Design vs. Content: Agency Professionals Weigh In

Content Versus Design - Webcopyplus Web Copywriter Blog

Content and design. Written communications and visual communications. When it comes to creating winning websites, which plays a more important role? Our web copywriters reached out to six experienced agency professionals from the US, Canada and England to get their take.

Web content or design — which is more important?

James Archer - content versus designJames Archer

Managing Director, Forty

“At Forty, we view words and visuals as inseparably intertwined; they’re just different manifestations of the same message.

“We always assign both a writer and a designer to every project, and our brand strategy work always includes both verbal and visual direction.

“Ultimately, the viewer doesn’t distinguish between the visual design and the verbal message of a piece. They take in the overall experience, and they remember (or don’t) based on what they feel.

“Because we take the approach of focusing on the overall experience rather than a ‘words first’ or ‘design first’ approach, we find it works best when designers and writers work side by side. Not always possible, but certainly the ideal.”

Follow James @jamesarcher

William Beachy - content versus designWilliam A. Beachy
President, Go Media Inc.

“When I was in college, there were two bulletin boards in the lobby of my dorm. The first bulletin board was maintained by the resident advisers and was intended for all of the residents. It was a colorful explosion of photos, event fliers, clip-art, logos and decorative trim. Just to the left of that was the second bulletin board; maintained and intended for the engineering club. On it were plain white 8.5×11 sheets of paper with single-spaced black type neatly hung in a perfect grid. There wasn’t a single image, color or graphical element anywhere on the engineers’ bulletin board.

“So, which one was the superior bulletin board? Well, my answer, as it relates to this question of content versus design is — it depends. It depends who your audience is. It depends what your content is. In this specific case, the engineers’ bulletin board was superior — for the engineers, and probably nobody else. As with any website development project, you have to start with understanding the user. And to use this oft quoted design axiom: form follows function. You have to know what the purpose of the site is. Only then can you possibly answer the question of what’s more important.”

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Christina Calderon - content versus designChristina Calderon
Creative Director, JB Chicago

“I believe that there should be a perfect marriage between function and form. As a visual person, I am naturally drawn to websites that look good, but as a Creative Director I fully understand the value in content and the written language. Words bring clarity and act as the persuasive element to a message.

“Ideally, there should be a call to action and sense of urgency wrapped around a good, compelling design in order to engage and move the consumer, so any good ad contains a combination of the two. The story that is told through visual means is reinforced by the copy — the tagline seals the deal.”

Follow Christina @cryandesign

Jason Hamilton - content vs designJason Hamilton
Director, Digital Marketing, Acart Communications

“If, by design, we are referring to the visual look and feel of a site, and, by content, we are referring to the information that resides on the site, then content wins hands down.

“When someone visits your website, blog or Facebook page, they do not visit to stare in awe of your beautiful design; they visit for one reason: they have a problem that needs solving. Whether that problem is where to find the lowest gas prices, how to measure social media, or discover Charlie Sheen’s latest crazy stunt, they are looking for an answer. Knowing what your audience is looking for and creating quality content around that is the key to effective Web communications.

“Content is not, and should not be, restricted to the written word; video, audio, and infographics are increasingly popular and should be part of any effective content strategy.

“I am not saying that visual design is not important. It is, because effective design supports and enhances (not dictates) content, whereas quality content inspires and guides design.

“Look at Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Google — three of the most successful websites in the world — and ask yourself why you return to these sites?”

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Ben Harris - content versus designBen Harris
Managing Director, New Brand Vision Group

“When it comes to the creation of quality website design, text and images should not be thought of in isolation, as a healthy balance of both content and visual communications is essential for a successful approach.

“To begin with, part of your audience will be more visual, while others will respond more proactively to information, and it is therefore vital that you communicate to both sets of audiences.

“It is also important to recognize that content and visuals provide two slightly different functions on a website. Inviting branding will make your website more appealing and memorable, while the right content will demonstrate thought leadership and improve search engine rankings.

“Bold, attractive visuals are what initially attract a user’s attention; while quality content will draw that user into a deeper level of engagement.

“This psychological understanding of user behaviour is critical to a websites success, and must be addressed in the early stages of the planning process. Knowing where to use content and where to use visuals, and how to effectively blend the two is the key to achieving both aesthetic and ergonomic success with your website design.”

Follow Ben @NewBrandVision

Cynthia Passanante - content versus designCynthia Passanante
Director, Design & UI, TRAFFIQ, and Blogger, CMYKaboom

“Can you compare a car to its driver? Likewise, to compare design and content is an irrational exercise, as they each serve unique, vital functions in the digital landscape. When used properly, they are two assets that work in tandem to create a holistic, sublime experience, not forces vying for significance.

“Within the industry the phrase, ‘content is king’ is thrown around a great deal. I would position it more as a lesser duke. The goal of a successful site is not only to deliver unique content, but to do so in a way that is intuitive and accessible to the end user. Design is imperative to accomplish this task. It is the vehicle that drives content to the user — without one, the other invariably falters.

“Don’t believe me? I propose an experiment — take your best content, and type it out in black text on a site with a black background. Granted, this is a rather heavy-handed example, but one that summarizes the subtler problem found on countless websites: no matter how sexy the material, if the interface does not offer ease of discovery then the content will rot on the vine, search engine or no search engine.

“The king is dead. Long live the diarchy!”

Follow Cynthia @CMYKaboom


Content Versus Design CartoonWhat’s your take on website content versus design?

6 responses to “Design vs. Content: Agency Professionals Weigh In”

  1. William A. Beachy says:

    It’s a war out there. Let’s face it – every website is in a battle to the death over the eyeballs and finger clicks of a few billion web browsers. If you were going into war and someone offered you either a gun or a bag of grenades, which would you pick? Obviously, you would slug the guy, call him an idiot and take both. When competing against other sites with ubiquitous content, the design is going to make the difference, and vice versa. So, I wouldn’t waste my time debating which is more important. Go to war with the very best arsenal of weapons you can get your hands on – design and content.

  2. Rich says:

    Interesting opinions on the design versus content topic! I think everyone makes sound points.

  3. nm says:

    The problem is this: I have rarely worked with a web designer who understood the importance of the need for the content producer to research, investigate and be included in the entire website design or redesign process from day one.

    Working in an agency is death to content managers as inevitably, we are only brought in after the fact, and then we are supposed to be able to write engaging, targeted, amazing copy to “enhance” the design. Folks, the content producer is usually the one more interested in making sure the content is accessible and easy to find…. We know of and have worked on many “pretty” sites that are horrors for the users to navigate. That’s why designers need to accept the help and collaborate with the content producers from day one. We aren’t just “copywriters” anymore. We are content managers, information architects, website content producers … and more. Our content will work with your design … if you will just give up some of the power and let us in!

    • Rick Sloboda says:

      Indeed, it’s difficult for content writers to add value to the user experience when you are brought in late and forced to fit “x words” in various boxes. Ideally, the right content is created, and then supported by design.

      • CS says:

        Seems Rick you’re taking a left-brained approach because you prefer content. Design here however is done using the right brain because it does not recognize time but sees all events at once, which is great for instantly comprehending a website’s information-either on a page or in its very architecture. Using the senses in balance is key to truthful experience; equal consideration should be given to the brain hemispheres when putting together a website, with design helping the audience navigate the arranged words. Writing is the viewers’ focus (like stopping time to analyze, and left brained) and design is the viewers’ background (like everything at onceness, and right brained). Design and content consideration should be equal because our brains require it.

      • Rick Sloboda says:

        CS, I agree design and content require equal consideration. My point is that it’s helpful when the copywriter is brought in early in the process to help define the target audience(s), key messages and so on, so the right messages can be created in the right manner.

        Our copywriters have been brought in late on numerous occasions, once the designs were approved and considered ‘done’, resulting in much rework or damaging compromises. For instance, what if the task calls for three call-outs and the design only has two, or the web copy needs to be around 200 word on a page to get a task completed when the writer only has room for 100.

        As an experienced web copywriter, I highly value and respect the impact of design. It generates, or at least heavily influences, the visitor’s first impression. If the design isn’t appealing, effective and user-friendly, the copywriter has a major uphill battle. So, in my mind, a designer (and his or her designs) can be a copywriter’s best friend.

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