Is Content Necessary Prior To Web Design?

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it's decoration

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?

Royal KMM

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.

Sitemap mockup for fictional project on Kuala Lumpur

Planning 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.

Cartoon image of a variety of multimedia devices

Summary

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?

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22 comments

  1. Great topic ! I think one of your last statements characterizes this best: “Design in the absence of copy can still be design. Design in the absence of any knowledge of content is certainly decoration.”

    What is essential to web design is a strong sense of the “idea” of the business, the business case, the target market, etc. And, of course, I would love to have some product and people images at the outset.

    But if I waited for content (from small business customers) before starting a web design, some sites would just never get finished. For small businesses, not only is the design process a highly interactive process, sometimes it is the catalyst for the business’s first marketing plan.

    One of the reasons I work exclusively with small businesses is that I love this getting-to-know-the-business-interactive-creation-process. Germans could make up a word for that :) It seems to be exciting for everyone involved. Sure I would love to have jobs where all the content was already finished. But, frankly, they wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

    • Thanks Glenn. We’re in complete agreement, aren’t we?

      I think I’ve finished a few designs where the client never did send me a word of copy. I asked for it. I was told it was coming. It never arrived. Fortunately I did know what the copy would be about and knew enough about the content to create the design.

      We work for small businesses for similar reasons. Like you say it can be frustrating at times, like when you’re waiting on the copy, but there’s something about really getting to know the people behind the business and how they respond to different things that’s interesting to work with.

  2. I always ask for a first draft of content before working on design. If they don’t have the bandwidth then I try to take ownership of the content drafts.

    In my experience the design process and timelines are always much smoother that way without exception.

    Visuals and content go hand in hand. If you intend to make relevant meaningful design that is meant to convey a message/theme then you need the content first. Otherwise the design is decoration and the discussion devolves into a conversation based purely around personal aesthetic.

    Movies don’t go into production without a script. Magazine graphics aren’t created without the first draft of the article. Book covers aren’t made without the drafted story. Websites shouldn’t be any different.

    For anyone that says the project would never be completed otherwise then why take it on in the first place. The project isn’t completed without content. If you see that it’s going to be an issue, then budget to manage the editorial calendar. This after all is part of the project. You’ll get the opportunity to learn even more about their business and message. Items up being a win situation all around.

    • I always ask for content right away too. Sometimes I do get it quickly, bust most of the time I don’t get it until sometime later in the process.

      Usually when first taking on a project I like to talk to the client and I ask as many questions as I can about the content, but even more about their business and what they hope to accomplish on the site, etc. Sometimes that can lead to new ideas for content too.

      As long as I have enough information about the content like I described in the post I can come up with a design and I think that’s all we need. Ideally we’d have all the copy written, but much of the time that isn’t going to be the case with small business clients.

  3. Great post and I very much agree. One of your last statements was about not having said anything new or profound…well, that may be true if you’re a web professional, but if you’re not this is probably new stuff.

    As you said in a comment above you’ve had to work without any copy. Me too. Would a client ask you to do the same if it were a design job for print? I doubt it. At least it has been my experience that with print, clients expect to have the content more or less ready before design begins. However, they often look at websites as boxes that will get filled sometime before launch.

    I think educating clients about the value of the ‘content first’ approach is something we need to continue to work on. Again, well done post.

    • Thanks John. Probably true that this might be new for non web professionals. It’s easy for me to forget that not everyone is. :)

      I don’t know if you could design something for print without the copy. You could probably work out a concept and create an aesthetic, but you’re going to need to the copy to know if it fits on the page(s). I guess in a way that’s an advantage we have on the web since we aren’t designing for a fixed format.

      One of the first things I always discuss with clients is the content. I’m always asking questions early on and many are to understand as much as possible about the content. I’d like to have the copy as soon as possible, but I know it’s not realistic so knowing about the content is usually enough.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    • I like the analogy Gaurav. I hadn’t thought of it like that at all, but it fits really well.

      By the way if you’re interested I wrote a post for Smashing Magazine last year, Does Form Follow Function?

      It’s been awhile since I read what I wrote in that post, but I wonder if what I wrote in that post and this one agree. I hope so. :)

  4. I am of the same mind as Glen. I work with small businesses and some of them are not great at coming up with the content. I actually help them formulate their content strategy and voice. I mostly build sites with WordPress and I love this because each page does not have to be so specifically” designed. Pages can be added or modified by the client as they “grow” into their sites.

    Now some client’s misplace their anxiety about their businesses on the design. If I have a great design that will bring in the business. Not true. Really the design should facilitate the content but the content is the most important thing. This is especially the case for coaches, consultants or businesses that need to “show” their prospects what they do and how they do it, instead of the old style website that was all about declaring We do this and We Do that, which is just glossed over as so much diatribe these days.

    • I’ve also provided content strategy for clients as part of a project. I have a few clients who I work with all the time and I’m always on the lookout for new ideas we can use on their sites.

      Like you most of my clients are small businesses and many come looking for the design with an idea of the content, but without the copy itself.

      Good point about clients sometimes thinking design alone will bring the business. I also get the opposite with clients who think of design more as development. It really all works together. I think the content should come first, but good content with poor design can easily be ignored and good design with poor content will attract people to start reading, but probably not finish reading.

  5. I think Patrick and Gaurav made a very important points, which is that ‘you need the script before you can make the film’. This article flags up another important issue, which is as designers we have a natural tendency to run ahead and start designing before a proper plan / agreement is in place.

    At the end of the day whether its content, design, illustration – a deadline is a deadline and speaking from personal experience it is better to set your terms and stick to them – its all about respecting your time.

    It the context of website any good SEO expert will always recommend that the content and meta data is written from the get go. :-)

    • I agree. Script yes, but you don’t need all the dialog written to begin the film. You can improvise some of the words while filming. You do at least need to know what the scene is about though, before turning on the cameras.

      When I’m working on a site for myself I usually do have all the content written (outside blog posts) prior to designing. At a minimum it’s all planned and I’ve made notes.

      It’s so important to know in advance what the content will exist and what each page will be about. It’s ok if all the copy isn’t written, but to have no idea what that copy will be is going to lead to bad design.

  6. A few projects I’ve worked on vary in their process, but imo it works best like:

    1) write content
    2) wireframe content
    3) visual design the wireframe
    4) build the visual design

    That said steps 2, 3 and 4 can get the ball running whilst 1 is happening. There are certain conventions that can be applied to various markets.

    • I’ve gone through that process myself. I guess we could replace write content with plan content and still get through to the end, though having the content written is certainly preferable.

      Like you said you can get the ball rolling while the content is still being written. I agree too about conventions being applied. Those are necessary when building a theme or template.

  7. Very interesting article! Would you say this process also applies if the content needs to fit a pre-designed template (for web or print), or would you follow a different process then?

    • In print you really have to have the content first. You might adjust the content to fit the designed space or you might rework the designed space to fit the content, but the content has to be there before you can call the design finished.

      When it comes to a template or theme then you really can’t know the exact content in advance, but you can know or make reasonable assumptions about what the content will be. Will it be text? Will there be images? You might know what the content will general be about. News? Tech? Real Estate.

      It’s a challenge in developing a theme. You have to make it specific enough to be useful, but also generic enough to be useful to many people.

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