Content First

Do you ever go into a funk about your work and suddenly become obsessed with rethinking your organization scheme? Were there times in college when things got so overwhelming that the only course of action that made sense was to go to the bookstore and buy a set of color coded binders and folders? Do you ever reach that moment where all your problems would be solved if you could simply start off with a brand new unblemished notebook or journal? Do you periodically go down the rabbit hole of investigating new software platforms for organizing your notes, references, and tasks? Do you ever manage to spend an entire work session fiddling with HTML and CSS to get just the right look for your stuff?

Me too.

I’ve lately taken to thinking of that stuff as form and the actual work I’m doing – reading, writing, coding, drawing – as content. Plenty of other ways to deploy that distinction – and organization can be the stuff of real work – but that’s my working dichotomy here. And then I try to remind myself of a simple rule – always do content first.

The reason is that for me, form is seductive. I revel in thinking through organizational schema, cool ways I could link this and that, awesome techniques for being able to see everything at once or having items in my files remind me automatically to come back to them.

And every time I indulge in those things FIRST I’m strengthening the part of me that hesitates to take a risk and get some ideas down on paper, to let them out of the echo chamber of my head where they always sound vaguely very smart, where the ideas themselves have passion attached, out into the world on the paper or screen where they are what they are. Sometimes they embarrass me because they’re silly. Sometimes they shame me because they are silly and I still have the feeling that they are awesome. But sometimes they accumulate out there and they make way for the next ideas to emerge in here.

And even though my mental appetite doesn’t always agree, it is actually more fun to organize something rather than nothing.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course I didn’t just invent the phrase “content first” – you see a lot of posts about it over the last few years in the website design space. And so I guess this is just another one of those “here’s a principle of professional practice that you can adapt to your personal life” posts.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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