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April 16, 2014

Defining a Relationship: Content and Design

April 16, 2014

Those within the design world need no introduction to what lorem ipsum is and how it's used. For those who are not familiar, lorem ipsum (and its seemingly endless number of less professional but mildly entertaining offshoots such as bacon ipsum, hipster ipsum and samuel l. ipsum) is a popular and oft used tool to fill in designs with dummy copy before the real content is written and inserted. There is a time and a place for lorem ipsum, but many designers, either by choice or necessity, might lean a little too heavily upon its usefulness.

Which comes first...?

There are a few different schools of thought on this subject. Some believe that content must always come before design, claiming that content IS design; that if we don’t have content around which to inform the design and content to actually apply design to, that we are merely painting pretty pictures without any full understanding. I believe there's some validity to this point, but it might be a little extreme. Others believe that lorem ipsum is a fine alternative to actual content and are perfectly complacent to design first and write later; perhaps fueled by a belief that expecting finished content before design begins is unrealistic. The merits of that line of thought are a little more hard to place – but sometimes lorem ipsum must be used.

Full disclosure: going into writing this blog post, I thought that I expected to be firmly in the content then design school of thought. But then I realized something…

A Single Process

As is usually the case, the best answer is somewhere in-between. It would be better to stop thinking about content before design versus design before content, and instead think about design and content as a single process. A flexible process where one can inform the other. I will always advocate for as much content as possible before design starts – all of the content if possible. Always. Forever and ever, amen.

Content is king – this has been and will always be true. The function of design is to most effectively and beautifully deliver information to users. In the case of highly customized pieces of design, it’s very difficult to apply high-quality design to something if we don’t know what that something is. Content is hard – but without a framework, we are designing blindly without any knowledge of what must be communicated.

Benefits of Content Before Design

Recently I had the opportunity with one of our clients to design for a website that had their content written, if only in a semi-finished way. Let me be the first to say – this was quite a treat. It helped keep everybody on the same page, while also allowing more time for polishing that content before the deadline. It also allowed us to see where design could help filter what information could be stated in a more efficient or effective manner.

What Happens When Content Changes

However, when designing and building CMS-driven websites, content will change from time to time even though the design will not. Designers must be okay with creating the best that we can for the framework of information, rather than exact word-for-word content we desire. It's imperative to design for the content-that-could-be rather than the content-that-is when necessary. Even content that exists before design may need to be updated in the not-so-distant future, and the design will need to be able to handle those changes without being completely overhauled.

In the relationship of content to design, it can’t just be content before or after design. Always err on the side of content before design, but embrace the reality that it must be content before design, content during design, and content after design  a fluid relationship with content merely making the first moves.

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