The above is a tweet from about 3 years ago that recently came to my attention via Luke Wroblewski. It’s hardly controversial, however, I think the quote above can be taken too literally.
I want to offer a few thoughts about what we really need to know about content in order to begin developing a design concept.
First let me state I absolutely agree with the meaning behind Jeffrey’s statement and I think he too would agree his words are sometimes taken too literally. He said as much in a comment on his blog.
“Content” doesn’t mean “having all the copy.
I’m sure when you’re about to start a project for a client you ask early on for the content. If your clients are like many of mine you won’t get all the copy prior to starting the design and you’ll need to get more information from them.
Is it really necessary?
What You Need to Know About Content
Design is communication. Naturally we need to know what we’re trying to communicate in order to be able to communicate it effectively.
This is key to design.
Ideally we’ll have real content to work with. I’ll always ask for it and hope to get it as soon as possible. Realistically it almost never happens.
When you design specifically around prewritten content you have art direction. You have different designs for each piece of content.
While you may be art directing the content on a site, most of the time we’re creating a single design or several similar designs for different sections of the site.
Think about how you would design a blog. You can’t possibly have all the content in advance, because most of it won’t even be an idea as you’re designing. The very nature of a blog suggests the design has to come before most of the copy.
You can know in advance that future blogs posts will mostly be text heavy or that they’ll feature images or other media in some way. You should also know what the topic of the blog is.
Your design can know much about what that content will be long before the content is created. You may not be able to design a post specifically around its content, but you’ll have enough information to come up with a design for the blog as a whole.
We don’t need all the copy in advance. What we need to know is information about what that copy will be. We need to know things like:
- What is the site is about?
- What will the content be about?
- What type of content will be present (text, images, video, audio, etc)?
- Who is the audience for the content?
- Will the content be short, medium, or long form?
- How will people find the content?
What we need isn’t so much the exact copy as it is knowing the subject of the copy and associated information. We need a strong understanding of the nature of the content, but not the content itself.
The more information you have about the content prior to design, the more likely the design can turn out well, but again you don’t need to have the exact copy in order to design.
Not having all the copy doesn’t mean you know nothing about the content.
Knowing that we need some information about content, we need to at the very least set a plan for what the content will be. What should we plan for before design in order to be able to design effectively?
Ideally we’ll have a content strategy in place to define the purpose of the content and set out what the message we’re trying to communicate will be.
We want to plan for topics and ideas and how the content will relate to achieving site and business goals, marketing, and search engine optimization.
We want our content strategy to answer questions like:
- What content should be created
- Why create this content
- Who is the best person to create this content
- Where will this content be put to best use
- When should this content be published
- How will this content be created, text, image, video, etc.
Before designing we need to develop the information architecture for the site in order to design site navigation, help search engines find the content and help them understand it too.
When I’m entrusted with developing a content plan my process for content creation is to research the industry, brainstorm ideas, organize the potential pages, prune those pages, and revise by iterating the entire process again.
I’ve written in more detail about most of the above and have linked to those details throughout this post. The important thing to understand here is that planning content prior to design is not only important, but a requirement for effective design.
Do we need all the copy prewritten? No, but we do need to know as much as possible about what that copy will eventually be.
I realize I’m not saying anything new or profound here. This post is more a reminder that while you don’t need to have every bit of copy in order to create a design, you do need to have a lot of questions answered about the what the content will be.
It’s also a reminder that while most clients won’t ever deliver all the copy prior to you beginning the design that’s ok. You don’t need it.
Design in the absence of copy can still be design. Design in the absence of any knowledge of content is certainly decoration. Seldom though, do we have absolutely no knowledge about content.
We may not have all the details, but we almost always have some information about what the content will be, usually enough to develop a concept for the design, plan the site architecture, etc.
Do you insist on all the copy prior to designing? What information do you require at a minimum?