Which comes first: content or design?

4 min read
Samantha Anderson
  •  Mar 16, 2015
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As a copywriter, I’ve historically been charged with filling in the blanks in already-approved wireframes. Those bits of lorem ipsum? Yeah, those are for me. I work to decipher the design’s intent and fill each section with the appropriate language. It’s kind of like painting by numbers: someone else has designated the areas I get to work in, the colors I get to use. My only real creative freedom is deciding on the shade of the color, the stroke of the brush.

This process does a disservice to the project as a whole. Design alone won’t accomplish a site’s goal: it requires words, carefully chosen words, to enhance and drive home the message. We need words to get the user to do what we want them to.

So why do we box up content and lead with design?Twitter Logo It’s like starting a fight with one arm tied behind your back. Instead, let’s get both fists up—pair the design and content.

A better way to collaborate

I recently had the incredible opportunity to do some deep collaboration with a designer on a quick-turnaround project. Together, we were able to wireframe, write, and design an entire page in 3 days—and it was good work, too.

First, we conducted hours of stakeholder interviews to understand the company and its goals. While I scribbled notes and built a word bank from language I heard frequently during the interviews, my design counterpart sketched ideas for the layout. Then, during breaks, we bounced ideas off each other, playing with various story concepts, sketching out content areas and image ideas.

Was it awkward at first? Totally. We both had to find a way to help each other, giving just enough to spark an idea and a new way to approach it. It was a give and take, figuring out what felt best for both of us—which was new and wonderful to me as a writer.

And it was great for the designer I was working with too. He got help crafting the story and layout of the page. With a simple content outline in place, he could start sketching out the final page, thinking of supporting images to go along with the copy we selected. In the end, our final product told a compelling story visually and verbally.

It’s all in the approach

When a designer and copywriter work together from start to finish, there’s great potential for creating a beautiful and cohesive story. While everyone works differently, I’ve found that you’ll need to do the following to achieve smooth writer-designer collaboration.

Think of what you’re building as a minimum viable product (MVP)

You can’t expect to nail the entire project after 1 or 2 collaboration sessions. Approach your time together as a way to nail down a concept, and get a minimum viable product started. After all, you’re probably going to get feedback from the client about design and copy, so it is okay to leave some room for tweaks. Seriously, don’t get yourself into an “analysis paralysis” situation.

Start with the story

The story drives both design and copy.Twitter Logo Discuss how topics can be laid out to best convey the message, and come up with a logical way to introduce new ideas to the user. This will help the designer understand how to lay out the page, and will direct the copy as well.

Allow for alone time

When you’re used to working on your own and then bringing fully formed ideas to the table, it can be difficult to think out loud with a partner. Give yourselves time to do some deep thinking and brainstorming alone. I find it easier to write when I’m focused. After an hour alone in a quiet place, I came back to the table with lots of headline and body copy choices for us to pick from.

Be receptive

The writer will have ideas for how the design should work. The designer will have copy ideas. Be ready to take the good with the bad, and be open to disagreement, discussion, and compromise. It’s an adjustment if you’re used to working alone, but ease into it and the results will be glorious.

The chicken and the egg

The question of which comes first, content or design, can feel like a chicken and egg scenario: you can’t have one without the other, but which actually comes first? In this scenario, a high-level content outline preceded design—but it was born from designer-writer collaboration, not the writer working in isolation. I believe this is the best way to steer a strategic design.

Next project, get the designer and copywriter together to draw up some concepts. Design and content are equally important to the success of a site, so giving them equal weight throughout the whole process will dramatically increase the quality of your work. Give it a shot—you’ll be glad you did.

Want more on this topic? Check out our very own John Moore Williams’ thoughts on why content comes first.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard