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The tension between design and content

As designers, developers, and marketers who create for a living we live in a constant battle. We are in the trenches every day determining the most creative approach, the best technical solution for the client's problems, or the best approach for their marketing campaign. What do these have in common? Content. Content is everything, no matter the medium.

As a designer and developer with 20 years of experience, I've can honestly say that designing with content in hand always leads to the best outcomes for the client. Now hold on creative community, don't shoot.

This debate goes way back: which came first, content or design? Kinda like the chicken and the egg. Designers always want an idea of the content so that they can design to fit the needs while copywriters want a design so that they can write to fit the layout. However, without content first, you will be fumbling blindly in the dark.

Start with content first

If you start a project by defining the content, even in skeleton form, you will be providing and framework for everyone to follow. The content helps define the strategy, it sparks creative ideas and helps bring the client back to the goals and objectives. It doesn't matter if we're talking about an email campaign, website, print brochure or product packaging. The content is the apex of communication. Content first helps direct everyone involved in the project, even if the content continues to be revolved and refined. It should guide the designers and developers to good solutions, and provide alignment when things start to go outside the boundaries.  

Designing with content saves time

When a designer has final (or almost final) content in hand, it will save you time and money. Designing with content leaves out the guesswork. It answers questions like "what is the big idea here" or "how much space do we need for this element" or even "What is the client thinking?!".  Content provides a designer with all the pieces to the puzzle. This allows them to be creative within the safe boundaries of the project. Content first will save you time on revisions and rework. It will also help prove your strategy or ideas early.

A content-first approach should allow for creativity and flexibility

Starting with content doesn't' mean that content is a dictator, forcing a direction that shouldn't be explored. Collaboration, creativity, and flexibility need to be part of the process. Design and content collaborating early in the process lead to the best outcomes.  Designers can help influence content early on with creative ideas, sketches, and strategies to help with creative direction. Developers can assist early in the process bringing new ideas and approaches to the table, helping shape the content and strategy. A collaborative, team approach results in the best work for the client.

Communication is everything

Your role is to help the client communicate. The better we ALL understand the client's DNA, needs, and goals, the better we can perform. Your creative team should bring the content, design, and development team around the table with the client so that everyone is aligned with the client. Understand and align yourselves with the client's needs and everything will follow.

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