83 thoughts on “Content precedes design

  1. Also part of a little ongoing discussion I’ve been having with Kyle Meyer after his post, There Are No Trends In Design.

    I’ve expressed disdain for the abundance of Lorem Ipsum text. A good tool when used correctly, but often used when meaning is absent. Design solves a communication problem.

    I says to Kyle, I says:

    Every website, every person, has something different to communicate, and in order to ensure clear communication, one must use design. When you use Lorem Ipsum text, you are assuming that the communication problem has already been solved, and that it is just whitenoise to the “more important” issue of stylization.

    Seems like the argument about the importance of content informing design is popping up a lot. What made you tweet about it?

  2. What made you tweet about it?

    At lunch yesterday, Jason and I were discussing how some designers rush to figure out their grid, then maybe their color scheme, then perhaps the logo, without first considering the content the site is intended to convey.

    Not everyone does this of course—some designers insist on deeply understanding the site’s content before they even begin to sketch—but in our industry, working with the content is unfortunately too often considered a luxury.

    Thus the designer must rely on a bag of tricks: style for its own sake … style instead of a design solution to a design problem. Since design is widely misunderstood, this approach is often rewarded, creating more works that put the designer’s style above the problem to be solved, and spawning imitators who work to copy the master’s style, or develop their own.

  3. Excellent point.

    I completely agree, in fact that was the point I was hoping to make in another post I had been working on when Mark brought it up. But the question that stumps me is how do we make this commonplace? I see the design-before-content issue to be one that is a stigma just as much as the client’s 14-year-old nephew creating his website.

    One can put this into their own process, but client’s will not be expecting such a thing; often times they’re not prepared or able to have content ready at such an early state and still hit their deadline.

    Maybe we need some evangelism for process standards. ;)

  4. I’m a tech not a designer, but one could say the same about tech: content proceeds tech. Except that this isn’t necessarily true, as witnessed by the increasing use of Twitter.

    Couldn’t it be that both evolve together? For instance, generally I know what I want to create at a site, but I don’t start getting a feel for how I want to organize it at the site until I start doing a preliminary design.

    In a way, it reminds me of what we techs are faced with when creating an application to user specs. We can get caught up in analysis paralysis if we try to drive out every last bit of functionality before beginning to code. However, if we define the overall structure of what’s needed, including the main functionality and then “covolution” the rest (analysis->code->analysis->code…), the job is finished more efficiently and quickly, and the users feel much more involved in the process.

    Couldn’t this be applied to design? Or is “covolution” what you’re saying?

  5. This is a tricky one. I work for a company that sells a CMS that we do custom design for – no copyrighting. We let the client control their content.

    Do we make the client write out the entire site before pushing a pixel? We flesh out an information architecture before designing of course, but when I start my design I have little to no other content to work around. I resist lorum ipsum as much as possible, but at some point it’s unavoidable. The best I can hope for is to have content written in parallel with the site. Needless to say, it can get a little frustrating.

  6. I distinctly recall sweating out a three-thousand-world article in ALA about this very subject (framed in terms of the relationship between objectives and workflow).

    I know people read it.

    …Just not as many as I, or the proprietor of this site, might\’ve liked.

    Meh.

  7. I agree in principle, but one of my biggest problems is getting content out of my clients. I think some of them are simply unable to produce content until they see the website. Maybe the actual website helps them to organize their thoughts.

  8. @Steve Rose: Perhaps presenting it in much the same metaphorical manner as wireframes and the sort would be a solution. Wireframes may provide the overall blueprint for the house, but issues such as electric, water, and more (i.e. content) are all necessary before you worry about interior decorating. Just an idea. :)

  9. I like Robert Venturi, quoting John Ruskin and Pugin, which I read in Tufte. There’s a reference to a duck building, which I believe is the big duck: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Duck

    “When Modern architects righteously abandoned ornament on buildings, they unconsciously designed buildings that were ornament. On promoting Space and Articulation over symbolism and ornament, they distorted the whole building into a duck. They substituted for the innocent and inexpensive practice of applied decoration on a conventional shed the rather cynical and expensive distortion of program and structure to promote a duck… It is now time to re-evaluate the once-horrifying statement of John Ruskin that architecture is the decoration of construction, but we should append the warning of Pugin: It is all right to decorate construction, but never construct decoration.”

    I’m a grad. student in the sciences by the way, and haven’t built a web site in years, but I still love reading your blog. You’re a wonderful storyteller.

  10. I personally like the idea of building a intricate wire frame in back and white, barebones CSS first and allowing the client to play around with content while I can work on some of the less IA related elements such as color palatte and texture.

    I have also had the experience of working with clients who have trouble getting content ready until they can see certain aspects of the site. However, I have also found that if you can give them a clickable prototype of how we can prepare the IA, they magically begin to see their priorities in regards to content.

    Sooner or later, ideas start popping up, be it from an email or a hand raised in the corner. “Can we make this nav button pop a little more.” “Can we give more attention to the news archives.” “Can we make the product release sections a little bigger.”

    Granted, their not going to finish the site from there, but with a little guidance in the form of a wire frame (that was prepared with an initial understanding of what they need in their website) you can have your cake and eat it too.

    Hopefully after a few stages of agile design, the AI is finished and you can spit shine it. Content and style live happily ever after.

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  12. I’m going to play Devil’s advocate here. Consider yourself warned.

    Let’s say I’m designing a website for a law firm. This law firm—call them Smith, Smith, and Smith—wants a presence on the web. The Smiths want potential clients to know where they’re located, what areas of litigation they specialize in, and a little bit about their founding members and associates. The Smiths don’t want a blog. They don’t want some whiz-bang AJAX client intake form. They just want an electronic brochure they can point people at—likely via their business card—instead of answering the same questions day in and day out.

    As a designer, the Smiths’ website is no different than any of the others I’ve done for countless other law firms. Do I need their content before I start designing when my job is to decorate, nothing more? More-to-the-point, I’ve already taken the time once, long ago, to sit down and consider how best to convey this type of information—information that varies little from one law firm to the next. Do I need to do so again?

    I guess what I’m driving at, playing at Devil’s advocate and all, is that sometimes, we are doing decoration. Nothing more. Nothing less. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, and to try and make what we’re doing—in these cases—anything more will only lead to complication, not clarity.

    Thoughts?

  13. @Blair Miller: I think in the case of the Smith, Smith and Smith website you are in fact designing and not simply decorating. The difference is that you’ve already done research on the best way to present this type of information, and whether you think so or not, you are creating a custom experience. It would be impossible to have all needed content for a site before starting a design, but a general idea about the content and voice and overall style is needed. Template sites are terrible.

  14. All too often, clients have insisted on ‘showing them a mock-up’ before I have any real content to work with. Lorem Ipsum goes only so far.

  15. Re: Smith, Smith, and Smith:

    “Content” doesn’t mean “having all the copy.”

    It means knowing what the site is about, what kinds of information it will present; it also means knowing something about the intended users and what they might want to be able to do on such a website.

    As Aaron said, you’ve already done a lot of research-based design work. It’s fair to apply that research to a seemingly very similar client—although you’d also want to do more research to find out how Smith, Smith, and Smith is different from your previous law firm clients.

    If Smith, Smith, Smith is exactly like your previous 18 law firm clients in every particular, there is still their corporate identity and perhaps their location to draw on. Or maybe they’re an old firm that supported George Washington when his father sued him over the cherry tree. Maybe you use some of that.

    It’s not that you need every word of text before you can design.

    It’s that you need to know the subject.

  16. I always say, design IS communication. It helps communicate ideas. It’s a supplement to content, indeed.

    I think the biggest problem with building anything is the human urge to try and find “the formula.” As in, “oh, content is copy, then I need all the copy. Zeldman is a genius. He helped me figure out the formula, now I can stop thinking and blindly follow a formula.” But as Zeldman said just above, “content” does not mean “having all the copy.”

    There is no guide book or algorithim for 99% of the things you do in life, or 99% of the sites you design. Do what works for the particular instance. Practice makes perfect, and research makes practice (more) perfect.

    Thanks for stirring the mind Jeffrey.

  17. Re: Re: Smith, Smith and Smith

    Personally, I’d reached the same conclusion—that if Smith, Smith, and Smith are near-identical to another firm or firms for which one has already done the research (by which I mean the thought processes concerning what is trying to be communicated to potential visitors and how best to do so), then there’s no need to do that research again. Apply what you’ve learned, and use whatever you can get your hands on to gussy things up accordingly.

    Getting back to the original tweet though, and taking the ensueing discussion into account, it seems to me that the second sentence—”Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”—is something of a misnomer, simply because not one of us is working in a vacuum. The moment we pick up the phone and the customer—to again use the poor ol’ Smiths—says “I’m John Smith, from the law firm of Smith, Smith, and Smith,” you already have “content.” A mere sliver, but “content” nonetheless. To create a website—or any material—based solely on that opening salvo wouldn’t be “decoration” because you have said “content.” Yes, it would be foolish, and the results would likely be bad “design,” but it would be “design” still.

    I’m not saying that we don’t need “content” or don’t need to do “research” to successfully “design” something. Rather, I’m saying that I have a problem with the idea of “decoration,” which should probably read “poorly executed design.”

  18. Excellent, and important, clarification to “know the subject” and not demand “all the copy”. A scenario to consider (and, Jeffrey, tell me if I was sniffing something too exotic)…

    Here’s a client. You know you can help them. A lot. And you want to – they are a good fit for your firm. However – your process demands they provide the meat of the content up-front. Client is not ready for that. You wait. And wait. Then, one day, you learn the client has paid another firm/person to design their website and it will be complete in a week. Not the content, just the design. A design with big, gaping holes ready for the content.

    Did you help that client? Nope. Is there a chance you can help that client in the future? Nope. Forget about it ‘cuz it ain’t going to happen. They found someone else that could “get it done” and, for now, that’s the priority.

    There are times when it is entirely reasonable to give design your best shot without absorbing a single word of “official” content. Why? Because you know this client. You understand the personality of the organization, their goals, their mission. You have some evidence about their audience, and what that audience wants. You get “it”.

    The important thing – you can help guide this client as the website evolves. A website is not chiseled into stone – it can (and should) evolve. If your gut says that you can help this client – if not today, than sometime in the future – stick with it. Be flexible in the interest of future influence. Don’t push them into the hands of an inexpensive get-a-website-in-a-week operation.

    Matter of fact – you might happen to know folks that can write website content and/or edit the client’s words. Offer that as an additional service to your client!

  19. While I’m here, though a bit off-topic, a reaction to the ‘lorem ipsum’ greeking-text comments…

    The use of greeking does not detract from the design practice. It is a massively apparent fact that applying REAL content text in a design mockup or prototype can DISTRACT during the review process. Example: Mockup with real, client content included. The group of reviewers become completely focused on the TEXT in the mockup – not the layout and graphic design. They are noodling with grammar in a paragraph rather than an examination of visual priorities and flow. I confess – I practice both methods (real content/greeking) and find that greeking forces the reviewers to focus on the layout, design and flow of the website experience. Just because the client has copy ready does not require it’s use during design reviews.

  20. I wonder if this might be a better way of putting things:

    Successful communication requires understanding. The less you understand, the less likely you are to communicate successfully.

    Probably not—I never was one for finding the perfect words.

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  22. @Jeffrey

    So Jeffrey, with regards to your last post, are you not basically saying “A creative brief precedes design. Design in the absence of a creative brief is not design, it’s decoration.”?

    In my experience, it’s the creative brief that outlines a lot of this understanding (what the site needs to be about, what information it should communicate, who the target audience is etc). Surely that sort of information isn’t regarded as a luxury, more of a necessity no?

    Of course I may have the wrong end of the stick.

    Oh and by the way, hooray for “Lorem Ipsum”, getting all the written copy in hand before the design process takes place would be an incredible luxury ;-)

  23. I fully agree. And, I do believe that design is the vehicle to convey the content and to produce a response (often emotional but not necessarily).

  24. As Jeffrey said, you need a subject. You need to know both who your clients intends to reach—the audience—and how they intend to reach them. I think this is good information for those of us who are application developers, as well (that includes me). How do you create high-level specs for an interactive program when you don’t even know who will be interacting with it or how the interaction will be conducted?

  25. Pure and *simple* this is about values. Knowing the values to an objective brings clairity to the project. Before a 0 or 1 is written the values of the project must be defined. You have to able to give the project a voice that reflects its value on a few different levels.

    We use an old fashioned approach, buy the client a latte or a glass of wine somplace
    quiet. Get them to talk about themselves a bit then we begin to dicuss the project.
    Conversation is critical to sucessful web design.

    In order for design to sustainable it has to reflect the value within.

  26. awesomemedia said, “…hence, Apple Macintosh == decoration…”

    I think you’re taking the definition of “content” too strictly.

    Content needs to be defined within the context of the project.

    For the Macintosh, the content is the data on your machine and the programs (code/content) that your run. It’s dynamic content that is unpredictable in data but not in type. There is always content. Designing before or after the content is what’s in question (if I’m not mistaken).

    The Macintosh design very much took content into account. It meets its users’ needs very well and works. No?

  27. I think that sometimes there is nothing wrong with a little decoration. Sometimes, that’s all a client needs or wants.

  28. Unless you’re a conceptual artist. Then you don’t need content or design. Just an idea. Tada! Site is done.

    Or you could use someone else’s content AND design and dub yourself neo-Duchamp.

    I can see the next cover of Wired now…

  29. Form should follow function for sure – however sometimes form is a part of function. Let’s differentiate between design for usability and communication, and design for aesthetics.

  30. Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.

    This is an excellent discussion however it is but a ramble where the content is quickly losing quality. Ironic. Perhaps we should be writing in “times” on a white background. In the case of Smith, Smith and Smith… I think one must realize that there are certain industries where design really does not matter much. Lawyers are not hired for their website but their track record, references and old methods of communcation. The quality of their site, in the end, will probably have more to do with egos and deep pockets.

    But the reason for the comment I think is that the Web has made it so clients with power can demand great websites with nothing for content. This is why there can be sites with no real content and all decoration. Indeed, content is often on the bottom of the pay totem pole.

    My 2 cents…

  31. @Paul Lyons

    Are you serious? I realise that design may not be at the forefront of the target audiences mind when they visit Smith Smith & Smith, but subconciously it has a huge impact on how their company is perceived. Doesn’t matter much? I disagree. I also digress…

  32. These days I am not so much responsible for the core design of a site. I work on the front-end coding at a web design agency in Europe.

    Despite this company having large contracts with major companies and government departments, I regularly get handed designs from “designers” in the company who have built nice looking pictures that fail to solve design problems or end up being largely inappropriate for the type of content the client requires.

    The race to complete and bill projects, and the expectation that the front-end coder rectifies all the deficiencies, seems to be reason enough to avoid a proper phase of IA and wireframing on all but the largest and most complex of projects.

    The irony is that we waste a huge amount of time (and sacrifice true quality) trying to retro-fit corrections to design problems that arise precisely because people further up the chain have decided to avoid the most important part of the process.

    But at least I get to learn from the mistakes of others and will hopefully largely avoid them myself when I move on!

  33. I think there is a bit of misinterpretation here. The quote doesn’t mean that you need to generate the content first and then the design, it means that the content is more important that the design.

    In other words, the quote should be “Content takes precedence over design…”

    Now I’m not sure I agree with this quote, no matter how it’s written. Design without content may be decoration, but words without design won’t be read. You need both content and design to create an effective website.

    ~Graham

  34. @MattConn…

    “…but subconciously it has a huge impact on how their company is perceived.”

    I agree with you 99%: It *does* matter. But have you seen what many of these supposedly “high-powered” law offices have for Web sites? I’ve seen far more junky, 1994-style sites for law firms than I have decent ones — primarily because most of these guys think they can do better for less by using the copy of FrontPage that came with their Office98, because to them it’s more important that the content be there than it is to have it look pretty.

    Somebody once said, “You’ll always have the poor.” Well, in our field, you’ll always have the frugal do-it-yourselfer. And, yes, that is an area of digression… ;-)

  35. Snaps to what Zeldman said.

    The most common misconception about content is that it is WORDS.

    Content is simply the story you want to tell. It can be told through visual design, interactions, and words. It’s medium agnostic.

    Personally, my background is editorial. I’m a language geek. But words are not the only tool to use if you’ve got something to say.

    The point is you better figure out what you want to “say” before you start pushing pixels around, or you’re in a whole mess of trouble.

  36. In other words, the quote should be “Content takes precedence over design…”

    Not what I said, not what I mean.

    The point is you better figure out what you want to “say” before you start pushing pixels around, or you’re in a whole mess of trouble.

    Exactly.

  37. @MattConn
    Excellent! You just did well selling the concept of web design for any industry selling any product. You get the gig! May Smith, Smith & Smith give you lots of artistic license, provide a great copy deck outlining all the pages, have excellent photos of their attractive office and voluptuous attorneys and have deep pockets. Perhaps they will get many people who value design over winning their case calling. I still contend that their are industries where the web design is really not that important for the well being of the company.

  38. I have a dream that one day a client will decide they want a website and assemble a team with the relevant skills. A writer, a designer, a developer. They will all sit together with the client and discuss: the purpose of the site, who will use it, what the users will want from it, how it will work.

    From this, they will agree a draft concept for an effective site that focuses on satisfying users and achieving the business objectives. It might have lots of design – it might have very little. It will certainly have content. Minisites with virtually no design can sell very effectively, in the right context. In my dream, the team liaise with each other as the site develops. They will agree the wireframe and the keywords together.
    The writer puts the content onto the page, and sees what it looks like. He or she might change headings, paragraph sizes, where words go – text has to be visual too. The designer allows for ideas the writer has. Maybe, for example, separate fields for fact points that don’t fit with the flow of text would be helpful. A web-based project management tool is used so all can see the comments of the others. And so it goes on.
    And within this, the writer is of course paid as a key member of the team.
    Is this a dream? How many web developers offer copywriting services to their clients? If you don’t, it’s no mystery why they fail to meet your deadines for producing content. Would you expect them to come up with their own designer?

    Just a few thoughts from a writer, brought to this page by having a client enthuse about my content yesterday only to have a call today to say stop working while they reconsider who the site is aimed at and how the words work/don’t work with the design already in place…

  39. semantics all. decoration can be content. content design. design can be both vehicle for and part of content. understanding of intent, or intended understanding, is the nut of it.

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