Why design systems need content designers

Although often viewed primarily as vectors for visual design and code, design systems include a whole lot of content.

That includes content that tells you what the design system is and how to use it—things like home and landing page content on a system’s documentation website, or guidance on how to get started, how to ask for help and how to contribute.

There’s the content that sits within components: button and form input labels, error messages, hints, warnings, headings, and so on.

There’s design guidance explaining how and when to use those components, and technical documentation that tells you how to apply styles, install components and update to new versions when they’re released.

Good design systems also include content design information like voice and tone guidelines and a content style guide to capture writing conventions.

And yet most design system teams still don’t include a content designer.

And I really, really want this to change.

But Amy, how do you know design system teams don’t include content designers?

As a design systems consultant, I spend a lot of my time—unsurprisingly—talking to and working with design systems teams. Content design is one of the most common skill gaps I encounter.

When I gave a talk on design system documentation at Patterns Day in 2019, I asked for a show of hands from the content designers in the room.

Out of the 300 design system practitioners in attendance, there was just one.

To see if things had changed, I recently ran a Twitter poll to ask people if their design system team included a content designer, and only a third said theirs did.

Design systems are not new. Whereas once you might only find a design system being worked on as someone’s unofficial side project—most organisations now fund and sponsor them properly. That makes this level of under-representation from content designers unacceptable and, frankly, risky.

What happens when we ignore content design in design systems?

Inconsistent content

Without content design, components like buttons, links, error messages, form inputs—where the usability is at least as much about the words used on them as it is about the visual design—suddenly become a lot more vulnerable to inconsistency in how they’re applied.

Providing a coherent and familiar user experience means standardising language, not just visual design and functionality.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I’d wager that using different words to describe the same actions, processes and information is the most damaging and confusing kind of inconsistency of all.

Placeholder copy in live products

Anyone who’s ever used the internet to do anything will have encountered those vague error messages that simply tell you “something happened”, “try again” or “bad request: error code 5849734793”.

There are also more extreme examples, where lorem ipsum or other placeholder copy ends up getting published into a live interface.

These instances usually start life as placeholder copy and sneak through quality assurance checks when it’s no one’s job to review them, or write something better.


Another common consequence of leaving content out of component design is truncation. These navigation cards from the Gumtree website have not been designed with content in mind.

4 navigation cards at the top of the Gumtree homepage - the link text is truncated in every one so we don't know what sits behind them
Truncated copy in navigation cards in the Gumtree website.

Whoever’s writing the copy for them is—I’d hope—unaware of the character limit.

In every instance, the content is cut off so early that it leaves us with very little idea about what they’re linking to.

If these cards had been created collaboratively by designers, developers and content designers, at the very least a copywriter could have worked within the card’s constraints, to shorten the text and front-load the important terms.

Better yet, they could have been designed with a more realistic character limit to support more content.

No-context links and buttons

The web is riddled with links and buttons that just say “click here”, giving the user no indication of what will happen when they do.

Content designers know this is bad practice, but the problem persists.

Design systems make it easy for these problems to scale.

Bad content, multiplied

Design systems are great multipliers—so if something like the examples mentioned above makes its way into a reusable system component, either as placeholder text or just a poor content design decision, then it can very quickly be disseminated across a company’s entire product landscape.

That means we’re not just dealing with an instance of bad content anymore. Now it’s bad content at scale—which is bad news all round.

When content designers aren’t included in the process of creating design system components and patterns, it’s bad news for our users, who find themselves on the receiving end of these mistakes and misjudgments.

It means content designers have to spend time identifying and correcting widespread issues they probably would have caught at the root, had they been involved in the design of the system component or pattern.

Given that content designers are so often spread thinly across multiple teams and product areas, this kind of inefficiency adds unnecessary pressure to an already stretched discipline.

And when the mistakes are found and identified, they need to be corrected, which usually means rework for designers and developers. And these problems are exactly the kind that design systems aim to solve.

In conclusion

A design system needs to promote, embody and propagate content design best practice.

It’s not enough to start thinking of content design once the designers and developers have got things off the ground—language is a core part of a system’s foundations and needs to be included from the beginning.

Leaving content out of the equation damages the user experience, and when we do this at the level of design systems, we’re allowing that experience to scale.

But when designers, developers and content designers work collaboratively on creating components and design patterns, we create cohesive, intuitive and user-centred products and services.

The bottom line? Hire content designers.