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Do You Need Copy Before Design?

Mia E Lee
Mia Ellis-Lee
Design & Frontend Development
Write to Mia

This age-old question came up in our weekly roundtable. Shane, our resident content expert and someone who had worked with a designer who wouldn’t design without copy, posed the question, “is it still true that you need copy before design?” The ensuing discussion brought a lot of opinions to the table around how to work with clients and the design process. We pulled in our resident design expert, Mia, and distilled their thoughts into a brief point/counterpoint format. Let’s see how approaches differ between the content side and the design side in the process of developing a project...

"Is it still true that you need copy before design?"

Shane: As the content lead, I’m always looking for content before the design process happens. It helps to inform the design, how the sitemap will be built, the nav... I could go on and on. It also ensures we are not trying to jam square copy into a round design. But I know that when you start with copy, you don’t start with a bang, you start with, well, words. And it’s hard to get a launch meeting really going without some new designs to energize the room. I think the best mix is a strong understanding of the framework surrounding the copy and what the core communication points are, along with ideas on design elements like images, page layout and potential cool features.

Mia: My opinion from a design standpoint is that copy is always useful to have to inform design, but is by no means necessary. Knowing what the client’s goals are, the user’s needs, the look and feel, and the rough structure of the copy go a long way in helping shape the design of a site. Naturally, with sites that want to feature very specialized content in a specific way, knowing the content beforehand will be relatively more valuable. But even in cases like this, knowing the rough structure of the copy is more important than knowing the exact wording.

“But doesn’t the client influence what comes first?”

Shane: The client can influence what comes first but the agency should control that. It requires a strong agenda and project plan at the launch meeting and a project manager that can guide the project properly to make sure design does not come first and potentially sidetrack things. Copy is needed upfront, design will come and the client needs to know that. Falling prey to the idea that the client needs to be wowed for the client to cooperate in the process does not make sense. They got wowed during the sales process. Now it is time to develop a sound project through the proper steps.

Mia: In a broad sense, yes. In my experience, a client’s opinion on design and project goals are useful to provide a jumping off point. But like Shane says, from there it’s our job to help refine these thoughts into a tangible, well thought out product. It’s also important to note that copy is just one aspect of client influence that goes into the design of the site. Over the course of our intake process, we meet and confer with clients frequently. We ask questions to help us determine the objectives of the client, the key characteristics of the client’s brand, critical features, and more. Knowing the copy isn’t a prerequisite for learning about any of these crucial aspects of design. Client influence comes from many different places, not just specific copy.

“So when the client says, ‘But what will it look like?’...”

Shane: You tell them it will look awesome and then stick to your agenda and project plan! Design is not just a mock up it is an entire process that involves language, colours, brand identity, feeling, emotion, so making sure that you communicate to the client throughout the entire design process what it will look like.

Mia: Even in cases where a client has no specific copy off the bat, our design intake phase can help greatly to shape the site. Meaning, value, and structure can be communicated through a myriad of ways - not just through words. By gathering information in the intake phase, we can develop strategies and designs even without copy. Position, size, weight, contrast and colour can all work to shape what a site is saying, even if the words aren’t there yet. In our mockups, we often have varying lengths of text where relevant (for instance, in a list of blog posts) to account for a variety of text lengths and to show the client what the site will look like as copy is changed. We also use dummy text, which in conjunction with the semantic values imbued by the design can effectively communicate purpose and informational hierarchy.

“Overall, does your opinion disrupt the Flywheel Momentum Building Process?”

Shane: No, because the Momentum Building Process is not only about collecting information. It's about understanding the client and how to guide them through the process. It's also about our team owning the process and keeping the project humming along.

Mia: Not at all. My opinion is shaped partly by the practices we implement in our Momentum Building Process. The design intake phase is designed to gather crucial information, with or without copy. This helps us pin down the important considerations for design and the goals of the site at large, which often are more critical to design than specific copy.

Authors: Shane Davis, Digital Marketing / Mia Ellis-Lee, Designer

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