Photograph of a man in a tuxedo carrying an empty wooden frame

There are almost as many ways to design a website as there are designers. Some take the route of sketching out ideas on paper. Others design in , or with HTML & CSS, using the browser as a canvas. I’m going to propose something that remains fairly radical in web development: you can’t hope to design an effective site without having content first.

  • An artist doesn’t start a painting by designing a frame around the canvas. The frame is chosen to complement the work at the end of the creative process.
  • A book isn’t written with a particular cover design and binding in mind. The content of the book determines the design.

Many modern designers recoil at the concept of content-first design, for entirely understandable reasons: they are in the business of design, not wrangling content. But taking a content-first approach eliminates several problems that plague the web development industry:

  • Photograph of a tailored suitContent informs design, not the other way around. We’ve all seen sites where content has been shoehorned into a template that it simply does not fit. Content is the body beneath a well-tailored suit: the cloth adapts to and complements the figure; it doesn’t bind it in place.
  • Content creates tone. Clients often have a very hard time expressing what they want in a site. Creating content first provides answers to many questions:  what’s the best way to communicate the site’s calls to action? Is the associated writing style light, airy and friendly, or robust and formal? What images best complement that communication style? Are we ensuring that voice and tone remain consistent throughout?
  • Content sets scope. Once you have content, you can make decisions of how it will best be presented. What user interface patterns work? How many pages will be required? What does the site’s navigation have to cover? Without content, any answers to these questions are uninformed guesses, at best.
  • Content commits clients. A perennial problem in the industry is chasing after clients who promise to provide content for their site, fail to come through, and yet constantly ask when pages are going to go live.  Committing clients to create content makes them serious, and avoids many of the production issues that stall the completion of pages.
  • Content fosters communication. Clients often struggle to understand design and site production, creating a sense of alienation and loss of control. Making the client part of the content creation process creates a buy-in, investing them in the process and opening channels of communication.
  • Content forces contextualization. Following the rules of writing for the web imposes a discipline on the text. Thinking in terms of slugs and ledes, and whether the content, presented as simple black and white, works on a mobile device as well as television requires a focus and concentration that will inform the entire process.

Designs built without content are great exercises in imagination, but they often fail to create effective results. It takes discipline and patience to build a site in a content-first process: most designers will buck and champ at the bit in every step. But the result is always a better-informed, more communicative site.

Images by Julien and Tyler Lawrence, licensed under Creative Commons.

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