Design Guided by Content

  • Brett Anderson's picture
    January 20, 2015

“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”
– Jeffrey Zeldman

What is content?

It’s what you communicate. It’s how you communicate. It’s the tone and style. It’s what you emphasize and what you don’t. It’s how you tell your story.


Far too often as designers we are presented with an assignment to design or mockup a site with little to no approved content. “Use the existing content” I say to myself. Knowing all too well that this is not the content that is going to be used. It’s normally old, out of date and doesn’t fit the overall goal that will best suit the audience. 

Now the nice part of this is that we can design as much or little content as we want. We can come up with new ideas for content or promote topics that the client may not have thought of. I have experienced many times that this may be nice but doesn’t always work out in the end. I end up working harder to modify my design to conform to the newly desired content. As much as I love to make things look pretty, I have come to terms with that fact that the most important part of a website is the message.

If the content doesn’t speak neither will the design. They both go hand in hand. If the content is good and the design is bad then that hurts the overall message. We can run into issues with either approach, design first or content first. We desperately need to work with copywriters, department heads and other partners to get the content that is needed on the page.

One approach that can help this is to approach the design and content as a joint partnership with the client and designer. We need to be able to brainstorm and reach certain agreements as to what general content will be needed on what pages. Where can call outs be utilized? Is there more social media sections? What's the overall journey that the site needs to lead the user on? Basically, you don't need all of the content but at least some kind of guide to what content will be used.


Let’s start with structure. Let’s know what our content is made from. Not, necessarily, what it is.
Mark Boulton