Creative Lewisham blog

Brand Strategy, Creative Thinking, Digital Evolution and more...

What comes first, design or content?

October 08 2013 12:11 PM

We believe it’s time to move to a new way of designing websites

(though this involves issues that may take time for clients to re-adjust to).

It’s a simple, but profound change:

This may sound obvious, but here’s what normally happens:

Insight and IA work
During insight and IA work we identify what we want to say to whom, where it needs to go and what we want them to do (OK this is a big simplification for sake of blog space!).
Then the site is designed using placeholder content
The homepage generally gets more attention and is usually designed around what is close to final content, but often the rest of the site is laid out as a series of templates with the idea that the content will be created during build

This scenario has happened for years and I’m sure is familiar to any reader who has been involved in a web build.

The result can be dissatisfying. Content is often entered as blocks and the site can end up feeling very samey. Nothing stands out.  The problem is that the content is abstracted from the design. 

Consider the role of graphic design in its pre-digital applications

Its purpose is to enhance the content. You can’t lay out a brochure or design a poster or book cover successfully without knowing the content. The content was created first and the role of design was to present it in the most effective and impactful way. This is the lesson we need to apply to all online design too.

The implications of this may cause some discomfort. There are some things that many clients won’t want to hear:

Ideally, you create content prior to design
OK, I admit this is very difficult. But a good approach is to produce blocks of content and design concurrently in a series of sprints. Content creators and designers needs to work tightly together.
It will take longer
To do it properly you’ll need more graphical design and bespoke layouts for the content, and this will require more effort to code too.
This means it will probably cost more
That’s always popular .   Having said that, 5 pages of well-crafted, succinct content are arguably worth more than 50 heavy text-based pages plonked in identical templates – and we know from usability testing that no one reads that stuff, such a waste. So the cost may even out.  And you will be providing a far better experience for your visitors.

It should be said there are probably some instances where a more general template (without knowing the content) could suffice, eg terms and conditions. And of course, content within a page will change and evolve over time – that’s the beauty of a CMS.

However the principle we're proposing is...

That without any idea of the potential structure, length and meaning of the content in the first place... how can you even start to design the CMS building blocks?

The answer is usually, you don’t – cue blank page with single copy block. 

If we want to effectively communicate the subtleties of a brand, we need to do it concisely and in a format that makes it as easy as possible to quickly comprehend.

And a big block for text in the middle of a page definitely isn't the best vehicle.  We just have to work harder as a client agency partnership to ensure content is prioritised and front loaded to the very beginning of the project.

The result will be worth it. I'd say that 90% of clients reference Apple’s site at the start of a project.  Have a look through it: every page crafted around the content: there’s no 3-column templates there.

It would be good to know your thoughts.

1 Comment

's avatar

October 14 2013 3:52 PM

Very worthy, and this will be attractive to many - but probably not the majority. Like the comparison between websites and brochure design…

October 21 2024 2:22 PM