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Don’t Skip a Step: Use Checklists to Produce More Powerful Content

Jamie Bourne

Interactive Designer, Forum One

If you’re like any other mission-driven organization in this day and age, you probably have a lot of people building and designing content. There’s always a want or need for a dedicated person to handle tasks such as copy editing, writing, designing, and developing, but it’s not always realistic to get them all done. This is where checklists come in.

The speed at which we have to get content out the door is increasing, which unfortunately increases the chances that mistakes sneak through the cracks. One way to combat this is to implement checklists in your standard procedures, whether for your content development or design process.

Organizations create and share information faster than ever, even to their own detriment. It’s now commonplace to see a timestamp at the bottom of a news story explaining an editorial update to address a previous error (or two, or three). A study on audience perception from Wayne State University indicates that standard newsroom editing practices have a significantly positive effect on a digital audience’s perceptions of news quality. It also found that users react negatively to unedited content. While the study was specific to digital journalism, there can be applied to all content on the web. One factor contributing to the increase in errors is likely the growing trend to cut copy editors in favor of writers who produce content. 

Why do we have copy editors, to begin with? 

Before spellcheck existed, copy editors were the ones checking spelling, grammar, and assessing sentence structure, along with adding headers, photo captions, footnotes and more. It used to be up to copy editors to check a piece of writing for flow, length, and to make sure it was in the correct publishing house style format. Copy editors then passed text onto a proofreader for a final check once the copy-editing process was complete. 

Intuitively, it may seem obvious that all content needs a second set of eyes. Nowadays though, we don’t often bake this step into our processes whether it’s because of a lack of time, or that it’s too complex based on how specific, large, or significant a project is to warrant a copy editor. Editing and proofing are instead placed on the writer, designer, and/or person who touched it last. 

Inattentional blindness

When you aren’t expecting to see something, you are unlikely to see it. This is called inattentional blindness. It explains my own experience as a rosy-cheeked designer, fresh out of design school, who created a banner commemorating an anniversary exhibit. Each member at the museum saw and signed off on the banner, and it was printed and mounted on the exterior of the building. It was only then that we all realized it had the wrong date on it! An additional $700 later to print a new banner, I realized the importance of double-checking even the most obvious of details. Typos are incredibly sneaky, especially if we know something has been seen by many people. In my case, it was hiding in plain sight. As The New York Times points out in Why We Miss What is Right in Front of Us, incorrect assumptions can inhibit even the most detail-orientated person.

Finding efficiencies

While I may reminisce on the quote-unquote “glory days” when copy went through a writer, editor, and proofreader, and designs through a typesetter, photographer/illustrator, and art director, I am not calling for a return to a simpler time, nor am I lamenting unrealistically on how much better things used to be. Like all new things, technology improves through trial and error, and as jobs are consolidated, producers do need to find effective and strong ways to wear different hats successfully. 

It takes more time to publish something in the long term if you have to then go back into the copy or design file a day or week later to refamiliarize yourself with the content and go through the process of updating it.

Checklists are not only a great idea for organizations but also benefit individual team members because more often than not, mistakes are not a people problem, but a process problem. It can be as simple as, “before this goes live, another human reviews for X and Y.” All organizations should have checklists before finishing work so that we place individuals in the best position to succeed. To reduce mistakes, save time, and increase audience trust in our brands, we should all implement a checklist into our processes.

Example checklist for writers and designers

Stuck on what to include on a checklist? Here’s a list of key elements for both a content producer and designer to reference and review before hitting publish.

  • Fonts: when opening a file being aware of what it looks like when a font is missing. 
  • Spell check: run spell check in InDesign, Illustrator, and Sketch (pro tip: you can add a plugin for Sketch).
  • Spacing: conduct a search for double spaces often not caught by spell check and depending on letter combinations and font choice, not always obvious to the eye. Be wary of doing a simple “find and replace” if you’re using double spaces to align glyphs. 
  • Paragraphs: make sure all paragraphs have a full break if that is in the design.
  • Text: go through the text after you’ve exported because spell check won’t catch if you introduce a letter that spells a new word. 
  • Sources: if sourcing content making sure the titles align with each section and first lines of paragraph match. 
  • Color blocks: check the edges of your exported content to ensure that color blocks and photos extend to the edge. Often you will be unable to tell if there is a tiny white sliver on a white background but once you drop it onto a black background as a Gmail attachment it will immediately be clear. 
  • Alignment: always be aware if there is a grid or not and if everything aligns. You can page through a presentation very quickly to see if the logo, page number, or text box wiggles or not and fix the outliers.
  • Legacy content/design: when working on legacy web projects check the width of the project file to the live site. Check to see if there are any other variations in design say in the choice of a phone icon or ruled lines.
  • Images: make sure stock photos are for commercial use and not editorial before a client gets married to a photo you can never use.
  • Technical input: not running a web design by a developer before showing it a client can become a costly mistake.
  • CTAs: review that all Calls-to-Action (CTAs) make sense with the design. 

We’ve all been there. You hit ‘publish’ only to realize some detail is wrong and you have to go back in to update and deal with the consequences, whether that means sending a follow-up email to your subscribers or key stakeholders, or having to even reprint. We ask ourselves how we got there, and what action we can take to stop it in the future. For the win: checklists, checklists, checklists.

 

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Written By

Jamie Bourne

Interactive Designer, Forum One