form of stories. The CCO team met and gave me marching orders:

  • Take each substantive article and smash it into pieces
  • Add sidebars and pull quotes
  • Add skimming elements
  • Make it more visual and less intimidating to read.

Some people call this strategy modular content creation. (“Modular” reminds me of modern, square orange furniture. I would rather visualize pieces of sushi huddled together.) In CCO magazine next month we’ll adopt the bento box model of content marketing. Rather than having a 1,200 word feature article, we publish articles that are half the length, supplemented by sidebars and short captions.

Why is modular content so important?

We are an impatient bunch
Especially in the context of commercial content, we are reckless skimmers, browsing web pages and PDFs for nuggets of useful information.

Content marketers are often writers by profession, so we naturally focus on delivering smartly-written, high-value content, forgetting to consider visual presentation. Visual tools like section headers, captions, sidebars, and infographics help your eager readers decide if they want to learn more and help them navigate to the sections that matter most to them.

Some of us memorize information visually rather than verbally
This is why computer graphics play such a crucial role in conveying complex information. I think of McKinsey as a powerhouse of computer graphics. Other companies manage to create more beautiful or more intellectually stimulating infographics, but the designers at McKinsey are experts at simple and educational graphics.

Sidebars add depth without weighing down the main item
You might have a case study or an expert interview that you would like to include, but you are concerned that your article is already too long. Sidebars allow you to add depth and nuance while keeping your main article crisp and focused.

Make it modular

Here’s a quick info design checklist to go through on your next content marketing assignment (sidebar, baby!):

  • Consider a quick summary presented in advance which allows readers to decide whether to continue reading (could be included as a secondary title, short summary, or sidebar). PricewaterhouseCooper’s 10 Minute Series does it well.
  • Make it modular with sidebars. Are there any sections of your article that could be used on their own as a sidebar? Sidebars shorten your main article, visually extract key information, and allow you to develop more complex ideas.
  • Use section titles that allow your readers to skip sections or locate key sections and use captions to highlight key concepts or quotes.
  • Use bold characters (judiciously) to highlight key phrases or phrases. This is a tactic that CMI uses in its daily blog.
  • If your article contains complex information (can be quantitative, a multi-step process, a series of decisions, a cost-benefit analysis) consider infographic to simplify the information.
  • If your article is educational in nature, consider a half-page self-assessment which allows readers to test their knowledge or to test their company’s level of sophistication on this topic. It is a great strengthening tool.
  • Make sharing easy with a checklist or synopsis. Put it all together with a nice pdf checklist (don’t forget to mark it). See Ahava Leibtag’s Content Checklist as a great model.

Our July issue of CCO magazine will really be the first issue that embraces this new module? mantra. Also keep an eye out for our new columnist, Bob Johnson of IDG Connect, who will write about dynamic design and content optimization for CCO magazine.



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Jenny T. Curlee

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