Content vs. Design: The Chicken and the Egg

graphic showing a drawing of a chicken and an egg with a question mark and arrows indicating a cycle between the two
Perhaps you’ve seen it before. You start a new digital project and the copy is not quite available, but you have to start somewhere. So you begin designing the new digital solution. You use placeholder greeked copy in the interim. A few weeks pass, and the approved copy arrives. Suddenly what you expected to be 100 characters is actually 100 words. What was allocated to be three paragraphs is just a single sentence. The design falls apart. Blindly putting design before copy fails to deliver true understanding of the brand offering. After all, typically websites are containers for information that your customers are expecting to consume.

What about putting the proverbial egg before the chicken? Can you really just send a writer off into solitude to craft brilliant stacks of copy without any relevant context as to how the site will ultimately be structured or perceived by the user? That sounds like a recipe for a scrambled mess (pardon the pun). Design or content: which truly comes first? And are we at an impasse?

After much failure from our digital forefathers, there is a solution: to design the content structure first. It provides a foundation for successful copywriting that then fuels a solid design.

First, you must understand the brand’s needs, audience and goals: words, ideas, rules, roles, relationships and more. Only after thoughtful measurement and analysis of the content structure can meaningful and sustainable design be established.

Content First means taking the time up front to gather and organize the content for the site and then designing the site (or selecting a theme) around the content. WordPress, a leading content management solution, provides an insightful Content First example video that shows the value of establishing content prior to the creative design.

Say No to Lorem Ipsum

Five lines of lorem ipsum in your mockups may initially fit well, and the perfect kerning and leading make it shine perfectly in a design. But eventually the content will be shoehorned in by the content owners, which may change or break the design. Perhaps they didn’t realize there wasn’t a need for three calls to action on every page? Perhaps the design didn’t define how the page would expand below the fold. If the design breaks, then time must be allotted to refine the design to meet the content requirements. Obviously, this wasted time can result in deadlines slipping and can ultimately affect the budget.

Providing strategic content planning activities in the project from the start can be the difference between launching on time with good quality content and delivering late with fractured content and design. Producing good content is not easy; if it were, everyone would have it. But having great content requires a very dedicated and thoughtful approach that targets the brand’s strategy.

How to Produce a Content First Production Plan

STEP 1: Assemble the project team with a stake in the content (project manager, writers, producers, reviewers, owners, designers).

STEP 2: As a team, map out an appropriate content production process for getting a single item (usually a page) of content published on the new site. Use these actions as a starting point and add stages as required. Post-it notes are best. For example, it might be:

  1. Develop page brief
  2. Research
  3. Draft
  4. Write/produce
  5. Expert/owner review
  6. Revise
  7. Legal review
  8. Revise
  9. Creative review
  10. Revise
  11. Sign-off/publish

Don’t ignore or underestimate the effort to migrate existing content from an old site to a new site. Existing content may need to be reviewed, updated and reduced as needed.

STEP 3: Annotate each stage in your process with the person or role responsible for it. Note any stages that don’t have a clear owner. Ensure identified people know they are responsible and understand their expectations.

STEP 4: Review the stages and note any potential pain-points or bottlenecks.

Ask these questions:

  • Are there lots of people with a say in the content?
  • Is too much responsibility and workload falling on one person?
  • Do we have the required skills?
  • Where do things (usually) get political when we produce content?

STEP 5: Estimate how much effort (as fractions of hours) each stage could realistically take to execute. Write that number against each stage. Be realistic!

STEP 6: Total up the hours at the end of your process diagram to identify the true time required of your team to accomplish getting content for this one page.

STEP 7: Multiply the estimated hours with the anticipated pieces (pages) of content on your new site.

The answer to your sum will be a sobering number. The good news is that the project team will now have a more accurate understanding of the effort for producing new content to start making smarter decisions throughout the project.

Here are some examples of smarter decisions made because of using a Content First strategy.

Scenario 1: Dynamic Copy Considerations
The business requirements identify the need for a “Latest News” feature on the home page, but the content audit reveals that only four news articles were published in the previous 12 months on the current site; this is hardly a steady flow of latest news.

The content designer compromises with the client to design a home page template with the logic to only show latest news items within the past 30 days; otherwise, the template closes the space and shows nothing.

Acting on this content insight both reduces the risk of jeopardizing the users’ experience by showing them old “Latest News” and also removes pressure on the site’s owners to produce more news stories. Win-win.

Scenario 2: Ongoing Content Management Needs
The team that will manage the ongoing content needs will need to consider how it will be curated after the site’s launch. Perhaps you find that one person will be dedicated to the new site at a half day per week, post-launch. That’s not much time to maintain and produce new content. After identifying the anticipated time constraints, it may be decided not to include a blog because it would be cumbersome and unlikely to maintain a consistent flow of valuable blog content.

These are content first decisions that have real impact on the design of the final site.

Brand Benefits from a Content First Approach

To prevent establishing a design that could be compromised by unidentified content structure needs, it will be essential to set clear milestones for the content owners to confirm a content audit and update workflow once the project is complete. As long as expectations are managed, any issues that arise should be able to be dealt with effectively, keeping the project and the design on track.

While we may never know if it was the chicken or the egg that came first, we do know that successful design is always preceded by thoughtful content design. We need to always design the content before designing the container to hold the content. This approach will (1) help identify the type and frequency of content to use based on the client’s content management limitations, (2) uncover potential issues that may arise when using dynamic content and (3) ensure that the design will accommodate the intended content once it’s inserted into the design structure. Using a Content First design approach requires an initial investment that will pay off with a solid design that is flexible to accommodate the content challenges your brand will need to support your customer’s experience.


  • ‘Content First’ Approach to Website Development


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