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From the Trenches

What Should Come First? Content or Design?

Yvonne Lyons | January 8, 2015
Design Or Content First

Let me count the number of times someone has told me that design needs to come before content. Hundreds. Now let me count the number of times that someone else has argued that content needs to come before design. Also a lot. I’d have good statistical evidence if I had really kept track of this. As it is, my halfway-decent memory allows me to provide some good information about what I’ve learned.

This is an old argument. It’s a chicken and egg thing, and people want to fight about it all the time, but I’ve worked with lots of designers and content creators, have talked to many of them about this very thing, and have some insight into how it really does work best.

The answer is… it depends. But it’s almost never to design everything and then plop in the copy. And honestly, most designers I have worked with wouldn’t want to do things that way.

So, if you must have one black-and-white answer to the question of which should come first, I’d say the content informs design. But don’t get all crazy and start a Twitter campaign against me if you don’t agree. It’s not really that cut and dried. Content guides, it shapes, it might offer some foundation. Like most things in life, collaboration is the key for quality in this process, and I would posit only that content has to come first in some form. Here’s what I mean and how best to make it work.

Start by thinking about what the purpose of design is. Think it’s just to pretty up the page? Wrong.

The job of the design, whether it’s print, digital, or web, is to help communicate the message of the content. So, stay with me here, if we don’t have the content message for the designer, how does he or she know what to effectively communicate?

Form a creative partnership

Yes, I said that some piece of the content comes first, but the bigger message that you should walk away with here is that the designer and the writer should be partners in a design project. These two people are masters of their respective crafts — they take complex ideas and convey them in ways that express a particular meaning, emotion, or effect. Good design will bring out the best in quality content, and strong content will enhance great design.

Know the strategy

The content strategy is important for both design and the content people. Before anyone can (or should) begin anything, an understanding of the content strategy for the piece, for the campaign, for the client, is key. This will help both writer and designer get on the same page with these questions/answers about the project:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What message are we conveying (and why is it important)?
  • Who is the audience?
  • How are we going to convey the information?

But a discussion of the bigger picture — the marketing strategy and the business goals — is also critical. Both sides need to have a handle on the ultimate goal for the project, then for the content, and then it can be captured both in content message and design.

Once you know this information is locked down, designer and writer (and any other key stakeholders) should sit down and brainstorm about all aspects of the piece, including design and writing. This might include best format, tone, audience, copy length or sections, and more.

I asked longtime colleague and designer Stephanie Coustenis about the collaboration and brainstorming that should take place between designer and writer, and she told me that, done right, the “development of content and design almost becomes parallel.” People are often eager to get going on a project, but plan first, then execute, or you will be disappointed in the end.

Build a collaborative plan

Following your strategy meeting, designer and writer should develop a plan for the first step in the content/design process. Will the writer feed a bit of copy to the designer so he or she can develop a concept? For a short piece, will the designer just receive all the copy at once for a first design draft? Will the writer feed sections of a longer piece to the designer over a period of time?

There isn’t just ONE way to do this, my friends, but you see that the options all include some content going to the designer so that he or she has something to work with. It might only be a key line or phrase for the cover of your piece to create a concept, but there are some words that go into a design. Remember, the use of type is a big part of design. If you give someone 10 long words or four short ones, things are going to look different on the page, don’t you think? The content matters.

There certainly are occasions where there is a design concept that comes before copy is written. But ideally that meeting between the seasoned copywriter and the designer still takes place focused on what the vision is for the piece, and it includes how the copy might work in the piece. Is there a big intro paragraph? Lots of subheads? A sidebar on every page? How many callouts? The sides work together in the planning so that when it comes to execution, things fall into place easily.

Have I answered the question about which should come first, design or content? The answer is probably still: it depends. Should you ever do all the design or all the writing before you wrap in the other half of the creative team? Never. So let content kick the creative party off, but make design every bit the equal partner. The best creative work will always come from projects that are planned and executed collaboratively between a design and a writer.

Do you have any ideas on how to make the design process work smoothly? Do you think the content should come first? Let me know in the comments.

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About Yvonne Lyons:

Yvonne Lyons is Right Source’s vice president of creative services, overseeing content and design for all of our clients. She ensures that all creative produced at Right Source is of the highest quality and is aligned with our clients’ business strategy and goals. Yvonne received a bachelor’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University in writing and literature and has more than 20 years of experience in marketing, branding, and communications.