Helen Hill does everything. There’s nothing more to be said. She creates online training courses and learning resources, designs infographics, and handles content design, UX and copywriting. She can probably trim your dog too. She’s the Unlikely Genius your business needs. Call her today. Or else.
I’m not. I’m an infiltrator loitering in the wings, learning from the copywriting community. I do write for a living, but I specialise in learning and content design.
I mostly produce online training courses and learning resources, though I also design infographics and promotional materials. I’ve become something of an infographic queen lately.
You started off as a graphic designer. Tell us about that.
I did a degree and a Master’s degree in Creative Imaging (graphic design, advertising and marketing) before working as a graphic designer for a few years.
Though I like design, I never really felt in the right place. So I embarked upon a very squiggly career that took me from graphics into lecturing graphic design, then developing eLearning and literacy as the manager of a learning centre in a school, before I was approached about being a designer in an eLearning company.
Whilst there, we realised that due to my background in teaching and love of learning, I was actually good at the writing and development side, too, so I started to do it all and have continued that into my own business.
My workload is definitely more weighted towards the writing these days, and I’m happy with that. I finally feel like I have found my place.
And now you’re an Unlikely Genius. Great name. Where’d that come from?
Being the blonde, clumsy buffoon and Disney-obsessed big child that I am, for a long time no one seemed to expect me to come out with anything clever. I can’t imagine why. I seemed to shock people regularly with my wisdomous thought(s).
Plus, I was always very sporty and arty when younger – and you can’t be practical AND academic can you? <scoffs>
At the end of my Master’s degree, we were putting our portfolios together and I was still lacking confidence at this stage, so I decided I wanted to be able to hide behind a brand. In a brainstorm of names, I came up with UnlikelyGenius.
It just felt perfect, and has every day since.
So you handle content design, learning design and graphic design. What, all at once?
I do! And it works. Phew.
It is so handy for my clients to be able to take on one person to do it all, rather than hiring and briefing three designers and trying to get them all to align calendars and their approach to the project.
I can take projects through the full process of consultancy, writing, design and, in the case of eLearning, the build. I find I have such a holistic view of projects that I can picture how it’s all coming together from the start and this really helps to get projects moving quickly and give good advice to my clients about the best approach to take.
The learning design has taken priority lately (especially in the pandemic), and I’m able to offer my services as more of a Learning Experience designer – someone who brings in influences and skills from different areas to make a much more engaging learning experience and offer more to the clients.
Owing to my wide mix of skills, I also get a lot of variety in the actual physical work I’m doing – I can be writing scripts in the morning, followed by designing infographics, then I might be building a course or creating character designs in the afternoon.
This variety, though difficult to manage at times, is key for me. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
I have been told a few times by these business-guru types that I should focus on one offering and ‘niche down’. But this is my niche – to be able to offer it all as a full service. And whilst it works I shall carry on, thank you.
Can you explain for idiots like me what content design is? Are we talking UX?
Yes, it’s part of UX. They can be difficult to separate at times.
Whereas a UX designer would look at the overall design of a system, the content designer works alongside them to look at the detail of the writing and language, flow, and accessibility.
It’s giving people the right content, at the right time, in the right place, and ensuring a website or service fulfils user needs. It’s looking at how we can we efficiently solve a problem the users have.
Sometimes lovely prose and storytelling is not appropriate and this is where content design comes in.
For example, say you want to know how to pay your tax bill. You just want to know how much to pay, how to pay and by when. That’s the user need.
We need the information to be concise, direct, contain the relevant links to pay, and to do all this efficiently. No one wants that process to be drawn out, beautiful or even fun. Just functional.
It also needs to be written in a way that is easy to understand – without jargon, legal bumf, or the endless cycle of web pages and getting no nearer to an answer. We’ve all been there and wanted to launch the computer into the stratosphere as a result.
So can you also talk us through UX?
UX is a much underrated and misunderstood area by many businesses. It can build or ruin the experience of a service and so seriously affect a business’s reputation. It’s about making meaningful and relevant experiences for users – who wouldn’t want that for their business?
To put it briefly, it looks at how usable a service is (whether a website, product, online service etc), and includes looking at functionality, design and accessibility, as well as how a user would enter and leave the service too – so not just about the product itself. It is the full user journey.
UX principles are very adaptable and can be applied in many other places. They just make sense. I have started to apply UX principles to learning design and it has been really interesting to see the difference it can make to the flow of a course.
What do you think makes you different in business? Do you have a unique set of skills?
My selling point is definitely in the varied range of skills I have.
There aren’t many one-man bands out there who can offer a combination of learning, design, build, UX and writing skills. I often have customers contact me about either writing or design/build, and then end up hiring me for the full process, or come back later for the other skills.
Though some people can be suspicious and suggest the ‘jack of all trades’ statement could apply here, in actual fact the skills complement each other so well, and with the amount of time I spend on self-development in all these areas it really does give me an edge.
The number of repeat customers and great testimonials coming in is testament to that.
My wandering path of a career made me feel lost for a long time but all the skills I’ve learnt along the way have come together marvellously now, and my clients benefit from that.
So you’ve been at this a couple of years but you ran your business for many years alongside a day job. How’d that work out?
Yes, UnlikelyGenius has actually existed for 15 years in one guise or another.
I spent ten years or so doing little bits of graphic design jobs for small and local businesses, mostly branding, alongside my permanent roles. It was a great way to ease myself into running a business and having to learn how to do accounts, pitch, quote, project-manage, deal with difficult customers, etc.
The type of work I was doing then was all low-paid work just to bring in a bit of extra pocket money, so I never envisaged that I could make a full-time career out of it. But it certainly helped that so much was already set up when I had to suddenly launch myself into self-employment.
You love learning, right? What kind of courses do you do?
I’ve always loved learning and embraced my inner geek.
I’ve done so many courses and conferences this year, and I sign up to webinars weekly. The courses that spring to mind are: Domestika’s Pinterest for Business, Andy Maslen’s Breakthrough Copywriting, Using Video to Get Visible in your Business with Becky Holmes, and Mission-Led Content with Lisa Barry.
I’m also in the fabulous ‘Cookie Collective’ mastermind group, which is part of the Being Freelance Community. Also, I have attended the CopyCon, UtterlyContent and QuietlySuccessful summit all in the last couple of months alone.
I’m a big reader, too, and have taken to reading business and self-help books which have also given me so many ideas to implement in the business and other perspectives to think about (something you can be seriously lacking working from home alone all the time).
Where do you see it all leading?
Ooh, that’s a tough question.
Admittedly, I’ve very much gone with the flow and ‘winged it’ so far. I’ve never been one for planning meticulously. I feel like you can miss opportunities that way by closing yourself off from them.
There are a few exciting developments in the works though. I’ve started creating and selling my own courses on my website and in 2021 I’m hoping to tick one big goal off the list – to publish a book (eek!). Impostor syndrome is going crazy with that one.
I’ve also been asked to put myself forward as a director for an industry body. The voting takes place this month, so watch this space.
To do all of this, I do need to learn to start saying no to some work so I want to start focusing on the projects I enjoy most and, to be honest, make sure I take time off as I have failed miserably at that this year – there didn’t seem to be any point.
If everything just carried on ticking over as it has been, I’d be happy with that. If it gets even better, that’s marvellous and more than I ever dared dream of.
What does a typical client look like? What problems are you solving?
I have two main types of clients.
Firstly, eLearning agencies who need extra resource for their projects. I’ve a couple of repeat customers for these where the contracts roll over and they give me a shout as and when needed.
Second, any company that need to move their content or training online. Most often they’re companies looking to be more efficient and free up staff time (and money) by moving face-to-face training into a digital service or, in the case of content design, to offer a new service or update an existing one.
These customers range from small self-employed companies of one, up to public sector, charities and private-sector organisations. As an example, at the moment I’m working on two large projects: one for a UK-based eLearning company and the other for a division of the NHS.
Plus, I have other ongoing smaller pieces of work for a technology company, an eLearning supplier and a charity.
In all that magical ‘free-time’ I have I’m also trying to look at how I can help smaller businesses that can’t necessarily afford to hire someone to move their training online and are looking to do it themselves.
So I produce resources to help, have a free Facebook group for them to join and offer low cost services such as power hours and a course to help them as much as I can.
Phew. Any high points you’re proud of?
After having felt very lost and like a total failure in my previous career working for others, my high point is having created a successful thriving business in just two years.
I’ve never looked back and I’m a totally different person now. It’s been a long bumpy road to get here, but I am proud of the business, the work I have produced and the feedback I have received.
I also won a couple of awards in September and they absolutely made my year. It was so nice to be recognised for the effort and time I’ve put in. To receive an award for my article writing in an industry journal (when I have the biggest impostor monster looming every time I send an article in) was just wonderful.
When you write these things, you have no idea if anyone is actually reading them or if they are helpful, so to see the feedback from readers too gave me a real boost.
You do creative stuff out of hours. Does that help with the work?
I might be partial to a creative hobby or two ten.
I’m a big crochet fan, plus I have dabbled with whittling, pottery, resin crafts, weaving and sculpting in the last two years alone. Some of these hobbies stay around longer than others, but I do find them all therapeutic and it’s all putting creative thinking to use in different ways.
They don’t tend to contribute directly to my design work (though there is a secret and very exciting crochet project in development that does). They’re my source of down time and switching off.
I’m a very restless soul and one who struggles to switch off from working, so they’re my way of making myself sit and keeping my hands busy so I don’t pick the laptop or the phone back up.
How are the rabbits?
Grumpy, as always, but living like queens.
Being rescue rabbits, they don’t like humans due to their previous experience. But now they are spoilt rotten and have their huge, new castle/run combo I think they like us a little more. Maybe.
And finally, what do you have for breakfast?
Most days, I have Tesco Special Flakes (like Special K were, before they changed their recipe and ruined them), or a bagel or fruit.
But my favourite occasional breakfast treat has to be cinnamon rolls or Pain au Chocolat <drool>.
Ooh, now I want cinnamon rolls.