June 30, 2010Content Comes First

As a freelance copywriter, I’m frequently brought in on projects that are already half way through. Sometimes, I’m brought in by a design agency. Other times, I’m brought in by a company who’s already got their design and now they’re looking for someone to fill it. While I’m happy to work on these projects, in fact, being brought in as a last-minute troubleshooter is where I make my real money — it’s not an ideal situation. For you, or for me. Here’s why:

Content is King

You may have heard the expression before. In fact, if you’re a writer or a blogger, you’ve probably not only heard this phrase before, you’ve probably found yourself repeating it to quite a few clients. Perhaps it’s the “do it yourself” effect I’ve noticed where people say “I can speak English, but I can’t design or code HTML / CSS, so I’ll hire someone to do that and do the copy myself” but either way, the mentality of most businesses, individuals — and even some design agencies — is to produce the design first, then get a copywriter in to fill the Lorem Ipsum placeholder text they’ve created. But they’ve forgotten the most basic rule. Content is king.

When content comes second, it has to follow what’s come before.

If your site design is bright and bold, you have to go with bright and bold copy. If it’s elegant, formal and professional, then cheeky, quirky copy will look out of place and unprofessional. The point is, if you’ve already designed a site that looks a certain way, your copywriter is going to be limited in what he can do. Style has already been decided for him. Sometimes, even, he’s stuck to an exact word count. I don’t just mean “three hundred words per page, please” — I’m talking about this design having this headline in this font at 14px, meaning there’s room for between seven to nine words. But what if your copywriter comes up with a brilliant three or four word headline that doesn’t fit? You can’t use it. So you settle for a seven to nine word headline that’s nowhere near as good, because your design has been set in stone.

They’re not visitors, they’re readers.

With the emphasis that’s placed on design in modern sites, it’s often easy to forget that people come to read sites, not to look at them. They want to be informed, not dazzled. That’s why your copywriter is more important to the overall success of your site than you think. Remember, he’s the guy who’s telling the story. He’s the guy who’s pitching to your customers for you. He’s the guy who’s going to make sure your company sells.

I’m not underestimating the importance of good design. The best copy in the world won’t help you if your site looks unprofessional, and a bad design is far more likely to scare off potential customers than mediocre copy because when copy’s really good, people don’t notice it. That’s the sign of good copy. It fits. Effortlessly.

Getting copy to fit effortlessly into your design is hard. Restrictive designs limit what your copywriter can do. They limit what he can say about you, how much he can say, and how he says it. Getting your design to fit effortlessly around good copy is much easier.

If you’re a web designer or otherwise involved in the design industry, there’s a great post you need to read on this subject called Lorem Ipsum is Killing Your Designs that explains exactly, from a design persepctive, why it makes your life easier to get the content written first and then create a better looking design around it. They say:

The bottom line is design is an enhancement to your content. Nothing more. If you have an awesome design but junky content then no one will buy, use, read, or interact with it.

In order to sell something, a design only needs to be good. It can be any colour, any shape, any design — so long as it looks professional.
Copy is different. Sometimes copy needs to be short and punchy. Sometimes it has to be long in order to adequately describe something.

In other words: Copy is specific. Design is general.

I’m a good copywriter, and one of my most important skills is being able to take a brief at any stage and work with it, using the materials that have already been created. I’m not the kind of copywriter who has a beef with people who ask me to ‘fill in the blanks’ on their design. But I do think the marriage of copy and design works better when a copywriter and designer work on a concept, and then some draft copy, in advance, and create the design around it.

It’d be pretty useless for a copywriter to come up with a series of headlines riffing on the phrase “feeling blue” if the site design was in black and yellow. By getting the concept right first, you’re giving a great designer the ideas they need to do their job and come up with a brilliant design.

The golden rule:

Copy is specific. Design is general.
Concept first. Then design. Then fill in the blanks.

Trust me. It works.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 30th, 2010 at 7:28 pm and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. “Content is King” – a line which also frequently roles off my tongue when talking to clients.

    But, as the saying goes that, most cliches are born from truth.

    Have to agree that content must come first. If design is important, body copy is crucial. It’s the first and last line of communication with the reader.

    Really enjoyed the post, top site!



  2. The age demanded that we sing
    but cut out our tongues.
    The age demanded that we flow
    but hammered in the bungs.
    The age demanded that we dance
    but put us all in iron pants.
    And in the end the age was handed
    the sort of shit that it demanded.

    My favourite poem by Hemmingway.

    I really like your website and content. Good observations and nice that
    you can be bothered to share them. Keep up the good work and don’t
    do any ‘heavy lifting’.

    Andy x

    ps. I’m not gay but you do look quite sexy…

  3. Cody Dalton says:

    This is a great read and think there should be a bigger focus on better content for web development. Usually it is the last thing to be added in a project but should be one of the first and most important items to be worked on.

    The only thing I would disagree on is that design does play a bigger role then just being “General.” There are many different ways to design around content but it needs to relate to the demographic that is the target and like you said be professional.

    I have done many user tests and people do not read often when scanning websites. The things they look at are the photos, specifically photos of people then read the headings and then move to the buttons or actions.

    As long as your content has engaging headings, enticing call to action and a great into paragraph you will have a winner in most cases.

    ….but all that is nothing without a great design.

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