Website design or content - what comes first? - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

When it comes to websites, what comes first? Is it design then content? Or content then design? As with the chicken and the egg, it’s an age-old debate that continues to rage between content creators and web designers.

Both parties have valid arguments. Just think about the poor content writer who is being asked to fill-in-the-blanks on pre-designed websites. And spare a thought for the designer who is left to do their thing with no content to build around.

It’s the eternal struggle. It’s tea vs. coffee. It’s Jedi vs. Sith. It’s United vs. City. It’s another edition of Thunderdome!

Okay, no it isn’t. It really isn’t a ‘two men enter, one man leaves’ scenario. The problem with any either/or metaphor is that content creation and design don’t happen as a linear progression – first one, then the other – they are often ongoing at the same time.

In an ideal world, both the designer and the content writer will be working to a clear strategy. So, if we take this ideal world to be the real world, then strictly speaking, strategy comes first.

Strategy first?

A content and digital strategy can coexist. It’s the ideal precursor to a web build. Why? Because it defines all the information the content creator and designer will need to build a website designed to get results. Here are a few of the questions a good strategy should answer:

  • Who is the target audience for this website?
  • What do we want the website to encourage people to do?
  • What does the customer want the website to achieve?
  • What will the tone or personality of the website be?
  • What products or services will be offered?
  • What benefits will these products or services offer to the target audience?
  • What makes these products or services unique?
  • How will the products and services be marketed?
  • What is the site map?
  • How many top level templates will there be and sibling pages?
  • What is the keyword strategy?

It’s also important to bear in mind that content isn’t just text. Yes, it includes product descriptions and biographies on ‘About’ pages and blog posts; but content can also be images, videos, audio, and downloadable content (like guidebooks or pdfs).

So, it’s important that both designers and writers know, in advance, exactly which kinds of content they will be employing for this job, and where and why.

Armed with all this info, both the content writer and the designer have something to get their gnashers into. But, before they bite off more than they can chew, let’s look at those priorities by considering the whole design/content dilemma from both sides:

Content first

So, if you’re doing the content first, what are the benefits?

If there are amends that need making, it’s easier for everyone concerned if that can be done by the writer, directly editing their manuscript document. It all gets much more complicated if these changes need making to a designed document. Adding or taking away significant amounts of text can impact on the layout of a page, on the placement of images, on the readability, on the aesthetics. It’s enough to make a poor designer cry!

Therefore, the content should be as close to sign-off as possible before the designer even sees it. Again, this is an ideal world we’re talking about.

Content writers, for their part, are usually aware that they are there to encourage organic engagement. They want real people to read their text. SEO is all about the algorithms and the search engines; content is about the people.

Therefore, content writers want to ensure that the text is easy to read, but also clearly laid out. This is why writers break big blocks of text (like the one you’re presently reading) into short paragraphs.

Then, these paragraphs are broken into subheadings. You see, the content writer wants you to have as much easy-on-the-eye white space on your page as the designer does!

Design first

So, if you’re doing the design first, what are the benefits?

It can often be the case that the client who is commissioning the website cares more about how it looks and how it functions, than how it reads. Therefore, they may want to see it working first, before they even think about the content they want in it. In which case, the content providers are going to have to work within the framework the designer has set-up for them.

As frustrating as it is to rejig copy in an already designed page – it is much easier for a writer to fit copy into a predetermined space on an already-designed page. Content writers are typically accustomed to working with tight word counts. They’re used to trimming sentences down to their essence to fit them into the tight character-counts of Twitter or SEO alt-text.

Provided the designer knew the strategy and knew what types of content would be involved, there is a good chance that they will have left ample space and functionality for this upcoming content.

So, what should come first – content or design?

The answer is, of course, both!

In an ideal scenario, both the content writers and designers will be involved in creating the strategy. This means that both will be on the same (web) page. Then, when they’re back in their respective cribs, doing their thing, they can communicate with each other; each keeping the other in the loop.

For both design and content to operate at their optimum, the disciplines need to work together. They’re both crucial to the success of any site, and they both benefit from clear input from the other.

A design can be sympathetic to the needs of the content (the amount, the spacing, the style and the pace of the text), while content needs to consider the context in which it will be consumed (the style of the site, its function, the constraints of web and mobile platforms), whilst both need to bear in mind the end user.

At their best, both design and copy cater to human needs and wants. If the creatives doing the work can share their knowledge and perspective, throughout the process, the result is more likely to be a unified, effective end product.

Also, neither of them is going to present the other with any nasty surprises.

So, that’s how designers and writers can have their cake and eat it. How clients can have their chicken and egg. We’re just using food metaphors to make the point that the key to making a cracking website is the sweet taste of collaboration and communication.

What’s your take?

Are you a content creator who finds it easier to work for existing websites? Are you a designer who works better in collaboration with the writer? What’s your experience of this timeless topic?

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