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Which comes first, the design or the content?

When you are working on a project like a new website, direct mail piece, or brochure it’s quite common to have a design ‘mocked-up’ before you have started writing the copy. In fact, for most web projects I work on, the design has already been signed off before I even provide a quote.

This can be problematic.

If you want truly persuasive copy with a strong call to action, it’s much better for the designer to see what content needs to fit on the page prior to commencing the design.

For example:

  • There’s no use developing a layout that only has small content boxes if you want long sales copy.
  • If your call to action ends up being a newsletter sign-up, this has to be reflected in the design.
  • Different header and body styles may need to be supported in the design – content is more than paragraph text.

Get the content written first. Be happy with the tone and language. Decide on the style.

It all influences the design.

And a final point: Once the design has been finalised and the content added, get your copywriter to have another look. The transition from a Word document to proper layout is a big one, and sometimes some minor tweaks to the words will make all the difference to the impact of the final product.

What do you think? Do you start with the content, or always have the design done first?

If you’ve got a copywriting project coming up, get in early and ask for a quote so I can start work on your content before the design is finalised.

{ 25 comments… add one }
  • Clare September 27, 2010, 7:34 pm

    Coming from a design background I’ve always started with a wireframe sketch of the content areas on the page – but rarely had access to the final content that will take the space. You make a good point about the call to actions on the page. That is an important element (obviously) and one that a page almost needs to be designed around.
    Clare recently posted…Blogging – Side Project or BusinessMy Profile

    • Snappy Sentences September 27, 2010, 7:39 pm

      Hi Clare
      It’s interesting that you say that. In your experience, were you given the opportunity to re-look at the design once the content was finalised?

  • Kate Toon September 27, 2010, 7:47 pm

    Hi

    I totally agree. I think it’s okay to be given a basic concept, or wireframe structure to run from, but it has to be flexible. Too often I’m called in at the last minute to write copy for a fully designed (and coded) website. Luckily most clients I’ve worked with have been willing to make any necessary changes to the design.

    I also agree it’s essential that the writer gets a final review before the site goes live, often huge chunks of copy accidentally get forgotten due to frantic last minute cut and pasting.
    Great article.

    • Snappy Sentences September 27, 2010, 7:52 pm

      Thanks Kate.

      The most frustrating thing is that when content and design work together, you can get some remarkable results.

  • Darryl King September 27, 2010, 7:58 pm

    Hey

    I think it is 50/50, some sites need a design shell to give shape for the content to live in and others like you say need the content written first before the design.

    Sometimes the tone of the written word just doesn’t match the visual style at all. Once you start designing a big chunk of copy sometimes just doesn’t work.

    That said having more copy up front makes for a better overall site than having none. And with zero copy the site can hang together as a bunch of nice images and layouts with no real end result.

    I think ultimately that is where the strategy fits in to create the glue that binds the project together. Layout the desired goals, work out the feel, what copy would be needed to work to that end and iteratively bring them together as the site takes shape.

    Cheers

  • Clare September 27, 2010, 8:49 pm

    @snappy – to be honest the only sites I’ve done lately have been ones where I’ve had a good grasp of both design and words (because they’re my own) so am not really coming from one angle or another.
    @darryl – that’s the ideal isn’t it, to have a copywriter, designer (and of course seo right?) working together. They’re all necessary components to a websites that produces results.
    Clare recently posted…Blogging – Side Project or BusinessMy Profile

  • Darryl King September 27, 2010, 8:53 pm

    @clare yeah in an ideal world, oh and throw in the photographer 😉

    And seeing it all work together really well when it does is fun to watch evolve.

    • Snappy Sentences September 28, 2010, 8:25 am

      A photographer? Oh, I’d LOVE one of those 🙂

      Seriously, yes a design shell is great. Looking back at everyone’s comments it seems that it’s best when both the copywriter AND the designer get to re-visit the site throughout the project. No ‘one chance and that’s it’ attempt to get it right.

      Now just to look at the wording in my quotes….

  • Ally September 28, 2010, 2:38 pm

    For most corporate publications – content first, definitely! Although I can see the need for design first in a lot of ad campaigns and more creative work.

    • Snappy Sentences September 28, 2010, 3:04 pm

      Yes, corporate publications are really content driven. And a lot of hard work!

  • Penelope Singer October 11, 2010, 8:13 am

    I’m not sure it’s as simple as “this first, that second.” The best scenario is working as a team and having a lot of back and forth coupled with some simultaneous action. As a designer, I can’t create an effective design without knowing the site’s purpose, goals, and rough content. I typically ask for an example of the content and find that works well.

    I fully agree that both designer and content writer need to see the site as it’s coded to allow for adjustments. Things often change throughout the process.

    I’ve seen another type of fail – that of structure. A successful website works flawlessly and has a great design that frames phenomenal content which is easily found by site visitors. So here’s a question: if the developer makes the site work flawlessly, the designer creates the great design, and the content creator writes the phenomenal content, who’s responsible for making sure that things are easily found? Who creates the structure upon which both design and content are based?

    I’ve been involved in a few projects where the structure was so poor that I ended up restructuring it; I just couldn’t have created an effective design otherwise. I’m interested in what others have encountered and done in regards to structure (or lack thereof).

  • Amanda Gonzalez October 11, 2010, 8:20 am

    Content. Hands down.

    Everything else is there to support your message. Of course design plays a huge role – but it’s a supporting role.

    Also, the designer now has a clearly defined goal of what you want your site to achieve. Not only is their role easier, they have the information they need to deliver pinpoint accurate results. Which is exactly what you paid handsomely for!
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  • Patrick Edqvist October 11, 2010, 8:26 am

    It’s my opinion that the content is king and should always come first in any project. Once you know what kind of content there will be then it’s time for a wireframe to get the right balance and focus on the right things. Design is of great importance and works best once the content is set so it can be balanced and be able to get the visitors eyes to the right piece of content.

  • Sachin October 11, 2010, 9:02 am

    To me, the content is the design, in its simplest form.
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  • Connor Crosby October 11, 2010, 9:31 am

    When I am designing a wordpress theme, I usually start with design and add dummy content, although this article may make me consider otherwise. Great job!
    Connor Crosby recently posted…250 FREE Business Cards GiveawayMy Profile

  • Chris Reynolds October 11, 2010, 10:21 am

    Funny, this was the big point I made in our first staff meeting on Friday. We’ve been starting designs with little to no content, and I’ve been griping about it since I started. Too much back and forth, designs constantly changing (because content is constantly changing) and so forth.

    The reasoning I’m being told they’re doing it this way is because the clients just take too long in providing (or at least approving) content. So the agency I work for feels that showing them designs first will get them “motivated” to focus on the project.

    Of course, this is what happens when you get the small business clients who don’t want to pay a lot. They really just don’t care. They want results but many times aren’t willing to contribute.

    Sucks having to push them all the time.

  • david praznik October 11, 2010, 10:22 am

    content = mantra for design.

  • Snappy Sentences October 11, 2010, 12:50 pm

    Thanks everyone for your comments – some real food for thought.

    @penelope – That’s a tough question. Usability and Information Architecture as disciplines are probably even harder to explain to a client who has had little exposure to websites and how they work. It’s even more harder when they expect their organisation’s structure to be reflected in the site structure. (Gerry McGovern just wrote an interesting post on this at http://www.gerrymcgovern.com/nt/2010/nt-2010-10-11-Dell-organization.htm ) Most projects I work on (when a design has already been done), it’s been the web developer who has developed the structure of the site. Whether they have done a good job or not is another question.

    Personally, I try to have input as structural elements like navigation labels are all content too.

    @amanda – Yes, it does help the designer. No doubt about it.
    @patrick – Does this happen for your projects?
    @sachin – I can see your point, though I would never call myself a designer 🙂
    @connor – As a designer then, what do you prefer?
    @chris – Content unfortunately is still a last minute scramble for a lot of clients. Sometimes because they think they can do it themselves, sometimes because they don’t realise how bad the ‘old’ content was until they see it in the new design.
    @david – What content do you like to see before embarking on the design?

  • Devesh Matharia October 11, 2010, 6:52 pm

    Hi
    All this while I have been a part of numerous online projects catering to a wide genre of audiences. As a copy guy, I have always had the opportunity to discuss the target audience and then work out a strategy that will best fit the bill.
    Content, on the contrary plays as much a vital role as its final visual depiction by the designer. In some cases where the target is to catch the viewers attention, a good blend of both copy and design works best. But yes, it is extremely important to work out on what message goes first and then on the design part. This makes it easy both for the designer and the copywriter to work on the same target.
    Lorem ipsum doesn’t give a fair idea of what will actually arrive in the text box and more often it requires tweaking in the design if the layout if prepared beforehand.
    The best way is to have a mutual discussion with the design team and decide on the elements that the copywriter needs to work on considering the ultimate motive of the project.

    Thanks
    Devesh

  • Jacq May 18, 2011, 1:23 pm

    Nice blog.. 🙂 I think everything mentioned on the comments above are all important factors in trying to create something attractive/feasible..but for me, I think design should go first, because that would be the determining factor of what the content would be, content goes with the approved design..:) but then of course, it really depends, some preferred content first, then design..:)

    • Snappy Sentences May 22, 2011, 6:27 pm

      Hi Jacq
      In your experience, what do you work with? Do you get the content before designing the page? Or the other way around?

  • Jacq May 24, 2011, 12:50 pm

    I’m not much a writer myself, but based from what I see, observed and read the content matters first, because it would be the defining point of the design. But just like what I said, some people find it easier to start doing the design concept first and then work on the content..either way, both strategies work..I guess it just really depends on the expertise of the person working on the project..

  • Barbara Saunders September 6, 2014, 5:11 am

    Fascinating. I’ve been reading a bunch of sites on this topic today. I’m headed into a client meeting!

    Writers (I am one) tend to say to write first; designers say to design first.

    I think there’s a wider view we need to get to: the ideas.

    In my experience: when I’ve worked with a larger company, some business person was responsible for dictating what the objective of the site was. (This might be confused or political, but that’s another issue!) The writer and designer were given something clear to say. Working together, in this scenario, is ideal. But even working apart can come out OK: you know, for example, whether to be whimsical or serious because some business person or project manager has said, “This site is directed as facilities directors who will need to make a case for this program to a senior corporate executive who has no technical knowledge but needs numbers.”

    It’s with small business people (or a manager with no creative director or project manager as a buffer) that the writing v. design problem gets hairy.

    Instead of a clearly articulated idea to be communicated, there are vague directions, like reference to other sites that are appealing. Lay people don’t analyze bad/good design or bad writing. They feel it when it is so bad that they are confused. They are drawn in when it is good. They react subjectively to aesthetics – which might not match that of their clients. They tend to miss that there is an art and science of achieving desired effects.

    If the question, “What are we trying to say here?” is answered, visual and verbal grammars follow. If not, both designer and writer are left stabbing around trying to figure out what’s to be said.

    This leads me back to content draft first. Movies are driven by visual grammar, but someone writes the script – the visual description of what’s to be seen – before the director and the cinematographer and the art designer actually render it visually.

  • Selena September 6, 2014, 10:25 am

    Online marketing – It’s about more than having a pretty website.
    Produce original, purposeful articles and avoid duplication. It
    is very much important to analyze the marketing plans
    of your competitors and change yours accordingly in order
    to be more successful compared to them.
    Selena recently posted…SelenaMy Profile

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