Content vs. Design: Which Should Come First?

Research & Strategy

Nick Pasotti

In the marketing world (and in our agency), there has always been a rift between content and design. We certainly don’t fight about it, but it’s still this chicken-and-egg debate that ruffles feathers once in awhile.

So, which comes first: content or design?

Designers want content (or at least a general idea of content length) first. Content writers want designs (or at least some kind of sketch) first.

Let’s look at both sides of the content-design spectrum, dig into the nitty-gritty of content-first and design-first approaches and walk through a potential solution.

Why Content First?

The content-first approach to design—whether we’re talking about websites, emails, print collateral or other products—is the overwhelming preference of many a designer. Contributors to GatherContent, Adobe, Smashing Magazine, InVision and more tout the endless benefits of creating content prior to design. (In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a detractor of this approach.)

Let's look at some reasons why starting with content before design might be beneficial.

Content sets up guardrails for design.

“As web designers, we’re constrained by nothing." – Karol K

Content becomes the guardrails surrounding the story or main message that needs to be told. It can answer questions like, “What is the hook for readers?” and “Where do I need to encourage an action?” Without a clear story in mind, designers may have difficulty creating a sensible, seamless flow toward a call to action—or a main point.

Content provides the full picture.

Designers prefer more than just guardrails, though—they need the full picture of how all content works together toward a common goal. Content should reflect a content strategy, which should, in turn, ladder up to key marketing and business goals, such as generating 10% more leads over the next six months.

Designers could take some pieces of the larger puzzle—for example, the goal of generating 10% more leads—and come up with certain design ideas or layouts that tend to move people to a single point of action. But that’s just one tiny gear in a much more complex system.

Content first saves time.

“Every time someone asks for a revision to copy that’s already in a design . . . the designer has to update the source file, save out mocks, etc.” – John Moore Williams

What Moore is getting at is that, while content writers will spend hours finding the perfect word, designers ain’t got no time for that. Plus, it’s just a hassle to update a tiny word in draft after draft after draft. (Guilty. Sorry, designers.)

To save time, he believes (as do many people) that content must be at least close to final before design.

Why Design First?

I’m already seeing pitchforks in my future for arguing that a design-first process is a viable alternative to a content-first approach. However, I strongly believe there’s value in understanding why content creators and strategists might view design as a good starting point.

Design sets up guardrails for content.

Ring a bell?

The thing is, good writers are great at fitting content within constraints. (Check out these three constrained writing exercises.) An initial design—or at least a basic sketch or mockup—provides a good frame for creating content. Content writers do this for email subject lines and preheaders, Facebook ads, Twitter posts, search engine results page (SERP) descriptions and more.

It stands to reason, then, that design—or the start of certain design elements—can give content writers a solid foundation for great content.

Design combats the dreaded white blank page.

Mumford & Sons wrote a song called “White Blank Page” on their first album, singing, “A white blank page and a swelling rage.” I’ll be the first say that a “swelling rage” doesn’t describe writer’s block to a T, but it’s pretty close.

For any given campaign, our team might be responsible for creating digital ads, product landing pages, accompanying organic social media content, “how to” blog content, post-purchase emails and an opt-in email series.

That’s a lot of content.

In these cases, should the responsibility of the white blank page fall on the content writer or content strategist first? 


Or maybe not.

Content & Design: Together at Last

While I tend to agree (and our company processes generally agree) that a content-first approach is the way to go, we've been shifting our focus on making content and design happen together.

Content and design don’t push and pull against each other; they push and pull with each other.

Content strategy involves a team.

A content strategy, especially for websites, guides how teams create, publish and maintain content. And, damn it, that involves more than just a writer or a strategist. Doesn’t content demand design to make it whole, just as design leans on content?

As early as possible, both content writers and designers should have their hands in the same pot to brew a cohesive content strategy. When it’s time for your next kickoff meeting, bring both sides into the room, and get moving together.

Content and design aren’t linear.

When we debate about a content- or design-first approach, we’re really saying that one happens before another, which shouldn’t be the case. Just like the content strategy stage, ideation brings in both sides at once. Content writers and designers riff on ideas about how to solve customer problems and meet business goals in the best way.

“Now imagine the copy was all approved before you had to throw it into the mocks. Wouldn’t that be magical?” – John Moore Williams

Yes, good sir, it would be magical, but we’d be hardpressed to find a time when a content writer saw their “final” copy in a design and called it a day. More often than not, content teams make more than just tiny grammatical or spelling tweaks once they see their content come to life.

When content writers and designers work in a fluid, non-linear fashion, it not only sets the right expectations for all teams involved, but it can also mitigate what could be points of contention down the line (e.g., "Ugh, you said your content was final!").

Plan for content types early.

Content isn’t just text. It takes the form of videos, infographics, charts, lists, e-books, white papers, streaming audio and more. One thing content and design teams should do together is decide on the types of content that will be part of designs early on. This allows designers to start working with early content ideas, envisioning how they play off of each other to engage audiences, no matter the format.

Save time and resources.

Atlassian estimates that the average employee spends 31 hours in unproductive meetings each month. In agency life, as we so deem it, this sometimes rings true. Between initial phone calls with clients, internal regroup meetings, brainstorm sessions, whiteboard meetings, daily check-ins and weekly video chats, we spend a lot of time talking.

One type of meeting that can eat time is the handoff between content writers and designers.

In reality, there shouldn’t be a “one-and-done” handoff. Content doesn’t end where design begins (re: content and design aren’t linear).

Getting the right people in the room early can combat this issue. That means that we need to start bringing a content writer (or strategist) and a designer into critical, early meetings. In the long run, it prevents that trickle-down game of telephone where information is rehashed—and where it can get lost—in hour-long meetings.

With the tendency for content and design teams to butt heads once in awhile, we’re hoping that a more fluid content-design discourse leads to better creative results in every marketing effort.

For some inspiration on how to keep your creative juices flowing, check out these six design exercises.

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