I’m a strong believer in preparing website content before initiating graphic design and this applies to both websites and blogs. Some will argue with me, but I’ll fight this battle and dig in because I know content before website design is the right approach.
Strong website design extends past colors, fonts, and layout boxes.
Strong design focuses on the user.
Website design should be crafted around the user, their needs, and the desired outcome of a website visit. It should be focused on the user’s challenges and the website’s ability to solve these issues.
It should not be focused on coding trends and prepackaged templates.
Design Trends Come and Go, But a Focus on the User Should Not
I’ll receive emails from people discussing their website design requirements and many times these lists will be focusing on specific project criteria like infinite scroll, hamburger menus, hero images, video backgrounds, and motion.
Rarely do people approach a design firm and present data based on their visitors, the user’s needs, and the ultimate goals of a website visit.
Website owners get caught up in design trends, their competitors’ websites, and what they believe is modern and current design elements. In doing so, they lose track of the actual website visitor.
All too often people select a website template or blog theme and get caught up in the graphical presentation or bells and whistles it offers. It’s an emotional buy that supersedes the desire to help the actual website visitors.
Once they buy the stock theme, they force their content to fit within the template’s available content blocks. Or worse yet, they force a custom design to adhere to the same style and presentation of a top competitor’s website.
In most cases this leads to disappointment and buyer’s remorse.
The reason this occurs is this process follows the path of purchase, design, development, and finally content. That path is in the wrong order. The process is going backwards and it leads to frustration.
Content First Leads to Educated Design Decisions
Documenting your desired user flow, visitor paths, and call to actions is something that is typically done after the graphic design is completed. Unfortunately that’s the wrong approach because it forces you into matching content to the website theme or design. It should be just the opposite.
Before you find yourself falling in love with a competitor website, coveting a stock WordPress template, or reaching out to a graphic designer, you need think through the goals and objectives of your website or blog.
You need to document your user personas, their individual challenges, your solution offering, and the paths you’d like these visitors to take within the website.
While graphic design in very important, it must take place at the right time within the project to truly allow you to showcases the website, content, and offering in the best light possible.
One of my favorite quotes on this subject is:
“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” – Jeffrey Zeldman
Messaging and content are the building blocks and foundation of the website. This means they should be carefully thought through and documented well before any colors, fonts, and layouts are considered.
The design elements should complement, highlight, and showcase the key messaging and most important content.
Focus on the Right Content
While I am saying you should have content written before beginning design, I’m not saying that you have to have all your content written. That would be a difficult task to accomplish for most website owners and businesses.
I encourage clients to focus on core website sections and pages. During the sales process I usually go through their website and look for areas I think would benefit from custom design templates. These will vary based on the client, industry, and target demographic.
Here are some common areas that can benefit most from a content first strategy:
- Main about or company page
- Main services page and individual service pages
- Main storefront and individual product pages
- Resource section, categories, and/or resource items
- Landing page templates
- Main blog page and individual blog posts
- Contact page
Sometimes I’ll suggest just a few custom design templates and other times I’ll suggest fifteen to twenty. It really depends on the complexity of the content and the variations in the content flow and call to actions.
As we progress into a project with a client, we like to have as much information as possible on core elements and how these might be altered based on different areas of the website.
Content elements that matter in a content before website design approach:
- Headlines and subheaders
- Core messaging
- Paragraph text
- User personas and visitor paths
- Call to actions
- Social media accounts
- Search engine optimization
The more your graphic designer knows and has available, the more unique and targeted your design will become.
Not all situations will allow a content before website design approach. You have to find balance and you have to pick and chose your battles.
If this approach is going to be difficult, I suggest starting with universal elements such as navigation, SEO, and call to actions. Then begin narrow down the focus by reviewing user personas and their visitors paths.
Focus on known elements and weave these into design by starting with the home page and then allow the design to build from his central hub. While moving through this process, stay focused on the visitor, what they need, and what action you ultimately want them to take.
The process can seem overwhelming, but like anything in life, you need to break it into chunks and evaluate the large list bit by bit.