May 26, 2008

Content Comes First

Throughout my career, I've been involved with the development of hundreds, if not thousands, of print ads, brochures, web sites, catalogs, etc. one of the biggest mistakes I've seen over and over again is designing these marketing pieces before developing the content. Often, this approach leads to either shoehorning the content into the design or eventually redesigning the piece altogether to make it work with the content.

Many years ago, I worked under a Creative Director who only thought about design. In an initial meeting to discuss an ad we were to develop for a client, she begin by talking about how the ad should look. Never mind the value proposition, the "hook", or anything else, her first (and only thoughts were on what the design of the ad. Once she designed it, I had the unenviable task of writing the copy for the ad. So, in writing the copy, I had to not only had to come up with the "hook", I had to make it fit the limitations of the design. If that doesn't seem like much of a problem, consider that the design she came up with didn't allow for a headline!

Working for this same agency, I dealt with less extreme situations where content was developed after the design. I worked on a series of testimonial ads for a local bank. Each ad featured a business customer in a setting related to their particular business. In this case, all of the photography was shot before any copy or headlines had been written. For most of the ads, I was able to create compelling headlines and copy to fit the photos, but I had to compromise with one of the ads. I came up with a really good headline for this particular ad, but none of the photos were quite right for it. The customer's expression in some of the photos was right, but the compositions was wrong; in some the composition was perfect, but the expression was wrong. If the ad had been written before the photo session, we could have made sure we got the right shot.

Similar situations can occur when designing web sites. Designing the pages of the site before content is developed can lead to either conforming the content to fit the web page layout or redesigning pages in the middle of the project. Conforming content to fit a design defeats the purpose of the site. After all, the reason for the site is to supply information. Design should facilitate the dissemination of the information, not hamper it. On the other hand, redesigning web pages in the middle of the project can be time consuming. It can also lead to poorer design if the changes to fit the content are just quick and easy fixes.

In the end, you really should have the developed content before developing the design. In a perfect world, all of the content would be fully developed before any of the design work starts. This is rarely practical, but the content should be at least thought out and in outline form before beginning the design process. During the development of the piece (advertisement, brochure, web site, etc.) the designer needs to keep updated with the developing content. Any changes that may need to be made to the design to accommodate the content are best done earlier than later.

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