Content Drives Design: Why a Flashy Website Can’t Cover Up Bad Content

An aerial view of the busy interchange of two highways with trees and buildings around.

Human beings are wired to like new, bright, and shiny things. 🤩 It’s the reason why “retail therapy” is so effective: we get a boost from acquiring something new that gets us excited. But this attraction to the novel can backfire when we opt for form over function.

Picture this: you are traveling with three other people, and you arrive at the airport of your destination. You’re tired from the travel, and you can’t wait to get to the hotel and relax. After waiting in the rental car line, you find out that your reservation is for a fancy convertible sports car. Under other circumstances, this might be fun, but there are four exhausted people, their carry-ons, backpacks, and checked bags all standing there, looking at a trunk that is way too tiny to fit everything. Suddenly, the flashiness of having a desirable car isn’t so fun.

The Valerian motto: content drives design

We hold a very uncompromising belief about websites: content must drive design. When we say this, we mean that the content of your website—the words and information—must determine how your website is designed, not the other way around.

Why we insist on finalizing content before anything else

A big part of making sure that the content of your website is at the helm is by insisting that the copy for a website is finalized before we move into the design and development phase. We know folks can sometimes find this requirement annoying, but we stick to it for a reason.

When a website project is rushed into the design phase, the content never truly gets the time and energy it deserves. And while we agree that a good-looking website is important to your business’ success online, even the best-looking website won’t be able to cover up typos, incorrect information, or lackluster content. If we jump to design because it’s exciting, the content that isn’t polished never gets cleaned up and the questions about how to properly market online never get answered. 

How your opinions about design influence content

It would be ridiculous, however, to cut design out of the conversation until content is finished. We know that most clients come to a website project with websites that inspire them, ideas, and a picture in their head of how the final product will look. 💭 In fact, we always inquire about these things as part of our onboarding and information gathering process. We need to know what someone is hoping to create before we can begin creating any part of it. However, it’s all about balancing the two things, especially early on in the process.

If we are providing copywriting services for a website project, the design dreams are even more important. For example, if a client shows us a bunch of websites that inspire them, and they are all very sparse on copy, we know that we need to keep the copy tight and brief. If, however, they show us an expansive website with a lot of words on each page, we know we’re probably going to have to generate a good deal more copy for the project. Design goals can guide the content creation, but they can never be steering the ship. 🚢

Let it take the time that it takes ⏱️

When we write copy for a client, it can often create a period where the client doesn’t necessarily feel like a lot of progress is being made. They haven’t heard much of anything from us, so there must not be much going on! This couldn’t be further from the truth, but we understand why folks can feel this way.

The art of writing good web copy takes time, and our own internal processes take into account things like layout and formatting, as well as best practices about how to communicate about a business online. Once we meet with a client and get a grasp of the information they want to communicate and what tone they want to use, we don’t typically need a lot of input from them. We’ll ask for a check of our initial work to make sure we are hitting the target, but then it’s just about plugging away until everything is done. Depending on the size of a website, that can take a while.

If you’re writing your own content, it can take just as long (or longer!). It’s difficult to sit down and get everything that’s in your head down on paper, but it’s also difficult to figure out how you want to communicate it all. 😵‍💫 We often hear from clients that it’s easy to write up something that describes their business or product, but then they get stuck, unsure how that will translate into a page on their site. What order should this go in? And shouldn’t there be headings or something??

We don’t expect clients to be able to churn out their own copy at light speed, just like we don’t expect it of our own copywriters, but we do allow this process to take the time that it takes because it lays the groundwork for a successful website. While it isn’t the most exciting part of the website process, it is one of the most important.

The beauty of a content-driven website 😍

We approach website projects with content at the helm because we believe in the results. Here’s what you can expect from a website where the content drives the design.

Better content

Like we’ve mentioned, the only way to ensure that the content is polished and effective is to make it the focus of the project before design ever begins. But here’s the secret: when content is being drafted outside of the presence of design aspects like sections, boxes, and so on, it tends to be better overall. 

Think about a website template. It might be a really good-looking template, designed well and impressive in previews, but when it comes to using the template for your business, you end up taking all the things you want to communicate and looking for places to put them. Perhaps some bits fit really well in one place or another, but most of the time, you’ll feel like you’re fighting to stuff things in ill-fitting containers. Chopping up your writing into predetermined spaces doesn’t tend to have the same effect as a website that is designed around what you’ve already decided to communicate and how.

Wireframing is a breeze

Before design begins, all the written content has to be formatted to reflect the way a website will end up looking. When we write copy for a client, we produce a wireframe with fully written copy prior to the design stage. All the copy is taken and laid out in a way that invokes how it will show up on the website. Wireframing isn’t exact, so sections and their layouts will shift dramatically during design and development, but the wireframe gives an idea of how each page and the website as a whole will feel. 

If you’re trying to wireframe without finalized copy, it’s a real headache. Sure, you can put some lorem ipsum in there, but you can’t be sure how much text you’ll be working with. When the wireframe is imprecise, the design is as well. It’s always easier for designers to start with a wireframe, and it’s always better to wireframe with fully written copy. 

Design goes more smoothly

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that content never changes once design begins; sometimes we get into the weeds and realize that we need to adjust the copy for things to look right on the page. But it’s immensely more difficult to design when a section has a note about edits or not being finished. Even placeholder text can cause problems because it’s all but guaranteed to change in length, at least a little.

It might not be evident when you’re looking at a Google doc with your copy in it (or even a wireframe), but a word or two—or even sometimes just a character—can really throw off design. When you’re trying to create a section that looks consistent and cohesive, you need to know exactly what needs to go there.

In fact, this dilemma accounts for many of those changes to copy during design that we mentioned. When the design team is taking everything and creating a mockup of the page, they often find that they have a word too many (or too few) in some places and ask for edits to bring everything to where it needs to be. 

The payoff is a more effective website

All of this might sound fussy or like we keep people from the fun stuff for as long as possible, but at the end of the day, a website that allows content to drive its design is going to be more effective than one that values form over function. 

Beautiful websites are important, and we always aim to create something wonderful for our clients, but consumers make decisions based on information. If they can’t find what they’re looking for because it’s buried in a gorgeous, distracting design or if the copy is flowery with no substance, you’re likely to miss out on a customer, no matter how nice your website looks. 😞

But when time is spent writing solid copy that conveys everything that needs to be conveyed, the design is bound to follow. And the result at the end is a website that does its job well and in style.

How to be a content-drives-design client

If you’re embarking on a website project, you may be thinking that you want to ascribe to our content-drives-design philosophy. What does this look like as a client?

Don’t get too carried away with the inspo 🙅

We love to hear about what websites inspire your dreams for your project, but we sometimes encounter folks who want to use their inspo like a template. Instead of just being inspired and picking elements that they love, they start expecting their website to look just like someone else’s. 

Every business is unique and needs a website that reflects that. If you copy another website too closely, not only are you wandering into morally murky waters, you also compromise your business and the real connections you can forge with customers

Good inspiration is a balance. We don’t need a list of 20 websites to wade through, and it’s not super helpful to have just one piece of inspiration to draw on. If a client comes to a project with 2–6 websites that they like, our whole team is thrilled. 🤩

Be clear on the must-haves

No matter who is writing the copy for the website, you need to have a thoughtful and clear list of what absolutely must go on the website. Focusing on the facts (location, next steps, prices), the story (what the customer can expect and aspire to), and the key details (options, benefits, etc.) will guide everything that goes in between. 🗺️ It’s difficult to write anything compelling if you aren’t clear about what knowledge the website visitor needs to walk away with, but if you clearly define these things, it’s way easier to draft compelling sales copy in your headers, heroes, and beyond.

Good content means good design

If you’re writing your own copy, you want to make sure that you’ve given it your best shot and spent time perfecting it as much as possible. You may want to collaborate with other folks in your business or even friends or family members who are good communicators and understand what you’re doing and selling. (If you’re looking for more tips about this, check out our Website Content Crash Course in The Greenhouse.) The better the copy, the better the design will be.

We love when we have a client who prioritizes copy and hires us to write for them because it allows us to take their information and create copy that hits all the points it needs to in a way that we know is optimized for the web. It can be tough for folks who don’t work with websites to know how much is too much (or too little). Since our team is used to working together, we can often create copy that is very natural to design when it’s all done in-house.

🌿

If you’re looking for a website that is driven by good content, we’d love to work with you. We offer custom websites for clients with a bigger budget or more specific needs, or we have Quickstart website packages that make for shorter timelines and smaller budgets. And we offer a Copywriting Optimization add-on for either option, so if you really want the content for your website to get the extra time and attention it needs to fuel awesome design, we’ve got your back. 

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