Forget the chicken and the egg debate; which comes first when we’re talking copy and design? 

Well, in an ideal world, designers and copywriters would be working alongside each other, in the same room, collaborating the crap out of the project at hand. But, alas, that’s not always possible.

In the end, marketing teams often settle on design first, copy second. 

But why?

Well, design is the fun bit. Why not make that place to start?  It works for the designer, too, who can create freely without being dictated by the copy.

From a speed point of view, it also seems to make sense, since copy can be written in tandem with the development of the design. When the copy is shaping the design, designers have to hold fire until the copywriter sends them the words.

But, being fun, convenient and quicker are not valid reasons to lead with design.

What really matters is that the website, infographic, video or whatever it is you’re designing truly tells the story you want to tell, ranks with search engines and engages/converts prospects.

Why design-first has its problems

Design guru and Head of Product at Postmark, Rian van der Merwe, neatly sums up why a design-first approach often leads to a poorer output.

“If we design before we have content, we effectively create the packaging before we know what’s going to go in it. And if the content doesn’t fit the package, there are only two options: start from scratch, or try to jam the content into the existing package”.

When design dictates content, the end result could be that you’ve left out some crucial information, simply because there wasn’t enough space on the page/frame, or the other way round: you end up adding a load of fluff just to fill the space.

Why copy-first is the best way

Design can be brilliant regardless of whether copy comes first or second. Designers might not see it that way, of course, arguing that they don’t have the same creative freedom. But the Orson Welles quote feels quite poignant here:

“If you give somebody constraints, it’s easier to be creative,” he said. “The enemy of art is the absence of limitation.”

Now, I’m not suggesting for a minute that you quote that to your designer the next time you tell them you’re taking a content-first approach… but the best design work is always done when the brief is tight and the tone of voice is clear.

Of course, the copy needs to be appropriate for the format/output. Be careful not to overload your designers with all this copy that they have to try and make visually appealing. Big blocks of text are the enemy of both designers and user experience specialists.

A great copywriter is key to making a content-first approach work

Firstly, it’s important to point out that we’ve done a million design projects and have learnt the hard way that they work best when copy is signed off before the visuals are mocked up.

Messaging should always be agreed on before the design route, as this can shape everything else. For example, the creative concept can derail an animated video if it’s set in stone before the messaging is finalised. 

What we’ve found is that it’s much easier to agree on design than it is copy. Once the general theme of the design has been agreed, it’s fairly straightforward to apply that throughout the website, video etc.

When it comes to copy, every word is scrutinised – quite rightly, of course. But, when a copywriter is unable to freely write, because the design is already set in stone, it makes an already tricky job even trickier.

I’ll be honest, we’ve had projects which have had to go through countless rounds of amends just to get the copy straight. It leads to frustration on both sides and project delays. A perceived ‘simple amend’ to the copy of an explainer video, for example, can equal hours of work due to changing complex scene transitions. 

So, the idea that a design-led approach saves time often doesn’t tally with reality.

There’s a good reason behind why brands see a need to scrutinise copy before it goes out. It’s communicating their key messaging, aiding search engine optimisation, and showcasing their knowledge and expertise. All the stuff that matters.

What’s a great-looking video without a solid script to lead it? A great-looking video which has nothing to say. We’ve all seen a film or two like that… you’ve probably forgotten what they were called now – funny that!

And what’s a great-looking website without content directing the user journey? A great-looking website which fails to convert. We’ve all exited a website as quickly as we’ve clicked on it due to a lack of clarity in its key messaging.

You can see what I’m getting at. 

Design is just as important as the copy it’s trying to make look good. But it’s the words which linger in people’s minds and prompt action.

Content and design working hand-in-hand

Here at Q Content, we have copywriters and designers/animators collaborating all under one roof. As soon as copy is signed off, we can send it over to our designers to start making it look beautiful, without any delay. Why not feel the benefit of content and design working hand-in-hand for your next project? Email us today on info@qcontent.co.uk and we’d be happy to provide a quote. 

Ben Hollom
Ben Hollom

May 20, 2022