If you work within web design, you'll probably be familiar with the debate of which should come first; content or design. More often than not clients treat content as an after thought and expect to see designs first.

This can cause problems, as its difficult to design when you don't know the type or length of the content.

But could there be another way?

Content first design

The term "content first" was introduced by A List Apart founder, Jeff Zeldman, in 2008. He argued that in order to create the right UX for any digital experience, you need to know the content first. He believes that content and design should work in harmony to create a more focused outcome.

Content therefore becomes key and drives the overall design, with designers considering the opportunities, constraints and implications it has on their designs.

Jeff believes that collaboration between copyrighters and designers is essential to ensure each knows their responsibilities and no surprises occur latter in the project.

As Karol K, founder of newsinternetorder.com says "telling a web designer to work on your site without giving them the content is like telling an interior designers to work on your living room before you buy an apartment."

Some clients expect nothing less than a content first approach but others may take some convincing. Here are 3 key advantages:

01. More efficient design process

A content first approach reduces the time needed to rework the design to accommodate the final content. You don't waste time designing and building functionality that fails to handle the final content. If you understand the content, designers are able to make smarter decisions.

02. Better user experience

A content first leads to a more user-focused design as designers can use the content as the foundation of their designs. It drives the design decisions.

As Jeff Zeldman famously states "content informs design, leading to a better UX. Design without content is merely decoration."

03. Improves collaboration

With a design approach, the copywriter and design work in silos and only come together at the end of the project. With content first, everyone works more closely increasing the likelihood of getting the design right first time. It also gives the designer an opportunity to have an input in the content.

But in reality..

Getting clients to provide content at the beginning of a project can be challenging. Many won't have given it a second thought and its not uncommon for designers to be asked to begin without it.

But as Mark Boulton rightly points out, a content first approach doesn't mean waiting until the client has finished writing the content before designing can begin. Instead, its more to do with understanding what the content will be made from, rather than what it is. "You can create good experiences without knowing the content. What you can't do is create good experiences without knowing content structure".

Its only at this point that designers can begin producing their visuals. Many will use "lorem ipsum" as place holder text, however, this lacks any context and should be avoided if possible. It just conveniently fills the available space, revealing very little about the relationship between content and design. As David Jackson says "instead of finding a foot that fits the shoe, you make a shoe that fits the foot."

In the absence of real content, try using existing content or that of a competitors. It won't be perfect, but it will be far more meaningful than "lorem ipsum".

Key takeaways

To put it simply, content and design should be given equal importance. You need to consider content throughout a project as it will influence key design decisions. Copywriters and designers need to be in constant dialogue to ensure each knows their responsibilities and ensure no surprises occur.

Rather than worrying about the content, focus more on its structure. This will allow designers produce designs that have a better user experience and are more user focused.