By Clare McDermott published June 17, 2011

Thinking Outside of the Bento Box to Improve Content Design

Bento boxes satisfy the obsessive-compulsive disorder-side of my personality, organizing those fishy morsels of sushi goodness into visually beautiful 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 readers to understand and remember your message. Just 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 hit home for me personally when Chief Content Officer (CCO) magazine launched in January. A few bloggers pointed out (thank you) that our articles were too long and linear. Readers wanted to be entertained both in word as well as story format.  The CCO team gathered and gave me marching orders:

  • Take each feature article and break it into pieces
  • Add sidebars and pull-quotes
  • Add skimming elements
  • Make it more visual and less daunting to read.

Some people refer to this strategy as creating modular content. (‘Modular’ makes me think of boxy-modern, orange furniture. I would rather visualize pieces of sushi snuggled together.) In CCO magazine next month, we are adopting the bento box model of content marketing. Rather than having one 1,200-word feature article, we are running articles half as long, supplemented with short-form sidebars and callouts.

Why is modular content so important?

We are an impatient bunch
Particularly in the context of business content, we are reckless skimmers, racing through web pages and PDFs to find useful nuggets of information.

Content marketers are often writers by profession, and so we are understandably focused on delivering smartly-written, high-value content, forgetting to consider visual presentation. Visual tools like section headers, callouts, sidebars and infographics help your impatient readers decide whether they want to read more and help them arrive at the sections they are most interested in browsing.

Some of us remember information visually rather than in word
That’s why infographics play such a crucial role in relaying complex information. I consider McKinsey to be an infographic powerhouse. Other companies manage to create infographics that are more beautiful or intellectually challenging, but the designers at McKinsey are experts in simple, educational graphics.

Sidebars add depth without weighting down the main article
Perhaps you have a case study or an expert interview you would like to include, but you worry that your article is already too long. Sidebars allow you to add depth and nuance while keeping your main article tight and focused.

Make it Modular

Here’s a quick information design checklist to walk through during your next content marketing assignment (sidebar, baby!):

  • Consider a quick-hitting summary presented up front that allows readers to decide whether they should read on (could be included as a secondary title, a short executive summary, or a sidebar). PricewaterhouseCooper’s 10 Minutes series does this well.
  • Make it modular with sidebars. Are there sections of your article that could stand alone as a sidebar? Sidebars shorten your main article, pull out key information visually and allow you to expand on more complex ideas.
  • Use section titles that allow your readers to skip sections or locate key sections, and use callouts to highlight key concepts or quotes.
  • Use bold print (judiciously) to highlight key phrases or sentences. This is a tactic CMI uses in its daily blog.
  • If your article contains complex information (could be quantitative, a multi-step process, a series of decisions, a cost-benefit analysis) consider an infographic to simplify the information.
  • If your article is educational in nature, consider a half-page self-assessment that allows readers to test their knowledge or test their company’s level of sophistication on that topic. This is a great reinforcement tool.
  • Make it easy to share with a checklist or synopsis. Pull it all together with a beautiful PDF checklist (don’t forget to brand it).  See Ahava Leibtag’s content checklist as a great model.

Our July issue of CCO magazine will truly be the first issue that embraces this new modular mantra. Also, keep a lookout for our new columnist, Bob Johnson from IDG Connect, who will be writing about dynamic design and content optimization for CCO magazine.

Author: Clare McDermott

Clare McDermott is the editor of Chief Content Officer magazine and owner of SoloPortfolio, a Boston-based content marketing provider for professional service firms.You can follow her @soloportfolio.

Other posts by Clare McDermott

  • Rachel Foster

    Hi Clare,

    Nice metaphor. I like your point about using a summary at the beginning of a piece. Not many people do this, but it appeals to the 80% of readers who skim copy before reading it. Also, now I want sushi!

    Cheers,
    Rachel

  • http://twitter.com/AirPacInc Tina

    Like Rachel… this made me hungry!  Humans are visual creatures and I think we “eat” with our eyes first — that goes for content, too!  LOVE infographics.  Check out this infographic we tested in our blog.  Got great feedback and lots of traffic.

    http://www.airpacinc.com/blog/bid/58974/Emergency-Cooling-Plan-for-Natural-Disasters-Do-You-Have-One

    There’s a LOT of data packed into that infographic.  No way I would glance at the charts but a cool infographic …. that’s easy on the eye and the brain!

  • Anonymous

    The internet, by it’s very own nature, has resulted in everyone having a bit of ADD when we’re here. There’s just so many distractions which make consuming long, boring content a challenging task – even if we want to. Content can easily overcome these challenges, assuming their content is strong, relevant and interesting, with visual elements like the ones listed above. 

    Start with awesome content, then make me visually want to read – and share – it.

  • Nenad Senic

    Excellent Clare! Content within this modular model does not make content less valuable or serious. It actually makes you, a producer, think more about it! I am now really looking forward to changes. So happy to hear this!
    Cheers, N.