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Why You Need to Develop Your Website's Content and Design in Tandem What comes first in website development — design or copy? Ultimately, it comes down to balance. Here's why.

By Goran Paun

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The age-old question in the digital design world persists: What comes first in website development — design or copy? Many digital design agencies have their own workflow strategies that best satisfy this question, but ultimately, it comes down to project needs and considerations. Nevertheless, this query continues to ricochet between copy first, design after, and design preceding copy. When considering this stance, our own digital design agency's perspective suggests a healthy balance between design and copy development. Design and copy should be curated and implemented in tandem to fill in any gaps that this duality informs. Without copy, a design is simply a visual layout, void of a clear user journey or of emotion. Yet without design, copy is merely information without placement.

When designing or working with an agency for new website development or refresh, copy and design need to complement one another. To truly achieve a productively developed website, equilibrium needs to occur at the starting point. Let's dissect how each strategy differs from the other and how to ultimately balance both for your next business's web refresh.

Related: Should You Have Content or Design First?

Copy first, design later

The conversation around "copy first, design later" stems from the idea that "content is king." Although a popular phrase in the digital design industry, it often becomes utilized as a blanket statement to design when it does not always apply. Every digital product is different and requires different specifications. Sometimes, in web design, stakeholders have their own content prepared and ready; in this case — "content first, design later" can work seamlessly here.

Designers then can utilize the provided content and design around it. This allows design teams to align the tone of the design with the voice of the content and curate a layout with the provided information. Ultimately, it provides design teams with a contextual frame of mind for navigating a website, user pathways and journeys. Content informs the pulse of a design because, with "lorem ipsum" placeholders, it can be hard to fully visualize how a design is conveying a brand story, mission and more.

Yet, "copy first" has an Achilles' heel — and that's leaving room for wasted time. Many design agencies practice the approach of allowing content writers (whether from stakeholders, internal teams or freelance writers) to curate content first, then pass on that information to design around it. However, developing content takes time. Content must evoke the tone of a brand or organization, consider SEO purposes, ensure the user navigates the site without cognitive friction and more. Therefore, waiting on content writers to fully develop their messaging, slows the process down, because designers are waiting for the information on how to align the design with the content tonality. It's not realistic to pause the design phase as content is being developed, particularly if there are deadlines from stakeholders.

Moreover, without visually allowing writers to see the space in which their copy will go, it leaves room for error. If your content writer develops copy that is too long to fit into a design layout, there is more time wasted on content editing and back and forth.

Design first, copy later

To avoid the errors of "copy first," many have adopted the "design first, content later" approach. This strategy is wildly used because it helps inform the tone of the content based on the design. If a design is rich with sharp geometric shapes, an electric color pallet and flashy animations, chances are the content will evoke a tonality of confidence, determination and perhaps even an edgy voice. This helps avoid the mistake of writers misaligning the tone with the design — because writers can see what emotions are evoked within the visual experience, and it streamlines their writing processes, too. Additionally, understanding the design layout also tells writers how much content to develop, saving time on content refinement later.

However, this strategy has its flaws as well. Sometimes writing teams do not work directly with designers, particularly if they are an additional hire-on for the project, resulting in possible delayed communication or issues sharing the design. This affects your project pipeline because your content writer may have to scramble to curate copy if there is a lull in communication. Further, the design process is iterative and is always bound to shape and shift. Once presented to stakeholders, if your design is filled with lorem ipsum placeholder content, it can lead to confusion about what certain sections are meant to be. If posed with the question of what information will go where without contextual visualization, it muddles the overall experience.

Related: Use These Web Design Tricks to Grow Your Business Exponentially

Ultimately, balance is the answer

When it comes to fusing design with copy, balance is ultimately the best approach to prevent the overlap of issues. It is highly important that when a website is coming to fruition, design and copy development begin in the same breath. Synchronizing both efforts early on helps the website start off on the right footing without mix-ups. Design and copy are both undeniably important to each other's development. To convey the right tone and emotion, they need to work together as opposed to clashing.

Further, to truly attain specific feedback from stakeholders, having both content and design together allows them to see both design and copy working together. This isn't to say that your content copy is fully finalized — rather, much like design, it iteratively changes based on feedback. Sometimes in the early stages of a project, copy can even look like cues on what the purpose of the content will be in each section, and that can further allow stakeholders to provide feedback on the placement early on without having the full content finished. Early development of content and design is a great way to achieve productivity. Both strategies should commence at the same starting line, particularly at the wireframe stage if possible.

How then, can this balance be implemented into your design strategies? First, it's all about communication and information sharing. Whether in-house, from stakeholders or from freelance writing teams, communication is what will ensure both design and writing teams are working cohesively. Always be sure to fill in your content writers early on with any layout wireframes or schemes to give them a visual idea of how much content will be needed, how many headers or sub-headers will be curated and what the intention of call-to-actions will be/where it will lead. Communication will ultimately be an asset when balancing these two elements of design.

Related: 8 Crucial Features Your Website Must Have

Another best practice to remember when striking this balance is ensuring there is a clear understanding of the tonality of the website. If the copy tone and voice do not align with the experience of the visual story of a digital product, users' cognitive response will be poor, causing friction and confusion. Along with communicating on layout, copy and design teams should be clear about the overall tone. This can be achieved through iterative calls with stakeholders to ensure both teams are on the right trajectory and even by scheduling calls on a daily or weekly cadence internally.

Copy curation is all part of the design process, but without aligning these two practices, it can leave room for a mismatched experience. Therefore, commencing these two processes at the same, early starting point will make all the difference.

Goran Paun

Principal, Creative Director

Goran Paun has spent the better part of his career helping companies with branding and design strategies by giving authenticity to their corporate identities through focused design, visual branding and UI/UX. Paun founded the full-service creative agency, ArtVersion, in 1999.

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