Joshua Krohn

Designing in the Absence of Content

Have you ever considering buying or renting a living space? Whether it was an apartment, flat, townhouse, condo, or house, you likely took many things into consideration before paying out that first chunk of cash. Is it in a desirable neighborhood, located by all the things I want to be near? Does it have enough bedrooms and bathrooms for our growing family? And even the smaller details, like does it have carpet or wood flooring? Or, are a lot of renovations needed?

Content-Planning-Starter-Kit 3

Now, can you imagine choosing a living space without knowing the answers to any of these questions? Or worse, without asking any of these questions? While not such the momentous occasion (depending on who you ask!), designing a website or digital product without content is not unlike this scenario.

WHAT DOES CONTENT DO?

Broken down, content are the words that a user reads when using your design. A page’s headline, a menu item in a site’s navigation, paragraphs of text, or something as small as a button label in an interface are all content. It’s the information that needs to be read by the audience. It informs and instructs, which elevates its importance above the visual design. In other words, design supports the content, not the other way around.

“Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

- Jeffrey Zeldman

Imagine two e-commerce websites. One has a beautiful design but the content is riddled with grammatical errors and is difficult to find what you’re looking for due to its poor organization. The other has an average design but the content is expertly laid out and easily navigable, making shopping a breeze. Which one would you buy from? More importantly, which one makes you come back and buy again? That’s the power of designing with content in mind first. Content informs. Content converts.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF DESIGNING FIRST

I’ll admit that I’ve designed my fair share of sites with Lorem Ipsum. Or as clients call it, “some sort of Latin,” or “gobbledygook”. Simply put, it’s dummy content. And no one wants to be a dummy.

What happens when we design in absence of content? It treats content as a secondary (or even tertiary!) element. It’s saying, “This is what the content will look like on the page.” Friends, content isn't a visual element to look at. It’s something to read and to inform. When we don’t have content (or an idea of content, which I’ll touch on in a bit), how do we know what to emphasize? We don’t. At best, we guess, which isn’t a way to design. I’ve written before about being confident about presenting our work. How can we be confident when we’re guessing? Spoiler alert: we can’t.

You may have a great visual design but if it’s not laid out with content in mind, the chances of that design working out exactly as you planned are slim. Maybe you planned for too much content and now there are huge gaps of white space left to fill. Or maybe you didn’t plan for enough content and now there’s nowhere for all the content to go. Either way, you’re left with three options: starting over, cutting or asking for more content (good luck!), or modifying your design.

WHAT IF THIS COULD ALL BE (MOSTLY) AVOIDED?

While designing with content first won’t alleviate all the problems in bringing a design to life, it certainly won’t hurt. First, it places the priority on the content. If we don’t care enough about the content, how will our clients? What’s worse, how will our clients’ audiences?

Getting content first before we start design takes time and effort. But it gives us the opportunity to truly understand the business goals of the site. Or, if you’re designing a digital product, the users’ goals. All of this allows us to be strategic about how we approach the design. It lets us place proper emphasis in the exact spot with confidence.

Now, doesn’t that sound better than starting over, battling with copywriters, or blowing up your design? Ultimately, starting with a content-first approach actually speeds up the design process. And we all want that.


HOW DOES A CONTENT-FIRST APPROACH WORK?

The detail surrounding the entire content-first approach is too much for one post. In its basic terms, it’s split into three stages:

  1. Content audit – If you’re redesigning a site, this means reading all of the pages and taking inventory of all the existing content.
  2. Compare content – This is where you compare the needs of the site (usually the business goals) with the existing content. What do we want to say and do we have the content to say it? This allows you to do two things. First, it allows the content to dictate where the emphasis should be in the design, not the other way around. And second, it likely reveals the need for content necessary to communicate properly. This is important for the last step.
  3. Content creation – Finally, the writing can begin. Here you’re rewriting existing content and writing new content to fill in any gaps uncovered during the previous step. For a redesign, you’re probably doing a bit of both.

WHO’S GOING TO DO THIS WORK?

Ideally, the person who (re)writes this content is someone who regularly writes for the web, firmly understands the goals of the website, and has a good grasp of the subject matter. Usually that’s a copywriter but more more recently, that person has been described as a Content Strategist.

However, I would argue that you, the designer, have just as much knowledge and ability to write content. You should know just as much as the content strategist when it comes to the design of a website or product. Maybe it’s not what’s used in the final launch, but it’s better than dummy copy.

Like any skill, writing well takes practice. And practice takes time, but something well worth the effort. Writing well means writing clearly. Writing clearly means thinking clearly. And thinking clearly indicates a clear understanding of the problem. And from there, problem solving is easy.

Don’t think you have it in you? Let me ask you this. Who gets hired? The designer or the designer who can write?

I STILL DON’T HAVE CONTENT

This doesn’t mean you don’t do anything until content is done. While you’re honing your writing skills (ahem), there are things you can do before you have content for your project.

At least start by defining what kind of content is being planned for. Headlines, body copy, illustrations, photos, GIFs, videos, etc. Defining what kind of content is needed allows you to start laying out the structure for the project.

If you’re in the midst of a redesign, design with the existing content. This is probably the easiest of all scenarios. A lot of this content will likely be reused in the new design. Find out how and use that until content is ready.

And by “content is ready,” I don’t mean finalized content. As soon as a rough draft is available, start putting it in your designs. Content usually goes through rounds of revisions so you don’t have time to wait until it’s approved. Grab the draft and start designing.

You no longer have a reason to use Lorem Ipsum.

__

Need help running a content audit? Check out the Content Planning Starter Kit, a spreadsheet template for managing content including page audits and basic content planning.


Give this a share if you enjoyed it :)