What Should Happen First? Copy or Design

Ashley Romagnoli, Digital Marketing Manager
Posted on May 31, 2018

In a similar vein as the old adage of “What came first? The chicken or the egg?” the creative world deliberates—should we start with copy or design when requested to build a website? The only difference is that while the jury is still out with regards to the chicken, there is a pretty clear answer as far as strategic marketing goes—which is to start with copy.

:::takes cover from fellow copywriters hurling sharp and heavy objects in my general direction::::

There are some copywriters who would vehemently defend the stance of wanting design first so that they can back their copy into it. It’s an “easier starting point” for them. And let’s face it - it does require less strategic effort and thought to operate this way. But my question is, what exactly are those designers designing without copy? The well-respected designer, Jeffrey Zeldman, said it best, “Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” Copy is the compass for designers, pointing them in the direction of voice, tone, and brand. The consequence of starting with design and then applying the copy is that designers are left aimless.

When it comes to writers wanting to start with design, my best guess for the reasoning behind it is because they don’t want the pressure of being the anchor for design, user experience, and frontend development. They know that various team members are counting (and waiting) on them to produce something relevant, captivating, and on-brand. Although the pressure is significant, they have to put that aside for the sake of strategy. The team needs their writers to step up each and every time.

If you are a writer and you find yourself having to rely on a blind design before you begin writing copy, you’re making it a lot harder for yourself (and for your designers, who will almost always end up having to redo their design.) Instead, rely on the brand. Your client’s brand should give you more than enough information for a starting point. If it doesn’t, you need to extract that information from the client… and perhaps consider pitching them a robust rebrand. Or if you are that visually driven, talk to your designers and bounce concepts off of them.

The negative implications of working backwards go much further than a creative team feeling frustrated. Starting with design will rapidly put you behind schedule as the designers will (likely) have to do extra rounds of revisions to realign their design to the copy. This trickles into the schedule of the building entire website. And let’s not forget the added cost associated with out-of-scope revisions, and the price your client will be forced to pay for being stuck with a less-than-ideal website longer than expected. Those dollars are real.

On the (hopefully) rare occasion when you have a client who is requesting to start with design, I urge you to have a frank discussion with them. Remember that they hired you to be the expert in this process, and that it is your duty to them to guide them in the best direction possible. This is not the time for you to “go with the flow.” Even if you plead your case and your client still chooses to start with design, they will appreciate that you had their best interest in mind.

In spite of the pressure, I happen to think being the person who “goes first” is one of the most fulfilling parts of the process. Rather than pressure, I feel empowered that I work with people who trust my skills and experience enough to allow for me to set the creative foundation of a project. I expect a lot from them, too. It’s their job to take my words and bring them to life with colors, texture, typography, and design. They have to do the copy justice visually. The pressure is always shifting.

My work as a Digital Content Manager at Imarc involves working flexibly, but typically (and thankfully), we lead with copy. There should always be an ideal process, but a strong creative professional with any kind of chops should be nimble enough to handle the scenarios where they are not able to stick to their process. Though the ideal is worth fighting for.

Do you have a copy and design mismatch on your website? Let's talk!