Bill Kenney

Presenting Without Content

A few months ago, we received this question via the Sidecar pipeline, which was eloquently addressed by Focus Lab and Sidecar designer Joshua Krohn in a recent blog post. This question struck a chord with me, because we face this situation often, so I wanted to jump in with my own thoughts and approaches to designing without content.


Question from Mathijs Lemmers:

"Regarding the presentation of concepts and layouts, I notice that clients get confused when I show them wireframes or concepts with Lorem Ipsum and stock images. More often than not, my clients don't have proper images and copy in the early stages of the project. How do you guys go about stuff like this?"

Designing for clients. It’s a moving target.

Designing for clients is an ever-shifting layer of earth. Each client has unique expectations, experiences, and personality. This makes our job just as much about teaching and guiding as it is designing. You can shape the type of clients and work you want, but at the end of the day, they will all be different in the ways stated above. In turn that will, and should, affect how you approach the project, specifically from a communication standpoint.

The foundation.

We designers tend to forget that we are the guiding light. We hear the word “hand-holding” and think about it negatively. That is not always the case. You are entering into a partnership with a client that may have zero insight into, or understanding about, the design process. You should absolutely be willing to hold their hand (when you start to change diapers, that is another story). The responsibility falls on us to make a presentation that is clear and resonates. Your narrative should be one part verbal communication, one part visual design, and one part empathy. We typically focus on design and lose track of communication and empathy.

“Empathy and understanding must precede advice.”

- Gottman Institute

Presenting without established content.

Having great content in hand is always desirable for a designer, but rarely the case. At Focus Lab, we have clients who come with the best content ever (500px) and other clients who are so new they barely have a name, let alone content. We welcome both with open arms, but the communication and expectation-setting is different for each. The process will be different depending on their needs, and you just need to be clear about that. One is not necessarily better than the other. They are simply different.

To address the question above, at Focus Lab we do everything we can to make the content feel real. We very rarely use Lorem Ipsum or bad placeholder images. We do this for a few reasons. First of all, it’s really, really hard to get into any kind of design rhythm while looking at Lorem Ipsum and bad images all day. Never mind the fact that you will need a client to buy into it. It’s fine if we are working on a low fidelity wireframe, but not beyond that. You can also think about it this way: Imagine you went to buy a car and the interaction went something like this… Dealership: “Here is what your car will likely look like when we deliver it to you. We know the paint is terrible right now and the tires are square, but just ignore that. We aren’t done building it yet. When it’s done the wheels will be the best round wheels you’ve seen, and the paint — oh man, the paint job we are going to do...”

Now, you can imagine what a client hearing that might be thinking. Queue empathy. Beat them to the punch by ramping up your communication to help them understand this part of the process (why these lifeless wireframes are important, how it will help the project, etc.).

Bringing it to life on the fly.

Thankfully, the internet is an endless resource, so finding placeholder content isn’t really all that hard. Just keep in mind it doesn’t need to be perfect. You can also get sucked into an Internet vortex looking for the perfect image and come up a year later, starving and tired.

With sites like Unsplash, you can quickly dress up any layout or concept with high quality photography without adding costs to the project. This is also a nice win for the client, since they can get a better understanding of the direction and tone you are seeing. This will likely influence their content decisions and the type of photography they will look to purchase or hire out.

The written content isn’t as easy, I suppose, but it’s also not hard. We can typically just pull our placeholder content from anything the client has. An existing (potentially dated) website, marketing materials, etc. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to carry some of the context. It actually makes sense at a glance, where Lorem Ipsum doesn’t. Then we take some liberties with the key areas, such as headlines. We will add some off-the-cuff spice to those, again to help set the direction and tone. We also don’t add a bunch of text. Just a few key bits to reuse everywhere across the layout.

With just those two decisions, your layout will feel more real world and less “trust me it will be great.” You still need to be extremely clear with the client that it’s placeholder text, so they don’t go editing it on you.

Certain rounds in any design process can feel visually boring (e.g., sitemaps, written strategy, wireframing, etc). But for the duration of the project, the client better start seeing some awesome paint and round wheels if you really want them to buy that car. And if that takes you putting on borrowed wheels to convince them, make it happen. Heck, they may even love the borrowed wheels you put on it and try to buy them as well.

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