Content versus design: what comes first in your creative workflow? - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

For many people, the question was settled a decade ago by industry leader Jeffrey Zeldman. “Content precedes design”, Zeldman tweeted in 2008. “Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration”.

Of course, Zeldman was right: design without content is decoration. But the implication that design somehow comes after, or is separate to, content is misleading.

Take website development. You certainly need a strong content plan in place before you start designing around it, but the act of devising a robust content plan for your website is itself a form of design.

Ultimately it comes down to collaboration. Content creators and designers need to work together at every stage, with the shared goal of generating a compelling experience for site visitors.

To illustrate, here are seven key considerations for web content projects.

Define purpose

Firstly, define the overriding purpose of the website you are working on. What is the point of the site and how does its function align with the organisation’s high-level goals?

What then are the specific goals of your project? If the objective is to build out a blog for the website, what is the blog trying to achieve? Thought leadership, brand awareness, qualified traffic? And what specific metrics will you use to assess progress against goals?

The content strategist, writer (if different to the strategist), and designer should be involved in all of these discussions. Your team literally needs to be on the same page.

Frame architecture

Next, define the precise framework for the project. What pages are you looking to refresh, what new pages might you want to create, and how do each of these pages fit within the overall website?

Laying down the foundations is critical, as is understanding the core architecture of the site. The writer, strategist, and designer must work lockstep on this element.

Develop topics

Topic development is a key aspect of any content-led project. You need a clear grasp on your core topics in order to properly understand your website. A lack of clarity around topics produces a poor on-site experience for users.

A great way to define topics is to get yourself into the shoes of the people you wish to attract to your website. What topics interest them and what topics will not only draw them into your site but get them to stick around?

For example, a company that sells logistical services to data centres will want to create content around data centre management and everything that involves, from backup generators to storage technologies. But their target audience is also interested in broader topics such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), edge computing, and other such elements that form the backdrop of where their industry is headed. Cast your net wide.

Once you have researched and refined your topics, go heavy on assessing how the current website and those of your competitors stack up in these areas. Where are the content opportunities?

Content deployment

Next you need to understand how existing content is distributed across your website. Some companies skew towards a heavier concentration on products and services, while others tilt towards editorial content that does not directly reference the business.

Whereas a company website that never talks about its products and services is missing a trick, the more a business is willing to push in the direction of editorial content, the more successful it will be in building and nurturing an audience over time.

That said, the actual deployment of content across a website requires management.

For example, an organisation that skews in favour of editorial content does not need to bring that preference to its home page. Indeed, it may decide to treat its home page minimalistically, with snappy copy, a few striking images, and a bold call-to-action. A book cover isn’t supposed to tell the whole story.

Or, as is often the case with consumer electronic firms, it may want to use its home page to showcase new technologies on the market, even if the rest of the site reads more like a magazine than a catalogue.

In fact, the layout and composition of your home page is one of the later things you will want to consider within the project. After all, you don’t start building a house by hanging the front door.

Brand elements

So you have articulated your strategic purpose, the core architecture is drawn up, your content themes are decided, you have a basic sense as to the balance between editorial and commercial content, and content creation is underway. You may even be pushing fresh content to a staging site, or publishing to quiet corners of the live website, to get a feel for how things look at first pass.

Now it’s time to get heavy on the visual component. How should the copy be laid out, what images should you be using, what kind of branded elements can you bring to bear on the content?

What about the readability of the text? Are you creating a sufficient distinction between font sizes? Does the typography convey brand character?  What is your colour palette? What guidelines should you put in place for headline length and brand voice? Does the logo need reworking?

It is tempting to tackle these questions at the top of the project, but resist the urge. Concentrate first on core architecture and key themes, before moving to the visual elements.

Implementation and upkeep

Be hard headed and rigorous in the implementation of your brand design. Consistent application of your design will make the difference between a site that has lots of promise but feels heavy and lopsided, and a site that is dynamic and exciting to browse.

Rich in content but light touch in feel is where you want to be. Design is not a cosmetic operation, unless you allow it to be.

User testing

So far, so good. Your internal team has been going great guns, with high levels of commitment and collaboration.

Now it’s time to bring it back to the user. Let’s see what people outside of your organisation actually think. How does your target audience experience your handiwork once on the site? It’s time to embrace data.

Review your web analytics to determine visitor behaviour. Look at entrance and exit pages, as well as bounce rates. What different user flows are common to your site? Are your call-to-actions working on a page-by-page basis?

Conduct surveys with clients and prospective customers, and request honest feedback. How does it feel to be in your visitors’ shoes?

Make changes to key pages and A/B test them rigorously. Always be tweaking, always be refreshing content, and always assume that your website can be many times better than it is right now.

Design and content are central to your website’s core architecture. Empower your designers and your content creators as the custodians of your site’s success, now and into the future.

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