Throughout all the years I’ve been working as a designer, one of the most common arguments was about what should be first: design or copy?
Very often designers ask their clients to provide the content and don’t even start the project until it is provided. However, that puts the clients in a position where they don’t know what exactly is expected, how much copy would be too much or too little, and have no content strategist to work with.
I’ve seen many projects that got stuck in such a place. Nobody wanted, or could make that first step.
Having all the content first can help designers to understand what they’re designing for and how to structure their visual language around the provided copy.
Having the design first, however, can help copywriters to write a better story and fill out all the elements that can help to get more attention and provide a complete experience.
So, what should really be first? Design or content?
Based on my experience, both design and content should be worked on at the same time hand-in-hand. You can’t get the design done and then move to the content and vice versa.
These two elements depend on each other and have to live in symbiosis. Both designers and copywriters should communicate throughout the entire project and gradually work together and support each other in order to get the best results.
The only thing you have to determine right at the beginning is if the project is more copy-driven or design-driven. It’s not a question of what should be first, but which aspect should affect your decisions more.
Let me shed some light on both scenarios…
Not too long ago someone asked me a question “Which is more important: design or content?” If it was the young me answering the question, I would shout “design!” without hesitation.
A couple more years of experience later, it’s obvious to me that the content is more important. It’s not even a case of importance, but necessity.
You can achieve a lot with a very good copy. Of course, a bad design can hurt, but if you just put high-quality copy in black on white background, you can sell products, you can tell stories, you can get subscribers.
You wouldn’t be able to achieve this with an amazing design and really poor or no content.
If you don’t believe it, try to run some simple A/B tests on real landing pages. Even there you can see how simple copy changes usually have much bigger impact on conversions than design changes (unless you fixed a real design flaw).
I consider all marketing materials, sales pages, landing pages (including your home page), squeeze pages as content-driven projects.
This means that the copywriter or marketer should lead the project and make the decisions. Also, you want to have the content strategy done first and plan what story you want to tell and how design can help you to achieve the goal.
In that scenario, I want the design only to enhance and support the copy. Design is there to provide a good reading experience, visualize some thoughts, get attention where needed, and redirect users toward the desired final action.
Translating it into real life project process… you should always define your goals and your audience first. Then you can start putting together a story and make some page layout wireframes. Make sure that both go well together, polish your copy and then finally enhance it visually with a good design.
We often go back and forth when finalizing page designs. You may need a shorter heading, add a better image description, or break long paragraphs into smaller portions.
It’s a designer’s role to let the copywriter know that some of these changes are needed and why. It’s all part of designing the content, so you have to communicate with the copywriter throughout the entire project.
Let’s now look closer at the so-called “design-driven projects”.
I think that any web app, mobile app, and certain website pages that interact with users through more advanced user interface (member area, checkout, login page) should be design-driven.
In that case, you want to determine goals, write down some user stories, and have a detailed project scope first. Then, you can sketch out some concepts or more detailed wireframes. You should focus more on the UI and make sure that it’s all functional and really solves your users’ problems.
It doesn’t mean that you jump right into Photoshop or Sketch and make beautiful mockups. That’s usually the last step in this process. However, designers should lead such a project from the beginning because that will help in taking the right approach to solve the problem.
I think the best way to collaborate on design-drive projects is when writers are invited as spectators and watch the entire process from the beginning. They can even start writing their copy as soon as you get approvals on your wireframes.
They need to understand the problems you’re solving in order to provide useful descriptions and labels. Their feedback may also be crucial to provide a consistent user experience and to make sure it’s all designed as is advertised.
As a UI/UX designer, you need to oversee every part of each copy, every button caption, every message, and even form labels.
Summing up, in your next copy-driven project instead of just waiting for your customer to provide you with the complete copy, try to communicate with the person who is responsible for writing it first.
See if you can talk about the content strategy first and help put together some stories and early page layout wireframes. It may help both of you to move forward and make the project successful.
If it’s more like a design-driven project, lead it. Start designing user experience by planning user flows and page wireframes. Invite other team members to follow it and let them participate as you go.