Content Flow and Its Counterpoint

Content flow plays a significant role in shaping the reader/viewer’s experience. Ultimately, the impact of this experience can be critical.

As content creators and consumers, we’re all aware of the multiple dynamics at play when it comes to viewing and creating content. Content has a kind of flow. It directs movement within and between pieces of content, exhibiting diverse rhythms, densities and forms.

Content flow, as we perceive it, plays a significant role in shaping the reader/viewer’s experience. Ultimately, the impact of this experience can be critical, as it often marks the difference between success and failure in a given content enterprise.

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What Is Content Flow?

Content flow refers to the structural and conceptual movements implied within a single or combined piece of content.

It can be broken down as follows:

  • Content implies structural movement (start here, end there)
  • Content also implies movement in concepts/ideas (start with this line of thought, end with that line of thought or action)
  • Content flow is made up of distinct movements occurring within a single piece of content and between different sets of content
  • Good content flow facilitates a reader’s movement through sections of content and the ideas expressed within them. It makes content more engaging, lighter to read and digest, and easier to retain. Bad content flow has the opposite effect

Here’s a familiar scenario: You come across a website that appears well structured. The content seems well-written, graphics are attractive, and the information provided is complete. But, something about it doesn’t jell. The content seems to clash or interfere with itself, and the navigation doesn’t seem very fluid. In the end, you can’t seem to understand or remember what the site was all about.

What’s happening here? How is it that a well-structured presentation composed of well-written content isn’t working? One likely culprit is the relationship between content types and content segments, namely text content-to-graphic content, content-to-content, and the sequence of movements in between. Although content structure (i.e. style guide) plays a static role in organizing and ‘containing’ content, it nevertheless envelops dynamic elements that exceed it.

Dynamic Content Includes:

Dynamic content includes the relationship between content-to-content, and Individual viewers/readers with their powers of attention, interpretation and retention.

Ultimately, what you have are different energies of movement and counter-movement. Although a viewer’s choice of what to read, in what sequence, and its interpretation is beyond the control of the content creator, the arrangement of content with its implied movements can still make a big difference in setting the stage of engagement.

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Content Contra Content: Counterpoint

The combination of multiple forms of content isn’t that much different. Each piece of content has its own unique set of attributes. It has different spatial limits (a starting point and an ending point). It has varying degrees of density, which imply different experiences of time and effort. It contains its own specific message or line of thought. Each content piece has its own stylistic genre and form of utterance — the sales pitch, description, call to action, disclaimer, etc. — all of which can be phrased in different ways. It has its own sense of rhythm—in utterance and ideas—and tempo, both of which can move faster or slower depending on what is being conveyed, and how it is being conveyed.

Five Concepts to Help You Shape Content Flow

So what can we do to shape content flow? The answer is that there are multiple ways to approach this, and it varies depending on the circumstances and content goals. It may be a strategic concern, but its realization takes place in the tactical sphere. However, there are a few general concepts to keep in mind that might be helpful:

Content implies a territory. Content has both a spatial location and a centralized set of ideas–a “territory.” That territory has its own form and mode of articulation through which it expresses a message. Depending on the emphasis of the value placed on that message, its size, appearance and placement matter considerably. What kind of emphasis do you want to place on a given message? How should you express it? In what form, and why?

Content has its own sense of gravity. Figuratively speaking, as a “territory”, content has a gravity that “pulls” the viewer toward the ideas expressed, and the space containing those ideas. Some content sections will have a greater sense of pull, depending on the interest of the viewer, the compelling nature of the message, and its placement alongside other content sections that can either distract from or reinforce it. Where do you place a given piece of content and why? What will that placement do to the overall presentation or flow?

Content demands its own unique time for engagement. Should content be densely or lightly concentrated? How should you balance the density of “text” against the density of ideas? After all, you can create heavy text with light ideas, or light text with heavy ideas. Think of it this way–you have a scarcity of space and your viewer probably has a scarcity of time. Content demands time. How can you make the best use of limited space and time to seamlessly and effectively deliver your message? Think movement and counter-movement.

If you understand these first three points, then you get a sense that there are potentially multiple and diverse flows happening simultaneously. A viewer may not read everything simultaneously (although it is possible if the content is sparse enough), but think of the overall effect of the content which can be experienced as a cumulative impression or understanding of the material, and the actual sequence of engagement. The flow of movement and clarity of the message is deeply affected by the placement of content sections and the independent movements they imply, as shown in our examples above. Again, it operates like a counterpoint, and getting each piece to fit harmoniously depends on how the content is composed and arranged.

Think of content flow in terms of a multi-dimensional narrative. Ultimately, you are telling a story, which you hope materializes in a change of thought or action on the part of the viewer. Your story may have just one or a few parts, but its material features are numerous and heterogeneous. They can operate dimensionally, divergently, and in a non-linear fashion. Your core message tells a story and has a sequence, but so does your graphic arrangement, content sections, links, pages, etc. It all affects the sequence of actions and continuity of the overall message.

Content flow is a tricky thing to manage. Flow is much less perceptible than the content that generates it. Managing content flow requires the ability to think around or between content, to think of content not only as a “thing”, but as a set of intensities that compose it. Like architecture, where a building is defined as much by the people who use it as by its physical attributes, content is defined by the way in which viewers engage, experience, and are affected by it.

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