Content Strategy Before Design

Posted / 01 March, 2018

Author / Enginess

design and content strategy

Which should come first, content or design? It can be difficult to know when you’re forming a strategic direction for a digital project. We are firm believers that content should come before design, and with good reason.

Since the 1950s, copywriting and artwork (or content and design) have gone hand in hand.

Copywriters and art directors formed dynamic duos who have produced some of the best ads of all time.

And while it’s good to know that copy and design can work together, it can be difficult to know what should go first when you’re forming a strategic direction for a digital project, like an enterprise website or a business application.

At Enginess, we think that content needs to lead the discussion.

Here’s why.


The problem: Design is sexy. Copy (usually) isn’t.

The real problem is that design is fun. Design is sexy. When you’re starting a new digital project, you’re probably much more excited to look at other websites or platforms for inspiration or find hero videos and images that you love than you are to pore over 150-page research reports on your target audience to hone your message.

But the problem is that design at this level is really a manifestation of how you say what you want to say.

Content strategy is working out what you want to say.


Content-first design produces a better result.

We’ve worked on a lot of projects, and we can confidently say content-first strategy leads to better results.

And we think we know why.

First, design has a LOT more to think about. It has to communicate precisely, meet brand requirements, look and feel just right, have the right speed and a sleek experience, and more. It’s no wonder designers work some awfully long hours.

Content, on the other hand, is squarely focused on communicating the right message. It’s only doing one thing, and it has to do that just right. But the message and content can drive design at a strategic level that design can’t (or shouldn’t) drive content.

For a really simplistic example, imagine some organization is redesigning their website. One design decision might be what font to use. It has to be clear, legible, load quickly, and look great on all devices.

But what that font actually says is the realm of content. And it’s a no-brainer you shouldn’t base your brand messaging on your font choice.

The best explanation of this comes from John Moore Williams:

Design is communication. And you can’t communicate if you don’t know what you want to say.

So what happens when you’ve chosen that perfect font, but when you lay out your SEO-optimized headings with the selected font, it doesn’t flow properly on the page?

Do you go back to the drawing board for a new font, after spending countless hours deciding on this one? Or do you sacrifice your messaging and SEO and change your copy, because you just can’t budge on the font?

The answer is that content should be the priority.

We’ve seen this scenario play out many times, except instead of a font it’s a page layout or the structure of a content unit.

If your website or app is being designed in a vacuum, completely independent from your content, you’ll inevitably find you’re shoe-horning the content to fit the design, and sacrificing on your messaging.


Content-first projects finish on time and on budget

Content strategy (e.g. figuring out what you want to say) can take a long time. But once that’s done, you can usually work out the best way to say it.

For example, let’s say you’re a manufacturer redesigning your enterprise website. Let’s say (for whatever reason) that you want to focus your content and messaging strategy around 3D printing.

Suddenly, your design strategy is a lot clearer: let’s create an experience that makes 3D printing the hero.

However, if you went through multiple iterations of different design ideas, creating mockups, sending them around the team, gathering feedback, and reincorporating that into your work, you may have ultimately settled on a design that has nothing to do with 3D printing.

Then, when you turn to produce content and realize you want to emphasize 3D printing, you have to walk back your design to try and make the 3D printing content fit the already-approved design that is now completely disconnected from your primary messaging.

It not only takes much longer, it also leads to sub-par results.

If you can clearly establish what you want to say, it’s easier to work out the best way to say it, rather than try and work out the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ simultaneously.


… but make sure design has a seat at the table

All this aside, we don’t want to rag on design too much. Design is a critical part of and strategic processes for so many reasons, but two in particular spring to mind:

  • “Build it and they will come” is the attitude of product owners and content strategists everywhere. If the product is good and the content is useful, then people will use it, right? Wrong. Designers offer a much-needed dose of reality for how people actually behave rather than how we want them to behave.
  • Designers are the closest to the end-users. They are often the advocates for the people who actually use the product. Designers might not have the what of the messaging, but they have a better understanding of need.
  • Designers know what’s possible. There’s no sense in coming up with a brilliant content strategy only to discover it’s also wildly off-base and completely impossible.

Conclusion

Developing a messaging framework, the words to fill it, the right channels to tell the world, and the right box to put it in isn’t easy. There are many moving parts, and packaging everything just so takes finesse and skill and lot of trial and error.

But there are still things you can do to increase your chances of success. By leading with content strategy and following up with design, you help clarify what you want to say and what message you want your customers to receive before you try and work out exactly what format that message needs to be in.

It’s getting the what you want to say part out of the way before you move on to how you want to say it.

And in our experience, getting the 'what' right first usually makes the 'how naturally fall into place.

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