Do Less Better: Intercom’s John Collins on the Power of Visual Design in Content Creation

Why Director of Content John Collins values design and thinks you should, too

Anastasia Dyakovskaya


Coming to tech from a background in journalism, Intercom’s Director of Content John Collins knows a thing or two about how to tell an engaging story.

Over 20 years on the job in newspapers, magazines, and online editorial have equipped him with an ear for language and an eye for design, along with stellar strategic skills that make him one of the industry’s most revered players.

Since joining the messaging-platform-producing software company as Managing Editor in 2014, he’s transformed the blog into a visually-driven, first-rate content hub known as Inside Intercom. Original artwork and illustrations across articles, books, and other marketing efforts have given the brand a unique visual identity that’s become a kind of calling card, building awareness and recognition across the board.

John’s team of ten content creatives work closely together with designers on nearly everything they produce, and their commitment to a strong visual language has played no small part in Intercom’s success, which has been huge. Last spring, the company hit over 25,000 paying customers – and a valuation of a cool $1.275 billion

We managed to squeeze into his busy schedule this month for an exclusive chat on the power of visual storytelling, and why it’s so important for brand leaders and marketers to take aesthetics as seriously as they do the words themselves.

Read on to find out how design has helped Intercom rise above its competition and stand out in the world of tech and B2B content:

— How has your perception of design changed over the course of your career?

I’ve gone from working in organizations where design was something that was just grafted on at the end of any kind of creative process, to being at a company like Intercom – two of whose four founders are designers. That’s why we have a really strong design heritage and are always thinking of design from the get-go.

Even before I joined Intercom, actually, Eoghan [McCabe], our CEO – who I knew from my reporting days – was the first person to ever mention “design thinking” to me over a decade ago. So, for me, there’s been a sea change in terms of how I think about design and its place in the creative process as we produce content.

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— Would you say Inside Intercom is helping prove blog design’s worth?

At this point, I think most people would probably recognize Inside Intercom by our visual style and the editorial illustrations we use. And that’s come about because we invested early on and spent a lot of time thinking about what the imagery was going to be like. I mean, we’ve held up publication when we just weren’t happy with the featured illustration.

We have found amazing results with quite bespoke pieces of content where the design and the actual words really work in tandem. One of our most successful posts last year was “Run Less Software,” which was written by our Senior Director of Engineering [Rich Archbold], and one of our designers literally hand-illustrated that. That might sound crazy to some – and there was a fair bit of time invested in it – but it was the most popular article on our blog last year.

One of our designers hand-illustrated what ended up being the most popular article on our blog last year

— At around 3,000 words, that was a long read. How are you seeing visuals impact this format in particular?

There’s a lot of what I call “Happy Meal” content out there. It kind of looks looks attractive and has nice packaging. But you eat it and, ultimately, you’re left feeling unsatisfied. The tension at the moment is that people have so many distractions and so many messages coming at them.

As storytellers and content creators, we have to figure out how we can make it easy for people to consume long-form content and how to create various entry points into a longer piece of content. That might look like various signposts that push people’s progress through the piece and give readers more space that invites them to consume that longer story.

— What piece of advice would you have for content marketers looking to boost the quality of their visual storytelling efforts?

Don’t go the easy route of stock photography. We’ve all made that mistake, and it’s very easy to fall into that trap. There are some services out there that provide free or low-cost photography and everybody uses them, so everybody ends up looking the same. Make sure you try and come up with your own visual identity.

Bite the bullet and say that you’re going to try to invest and do something different from early on, because it just gets harder to break out of that later. Suddenly, you’ll have to go to someone saying, “Hey, we need budget for design,” and they’ll reply, “You’ve been getting this free stuff for ages. Why don’t you keep using that?”

You’ve got to invest more time on making sure that all the elements in a piece of content really work together

— You’ve said that imagery and words should take the same seat at the table. Is that the case at Intercom?

That’s what we aspire to, but I wouldn’t say we’re there yet. We’re certainly closer than other organizations I’ve worked at, but that should be the aspiration across the board. People have five senses, so if you’re just having them look at the words on a screen, you’re missing a trick. There’s visual, there’s video – there are so many elements you can bring into play.

— Can you share any interesting visual trends you’ve noticed lately?

We’re seeing a lot of mixed media efforts that I think are quite exciting, like podcasts that have visual elements. There’s a visual podcast tool called Entale that basically allows you to turn your podcast into a video where you can drop in still images, illustrations, and embedded show notes, so that as people listen, they can get the visual stimulation and experience as well. Facebook’s using it with their “Grow” podcast. I think we’ll be seeing much more interesting things happening in the mixed- and multi-media space in this respect.

— Do you have a content marketing mantra for the year ahead?

I’ve got a post-it note on my MacBook right now that says, “Do less better.” I think that’s the key thing for us. It’s not about publishing 250 posts in a year; it’s about publishing 100 and making sure that the quality standards for each one of them are higher than they ever were before.

You’ve got to invest more on making sure that all the elements going into a piece of content – the words, the images, the illustrations, the video – that they really work together. Because as content marketers, you need to make sure you stand out from the crowd. And a lot of people still make the mistake of thinking of imagery last, even though it’s the first thing a reader sees.

Discover more wisdom from John and other creative industry leaders in “10 Insights on the State of Visual Storytelling in 2019” or get your own copy to read whenever you like.

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