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How to break into content design without spending any money

Jonathon Colman
January 31, 2023

Jonathon Colman leads global content design at HubSpot. He's a Webby Award-winning designer and keynote speaker who’s built and led design and content teams at Facebook, Intercom, IBM, REI, and The Nature Conservancy.


If you’re reading this, then you’re asking yourself (or Google) something like: How do I get a job in content design or UX writing when I don’t have any experience?

You already know that content design jobs are great opportunities. Generally speaking, these jobs pay quite well (generally 2-3x+ the median income in your country), offer great benefits, and set you up for a long-term professional career anywhere in the world.

This field has grown rapidly over the past two decades, tightly linked with software development in the tech industry. LinkedIn claims that content design is one of the most in-demand fields of work in the UK. The industry exploded during the early pandemic as many offline services moved online, but you don’t have to work in tech to be a content designer. Government at all levels, nonprofits, universities, retailers, banks, manufacturers, startups in many fields, and even some cooperatives all employ content designers. So even with recent layoffs in tech, there’s never been a better time to become a content designer.

But while there are many ways to break into content design, this blog post has an opinionated point of view. My goal is to set you up to get your first role in content design without spending any money.

Let’s be clear: Einstein proved that time is money, so time is one of your most valuable possessions. I don’t mean to imply that you can break into content design for free. But for some folks, time is a lot easier (or at least less painful) to spend than money. And it’s likely that you’ll spend a lot of time breaking into content design even if you also have cash to burn.

So these tips might not be for everyone. And you certainly don’t have to do everything I mention below to break into content design! But if you’ve got the time and are on a tight budget, these options can help you make more progress, more quickly.

Know what to expect

One of the most important things you can do right from the start is to set the right expectations for yourself. The key expectation you should have is that this will be a journey—it’s going to take time and you’re likely to hit several bumps along the road. There will always be exceptions, but just like any other industry, you shouldn’t expect to get the first job—or perhaps even the first 10-20+ jobs—you apply for.

Some context: during the second half of 2022, the employment market made a strong shift from job-seekers back toward employers. While employers have fewer roles open than during the hiring peak in Q1 of 2022, many are still hiring. But now more job-seekers are on the market than before, so these employers can take more time with them and be choosy about the ones they like best. This means that they’re unlikely to hire based on your future potential; they’re more likely to hire based on what you can do for them today.

Likewise, if you’re senior or deeply experienced in your current role or field, your experience may not necessarily translate over to being at the same level once you transition to content design. For better or worse, many companies want to see you be successful in the role and have evidence that you can successfully meet their expectations before they hire you. That’s because a key tenet of their hiring strategy is to reduce risk, which makes them skeptical when considering your experience.

Finally, there also isn’t a “right way” to become a content designer. You don’t have to do what I did, what your friend did, what that one book author did, or what the speaker at your meetup did. Your path, your opportunities, and your lived experiences are all different from theirs, as is your timing.

So don’t force yourself to fit into their mold—shape one for yourself! The best way to break into content design is whatever way gets you there. 

Beginner: start small and simple

Let’s cover the easy stuff first: finding your people, joining your community, and getting media and tools that can help you learn and develop your skills.

  • Attend local meetups (find some here). Since the Pandemic, several meetups, like the Content Strategy Seattle meetup, stream their meetings on Zoom or other platforms. Meetups and similar events are a great way to meet people in the industry, understand what they care about, and rapidly increase your knowledge. If there isn’t a meetup in your community, then start one! Finding your people and helping them connect is always a great use of time.
  • Join online communities. Some of the bigger ones are the Content + UX slack and the Content strategists group on Facebook. But there are many more out there, including several groups on LinkedIn, Twitter communities, etc! Most communities have job postings, educational resources, async Q&A channels, and other helpful resources. No matter where you like to hang out online, poke around to see if your people are there, too. And if there isn’t a community yet? Start one!
  • Read online publications that include a focus on content strategy, content design, and UX writing: A List Apart, Brain Traffic, Boxes and Arrows, Content Design London, GatherContent, Gov.UK, Medium, Smashing Magazine, UX Booth, UX Collective, UX Magazine, UX Matters, Working in Content are all great places to start. And if you want to see the sort of writing that inspired and engaged the previous generation of UX content folks, check out the archives of Contents magazine and The Pastry Box.
  • Watch videos of conference talks and panels. A lot of events and speakers upload these after conferences are over to build their brands. Search YouTube, Vimeo, and other places to find them. The Perspectives content design conference had a whole track of talks focused on breaking into content design that was entirely free. You can also watch this panel on the same topic along with this panel from the School of Visual Concepts. Many, many conferences host their own videos online for anyone to view. But remember: once you’ve got that full-time, highly paid content design job, you can pay these events back by buying a ticket to attend them!
  • Listen to podcasts. The Content Strategy podcast, Content Strategy Insights, Content Rookie, The Interface, Writers of Silicon Valley and others are all great places to start. Many design & UX-focused podcasts also bring on content designers or do special episodes dedicated to the craft.
  • Read books. Your local library may have books on content strategy, content design, and other areas of UX. They may even provide digital access through platforms like Libby and others. There are also many free ebooks available about design, product, and related topics. Likewise, your current employer or their UX team might have in-house libraries, subscriptions, or other digital access to UX books, journals, and trainings. And if you have access to a university library, it’s likely that you’ll be able to find even more books, journals, studies, and other resources.

Intermediate: dig into design and product

Once you’ve found your people and have a basic understanding of what content design’s all about, you’re ready to take some bigger steps forward.

  • Learn the tools of the trade. UI design tools like Figma and Sketch have free plans or trial periods, as do wireframing tools like Miro, Mural, Whimsical, and others. Google Docs/Sheets, Dropbox Paper, Notion, Coda, and Airtable are common tools for product content designers as well. And for better or for worse, it’s also important to understand emerging AI content platforms like ChatGPT. You can search for free tutorials on YouTube to get up and running quickly. A good way to practice with these tools is to try using them to re-create the apps and other digital experiences you use regularly.
  • Explore design systems to understand how modern design teams build products and services with design and code components. Adobe, Apple, Atlassian, Github, Google, IBM, Shopify, and many other companies have made their design systems publicly available. This lets you practice using them to recreate product interfaces and build the way that the company builds.
  • Learn about UX processes and techniques. Writing will get you far, but it may not be far enough in a highly competitive job market. If you want to stand out from other candidates, don’t stop at UX writing—learn about user experience design as a whole. This is a massive field of practice with lots of history and approaches. Here’s a good article to start with to understand some of the basic concepts, processes, and tasks you might use regularly. Knowing the “double diamond” model is helpful for understanding the basics of how many product & design teams work. There are also many guides about breaking into UX that go into even more detail.
  • Develop your own product/design instincts and taste. If you’re going to work on digital products, it helps to be thoughtful about the ones you see and use regularly. Think through the apps you use on the web and your phone. What makes them good or bad? What does each of them optimize for? Who’s their audience(s)? What are their business models? What can you learn and what best practices can you yield from analyzing them? If you were designing those apps, what would you do differently or how might you improve on them? This can be hard to do on your own, so consider doing this as part of the community you build online and/or through meetups.
  • Get mentored. You can find content design mentors anywhere, but platforms like ADPList, Designed.org, and similar sites help you find a match quickly and provide free, mediated mentoring services with a code of conduct or set of community standards to help keep folks safe. Also look for mentors within your current company if they have a UX team. And whenever you meet with a mentor, do your homework: know what you want to get out of the session and prepare questions in advance.
  • Do informational interviews. Put your knowledge and network to use! Talk with content designers working in the field at a variety of levels, companies, and industries. Learn about what they do, what they find challenging, how they’ve grown their careers, and what they’ve done to develop their knowledge and skills. While these interviews can sometimes lead to job opportunities, you shouldn’t expect that they’ll be transactional or pressure people to give you a job. Instead, focus on getting to know the person and their experience so that you can build your knowledge—and maybe a long-term relationship with them. Pro-tip: don’t just stop with content designers! Also talk with the people who work with them: product designers, researchers, product managers, engineers, and so on.

Advanced: build your experience

You likely already know that it’s hard to break into any field of work without real experience in it. Having “book knowledge” often isn’t enough to get an interview, much less a job offer. So the real challenge here is building experience and then telling the story of your work in compelling ways. Doing this well will open doors with potential employers in ways that coursework or certification can’t.

  • Come in through a side door. If you have trouble transitioning directly into content design from an unrelated industry, then look for adjacent opportunities. Content strategy, content marketing, technical writing, copywriting, advertising, customer support, UX/product operations, internal communications, and many other fields are close neighbors of content design. Working in these fields can help you become more familiar with design, writing for users/customers, building products and services, and gain other useful experience. Many of these roles also pay well!
  • Pick up extra work from your organization’s UX team. Not all organizations have an in-house UX team, but if yours does, then get to know them! See if they’re open to giving you opportunities to do content design work with them. This can often be a developmental opportunity for a new UX manager or someone who’d like to become one. And it gives you direct experience in building and shipping product work that actually launches, something that can be hard to come by otherwise.
  • Participate in a hackathon or creative jam. Hackathons are events where people work together to solve some sort of challenge or problem, usually with software. Most last for a very limited amount of time (a few hours, a weekend, etc.). A hackathon helps give you experience building rapid solutions to problems and while they’re usually engineering-focused, many teams treasure design and content expertise because they know it makes them more successful. Devpost, Eventbrite, and other platforms showcase hackathons taking place all over the world, some of which are remote-friendly.
  • Volunteer with a nonprofit or charity. Many organizations need content design support, but don’t know where to find it and aren’t able to pay for it. Catch a Fire, DemocracyLab, RemoteHub, Technology Volunteers, VolunteerMatch, and similar platforms help match volunteers with opportunities. Working with an organization like this can give you real-world experience while also contributing to social good and worthy causes. That said, not everyone is able to volunteer, take an unpaid internship, or otherwise work for free, which is why this option is just one among many.
  • Pick up overflow work from a content/design agency. There are many agencies out there with overzealous sales teams who end up selling more work than the agency’s teams can take on. When this happens, they often look for folks they can trust to complete that work for them under a contractual agreement. These opportunities often aren’t advertised and can be hard to find, which is (one of many reasons) why it’s so important to do informational interviews, go to your local meetups, join online communities, and otherwise invest in your networks.
  • Become a freelance consultant or contractor. There’s no need to wait for a company to hire you when you can hire yourself! Starting your own business isn’t for everyone, but it’s worth pointing out that many folks who are well-known in content, design, and product got started by freelancing. You don’t have to do this alone—you can find a partner(s) to help you out. You can be your own boss, set your own hours, define your own process, and make all the decisions. That said, you’ll also have startup costs, have to find all of your own customers, and chase down payments from them. But it can help you learn a lot, quickly, and gain experience solving many different types of problems in numerous fields and industries.
  • Build your own app. You don’t need to join a company or another organization in order to build something that solves a problem and then bring it to market. You can do that yourself! And you don’t have to limit yourself just to mobile apps—it may be easier and faster to build interactive experiences on the open web. The most important thing is that you try your hand at solving a problem that you understand deeply and then capture the results of your efforts. If you don’t have a programming background, there’s a variety of free no-code platforms that can help you get started.
  • Create a compelling portfolio to showcase your experience. There are many opinions about how to best do this—I’ve even written about what we look for in content design portfolios at HubSpot. But what most reasonable people tend to agree is that your work won’t ever speak for itself. You need to explicitly point out the problem to be solved, your role in solving it, who you partnered with, your design process, and the results or outcomes of your work—not just the outputs like wireframes and final screens. Overall, no matter where or how you build your experience, the key goal of your portfolio is to show the impact of your design work.

You got this!

Listen: changing careers is hard. I know this because I changed careers multiple times before finding my way into content design. And if you’re transitioning into content design right now, you know this, too.

It takes a lot of work, dedication, and most of all time. But if you have the time to spare, then there’s no reason why it also has to take a lot of cash.

You don’t have to do everything I mentioned above to break into content design. But doing any of these things can help you learn and practice new skills, expand and deepen your network, build real-world experiences, and otherwise speed up your journey… all without spending any money.

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