Content or Design: Which Comes First?

Content or design: Which comes first? In the marketing world, this is the chicken and the egg scenario.

Sure, it would be great for me as a content writer to have a beautiful design where I can simply drop in text where it makes sense. And I know our designer would love to have content perfected before he begins designing. But let’s be honest: neither of these scenarios will ever happen. Content will never be perfect until it’s designed, and a design will never be where it needs to be without content.

So what do we do?

At Syrup, we believe the most practical choice is to create content first, BUT with a caveat.

If you don’t agree that content should come first, let me take a few seconds to convince you. Design is a tool to optimize content, and, as Jeffrey Zeldman says, “design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” Good design can transform your content, but it can never make up for bad content.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s go back to that caveat I was talking about. Yes, content should come first. However, the design should never begin where content ends. Listen up here. In order to get it right, content and design need to work together.

What this means is that I’ll never write content, send it to our design team, then forget about it and hope it turns out okay. It means that our design team and our content team work hand in hand and even challenge each other in order to create our best work together (after all, this is a team, isn’t it?). 

If you’re an agency or a small company with your own content and design team, this might seem new to you.

Here are some things that have helped us:

  1. Awareness. Both the content and design teams are aware of the task at hand before anyone begins working. Especially if it’s a bigger project like an entire website, you’ll find us in a room brainstorming prior to getting started. A word of advice when you do this: always keep the coffee and the whiteboard markers flowing.
  2. Content writes with design in mind. While I’m no designer, I’ve learned a lot from our design team over the years and I make sure I at least understand the basics. Our content team uses basic designed templates (and I mean really basic) that help us lay content out and communicate to the design team in terms that they’ll understand.
  3. Design designs with content in mind. It would be easy for the design team to just throw content into a design without thinking through the hierarchy of information, the main objectives, the audience, and a million other things. By creating with content in mind, however, our design team ensures the design is bringing content to life by working with it, never against it.
  4. Content and design collaborate. Like I said earlier, our content team will never write something only to never see it again. We work with the design team to ensure the project achieves its goals. This requires both teams to be open to criticism, changes, and challenges, even if this means more work or removing that one sentence I really loved. It means lots of conversations, lots of tests, and maybe even lots of revisions. Ultimately, it means creating what the audience needs, not what one team member wants.

I’d like to leave you with my biggest piece of advice I have for any project. Are you ready?

Don’t let it get personal.

As a content writer, I tend to write a lot. Sometimes, even after simplifying content, seeing it designed out can make me see that there’s still too much. And sometimes, our design team designs something really cool that just doesn’t work with the content or our client’s voice.

At the end of the day, we remind ourselves of the goal of the project and that we’re in this together. This is what ultimately keeps things from getting too personal and keeps us on track.

If you have the right people on your team to do this with, make the shift! Just promise that you’ll let me know how it goes. Don’t have someone in charge of content or design for your company? I know a team that can handle both. Reach out to us here.

Klaire Maxwell