Why you should always start with content

Posted by on Aug 24, 2009 in Content Strategy | No Comments
Why you should always start with content

The always-brilliant site Boxes and Arrows recently posted an essay on the dangers of designing without bringing in the content writer. The piece, authored by a designer no less, included a beautiful example of what happens when a Web page template is created lovingly by the interface designer, only to have the live content come in at the end and muck it all up. (See the image here. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry.)

The author’s strong recommendation was that designers should consult with the copywriter early in the process to make sure pages are designed to account for real content. Sound advice, but it got me pondering — at what point did the idea that we start with content become a novel concept?

When content was king
It used to be, not so very long ago, that content and design were not a chicken-or-egg proposition. Copy came first. Design was the act of presenting that copy in a way that was easy and enjoyable to read and understand. From my magazine publishing days to my early career in marcom, the Golden Rule was to write first, think visually later. (It’s one of the reasons that many classically trained journalists and writers have no skills, and little interest, in design. The written word once was the center of everything.)

But times of course have changed. One reality is simply that people read and experience communications differently now, as a result of an overload of information and changing communications platforms. Everyone balks at large blocks of words, no matter how gorgeously crafted they are. Modern copywriters understand that, though, and are prepared to write accordingly.

Imagine how my world turned upside down the first time I worked for a VP of marketing who insisted that the marcom department start with design. The graphic designer would do the layout first, then I would write copy to “fit.” I fought the process with every ounce of my soul. It went against the grain of everything I had ever learned. He used the argument that I presented above: that people don’t read, that design is everything, that content needs to fit within the boundaries of presentation, not the other way around.

The process problem
To this day I still don’t agree with him, but my belief now is that this has become an issue of process, especially as we as marketers produce more of our communications electronically than in print. Web site design especially has pushed content further down the chronological food chain. Designing page templates early has become critical for building a site in a content management system (CMS); therefore, information architecture and visual design are slated for the first 1/3 of a Web site design project, while content (the stuff that gets “poured in” to the CMS) comes in the last 1/3 of the project, simply because process-wise there are so many other things to deal with first.

On the print side, companies take a similar tact to their collateral systems, striving for so much consistency that they design first, and ask questions about what’s necessary content-wise later.

There are two primary dangers with this approach:

  1. Design #fail. Illustrated by the link above, once “real” content is loaded into a Web content management system or flowed into a print layout, the original and pure intent of the design is compromised (i.e., the page looks crappy). This can be an occasional problem on individual pages, but the real danger is that it can affect the whole site or system. One of my projects involved editorial updates for a home page that was designed before the company had a content strategy for the page; much of the editorial team’s time involved trying to make the content work within strict design limitations. Neither the design nor the content were all that they could have been.
  2. Vapid copy. The design remains beautiful, but the copy says nothing. When the team focuses too hard on what something looks like without considering content, you’re in danger of delivering absolutely nothing of substance to your customer. A client of mine recently showed me the spectacular capabilities brochure their agency had designed for them: specialty paper, precious die cuts, amazing typography, lovely photography. Then the client, a sales and marketing person, told me: “I can’t use it. I had to recreate my own sales sheets to take to clients and try to make them look like this brochure. It says absolutely nothing about what we do or how we’re different. It’s just fluff.”

Everyone all aboard the peace train
Yet as a professional who plays the roles of both a project manager and a copywriter, I know how difficult it can be to start with content. The world we live in today simply no longer accommodates the write first, make-it-pretty later approach (which is condescending and erroneous in its own right). Content and design must work together from day one. Even in proven, recognized process flows (such as with large-scale Web site design) there are some slight tweaks we could all make to more harmoniously help these worlds work together. Some examples:

  • Write real (not sample) new content before starting visual design. That doesn’t mean you have to have all 300 pages of a new Web site completely drafted. But understanding the structure, flow and content of a page before designing it is essential for designers. A really well-designed Web site considers the “frame” of the page as well as the inside page layout. Think about five or six main kinds of content you plan to create (about us pages, product pages, catalog pages as examples) and write them, using your planned tone and style. Avoid greeked text as much as possible.
  • Think about the whole package before beginning anything. The copywriter, designer, creative director/project manager and business subject matter expert should all be on the same page before beginning. Copywriters and designers need to be allies. A writer needs to understand the vision for the design, and vice versa.
  • Work together harmoniously. Remember that in the end, you’re creating communications for your customers (and for your salespeople to help them reach those customers). No one on the creative team should bristle if copy needs to be cut or rewritten. Likewise, no one should feel offended if design ideas go by the wayside due to a shift in direction with copy. In the words of Don Draper on last night’s episode of “Mad Men”: “You’re not an artist Peggy. You solve problems. Leave some tools in your toolbox.” Work to make content and design support each other.

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