Why Copy Must Come Before Design – One Small Business Owner’s Real Life Horror Story

why copy must come before design

If you haven’t got a website yet or you’re thinking of a redesign, then you need to read this.

I wrote a guest post on the fabulous Grassroots Internet Strategy website a while back about some things people should be aware of before working with a web developer. My experience has led me to believe that content and copy must be the first priority before website design and development.

I had my first copywriting client a couple of years ago, just as my love affair with the web was evolving. Because this was her first website, my client had no knowledge or experience in web design or development. She had a fantastic product but apart from her business plan, there was no pre-written content or copy.

That’s fine, after all that’s why she came to me. However, the role of a copywriter is difficult when there is no content strategy or plan in place. She had already signed a contract with a web developer who immediately started to design and build a website.

When the idea of building a website springs to mine, many people assume they should first approach a designer or developer. There’s nothing wrong with that but a very good one should acknowledge the importance of having some content prepared first or at least get you to carefully think about what you want your website to communicate to your potential customers before the build process even begins.

In my client’s case, this particular web development company immediately began building and designing a website without any consideration to what she wanted her website to achieve. There wasn’t even a website plan. My client rightfully assumed that the web development company would assist her in developing website objectives, consult with her on the website building process and provide the necessary information needed to build a functional website.

Unfortunately in this case, as it happens in many others, the content part of the website was an after thought and not considered until after the design or development stage.

This is a huge mistake!

The Copy Should Come Before Web Design

The website should start with the words. It’s not until you start putting words on paper does the website become more focused and specific. You start to gather momentum and get clarity about what you’re actually trying to achieve and communicate with your website.

Not only that, as you start to understand what you need, your vision for the website often changes. In many cases, these changes can involve an entire rework of the logo, images and layout.

This can end up costing you more money in the long term. And this is exactly what happened to my client.

Content And Design Must Work Together

In the meantime, I was busy writing copy for my client. When it came time to insert the copy on the website, we had to squeeze the content into an inappropriate structure and layout that did not allow all the copy to fit. This meant that my client’s ability to articulate her key message and the benefits of her product was severely compromised. She was told she needed to outlay more costs to create a website that would actually communicate what she originally intended. Six months later, there still was no functional website.

I learnt a lot from this experience. It became clear to me that the nature of writing for the web isn’t simply about the words and text you put on paper and should not work in isolation from design and development. It also means considering usability, functionality and information architecture in order to develop a website that will be an enjoyable experience for the user. And the golden rule here is there must be some copy and content written before the design stage.

I’m not the only one that agrees. I know of some designers that insist their clients have the copy at least 90% completed and finalized before they will start on a design or redesign.

US web designer Jeffrey Zeldman says this:

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.

Your website is your sales tool and it needs to support your business. Work design around content and not other way around. Otherwise, you’ll end up squeezing content into an inappropriate structure that won’t be able to communicate your desired message.

Your turn. Do you agree or disagree? What are your thoughts and opinions on this topic?

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