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September 14, 2015

Design That Shines: How To Choose The Right Design For Your Content

From ideation, to outline, to multiple rounds of edits—you spend countless hours creating each piece of content for your organization. So don’t overlook what might be one of the most important aspects of your content process, design. People totally do judge a book by its cover, in fact people form first impressions really quickly, in only one tenth of a second, so it’s critical that the design you choose for your content conveys the tone, style, and subject in a way that appeals to your target audience. But “the design” means different things to different content marketers, for some it might mean anything from converting your Word document into a simple PDF, to treating your content to a custom cover—graphics, design elements, and illustrations. So, knowing that design is critical, where do you start?

Design For Your Audience

Ideally, you’ll start thinking about design at the same that you’re initially brainstorming your content and defining your audience. The persona and buying stage of your content’s intended audience should have a big impact on the direction of your design, as should the way you plan to use your content.

For example, let’s say you’re creating content for an SMB audience, which you intend to use as an offer in a large email send to potential customers. The design for that content will be very different than content created specifically for CMOs, an IT audience, or content for marketers in higher education.

To hit the right design notes, you’ll want to work closely with whoever knows the specific audience best – whether that’s a product marketer on your team, or a person on your sales team who handles those deals. If you haven’t made content for a particular audience before, it’s always a good idea to research the competition. How are your competitors designing content to appeal to those audiences, and how could you design something even better?

Working with Designers

At Marketo, we either work with our in-house designers, or we leverage tried-and-true design agencies that are familiar with our visual style. The advantage of an outside designer is that they lend extra bandwidth to your internal team when they are swamped. The disadvantages are that they eat up extra budget, and that (however familiar with your company they might be) they don’t live and breathe your brand the way an internal designer does.

Here’s the process I recommend you use to design content, especially when using an outside agency:

Preliminary Styles

Send the designer the carefully edited copy for your content (whether it’s an ebook, a report, an infographic, a slide deck, etc.). If you already have an idea, describe it as clearly as you can. It’s often difficult to be specific at this stage – especially if you don’t have a design background – which is why including examples for inspiration is a great idea. Specify whether you’d like custom graphics or if you’d like the designer to incorporate photography, and describe the audience your content is targeted towards.

In return, your designer should send you some preliminary styles to consider. These will probably include examples the designer has researched and found online – maybe four examples per proposed style. Let the designer know which style you think best suits your project, keeping in mind that you can pick and choose elements from each design proof. For example, you might like the typeface used in Style #1, but the color palate in Style #2. A good designer will look for your feedback and be willing to accommodate you while also providing their recommendations and guidance.


Using the copy you’ve provided, and the style you’ve chosen, the designer will work to design a small section of the asset. At Marketo, we ask our designers to show us at least two different ways to approach the concept, which is why they only design a small portion – typically the cover and one internal page for an ebook, report, or slide deck. As with the preliminary styles, it’s important to be as specific as possible with your feedback. Tell the designer what is and isn’t working, and make your final suggestions now – before it’s too late!

Creative Rounds

Now that you’ve agreed upon the design direction, styles, and concepts, your designer will show you a complete version of the designed asset, and you’ll add your edits. We find that once you have a fully designed version to work with, it takes several rounds to get the design just right. We also find that it’s easiest to edit and attach comments to PDFs (compared to JPEGs, PNGs, or InDesign files), but that’s entirely up to you and your designer.

Things to consider during creative rounds:

  • Are the headers consistent?
  • Do you, as a reader, know where you are in the asset at all times?
  • Are page breaks in the most logical place?
  • If the designer is using photography or custom graphics, do they fit with the content’s themes and text?
  • Does the text still make sense? For example, if you wrote in the copy “See chart above,” and the chart is now to the left of the copy, you’ll need to change the text.
  • Are there any widows and orphans? These are words or short lines left dangling alone at the end of a paragraph, or at the top/bottom of a column—a serious design faux pas that your designer can easily fix.
  • Are the page numbers correct? If you have a table of contents, is it accurate?
  • Is your company’s logo and boilerplate correctly represented?
  • Do a final proof: are there any spelling errors, sentence structure issues, or last-minute additions? These are often easier to spot now that it’s laid out neatly.

Finally, after you’ve gone through the process of concepts, and creative rounds you should get an asset that fits your content, and grabs the attention of your audience. After all, even the mostly carefully selected content topic is not helpful unless you get people to look at it and read it.

Do you have any design tips to add? I’d love to hear more about them.

Ellen Gomes

Ellen Gomes is a Content Marketing Specialist at Marketo. She’s a news junkie and loves to stay up to date on the latest marketing trends and connect with new people over social media. In her free time she frequents food blogs and caters to her very spoiled pets, Julius the cat and Pudge the corgi. Ellen earned an B.A. in History at U.C. Santa Cruz and an M.B.A. at San Jose State.

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