Content before design. Please!

If you've been involved in a web project, as either client or developer, you might have seen design concepts produced early in the project 'just to get a sense of what it will look like'.

As a web strategist I strongly recommend against this. Why?

All good design requires constraints and boundaries and a clear understanding of the 'job' the design has to do. Not only is it impossible to design something successfully without boundaries or constraints. It's also impossible to judge design unless we understand what 'job' the design is meant to do. Without an understanding of the objective of a design, both designer and client get lost in the black hole of 'personal taste'. There is no way out of that.

So how do we specify what job the design has to do?

To design a great website the designer needs to know three things

  1. What is the desired 'personality' and 'tone & voice' of the site? (What kind of experience do we want the user to have?)
  2. Who are we talking to? (What different types of audiences are there?)
  3. What are the main communication aims? (What do we want people to do, either on the site or as a result of visiting?)

As a web strategist, I know that I can deliver everything the designer needs to know about numbers 2 and 3. But while mumber 1 is certainly specified in a strategy, it doesn't really come to life until it has been in the hands of a good web copywriter. The best way to deliver the personality of the site is with spot-on web copy. With great copy to work with, the designer has a chance to create very targeted design that the audience will respond to. What's more, the client will be able to judge if it is going to be successful. It's no longer about taste or trends, it's about audience and objectives.

What should I do?

If you're getting a website built, have the conversation with your web designer early in the process. Let them know you need a copywriter (whether they recommend one or you find your own) and that you want the designer to design to the content that the copywriter writes. Using the content as a design element -- designing around a great headline and clever copy -- will make their job much easier and much more likely to be approved and signed off.

An example?

I'm working on a large online gift store at the moment so, of course, I've been looking at other sites in this market. The best example is a simple little site called Funky Green Machine. The personality of the site is cool, funky and definitely green. The copy uses a variety of cool words throughout and keeps reminding us of the green and sustainable ethos of the company. I know it's the place to buy something cool as well as something ethically produced. It's a pleasure to use. My congratulations to them.

My client's ethos is different. Very funny and relaxed with 'insider' knowledge about great, little-known products. We're designing to great copy and we're getting it right for her, and for her audiences.

Incidentally, it's not just web strategists who think there's no point to designing in a vacuum. Smart designers think so too.


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