Sites are like billboards not books

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Imagine for a moment that you are launching a national wide billboard campaign to promote your product or service.

Normally you would go to an advertising agency to do this. One that has experience in bring design and copywriting together, to slam home a powerful marketing message.

However, imagine instead you decided to engage a local graphic designer. You ask him to put together a concept and later you will provide some copy for it. This just wouldn’t work would it? Without the copy and design being produced together and closely linked, the billboard campaign would fail.

Why then do we take this approach with our websites? I think the problem is that we see websites more like books than we do billboards. We see a website as a repository of information rather than as a targeted message.

The design is therefore simply a receptacle for the content and nothing more. Content management systems encourage this thinking because the design templates exist only to drop content into.

However, I believe websites have more in common with billboards than books. Billboards have to be:

  • Visually attractive to grab attention.
  • Easy to take in at a glance.
  • Provide more information and next steps for those interested.

In other words they need to be:

  • Engaging.
  • Usable.
  • Scannable.
  • Have a clear information hierarchy.

Sound familiar? These are the same characteristics found in successful websites.

Perhaps it is time for us to change our attitude towards websites and stop treating them as a container for copy. Design and copy need to work together in order to produce an effective site.

  • http://twitter.com/brendanmurphy brendan murphy

    Like this view point Paul, It is very true, but with the web now being developed on products like WordPress, for client usability and this can be developed to be engaging on may levels. 

    But how would you describe this billboard development process, when we are clearly moving into “app” based design for many sites? You will know the figures that there are now more internet ready mobiles than board band users.

  • chronicler_Isiah

    I disagree as it depnds entirely on the client’s business model and content requirement as to the type of site that best suits their needs.
     
    The BBC for instance – would not want a purely  ‘billboard’ site I don’t think as it couldn’t accommodate the rich drill-down of comments, blogs, reviews etc. They are very much a ‘repository of information’.
     
    Whereas for a self-employed photographer or designer say – the billboard option would be more the ideal.
     
    Horses for courses I think.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Neal-Chester/1322230615 Neal Chester

    I totally agree! This has become my stance on web design as of late. It’s more about the message the design just wraps around it. So what I’ve been doing is working on the message first and then creating a web presence that caters to that message. This also eliminates the number one problem in web development: clients taking forever to give content. if we start with a copywriter the most important part is taking care of and the process can continue to flow from there. Excellent post. I thought I was the only one who was thinking like this.

  • http://twitter.com/jcroft Jeff Croft

    I agree in some cases. But in others, it’s not practical and don’t make good, logical business sense to have the content/copy before you create the design system. For example, take a newspaper site. With new content being posted several times an hour, it’s just not practical to do anything other than create a template and flow the content into it.

    Some sites are like billboards, yes. Some are more like books. Some are like newspapers. Some are like magazines. Some are like apps. 

    The answer to this, like pretty much every other design question in the world is: it depends.

  • http://twitter.com/jcroft Jeff Croft

    I agree in some cases. But in others, it’s not practical and don’t make good, logical business sense to have the content/copy before you create the design system. For example, take a newspaper site. With new content being posted several times an hour, it’s just not practical to do anything other than create a template and flow the content into it.

    Some sites are like billboards, yes. Some are more like books. Some are like newspapers. Some are like magazines. Some are like apps. 

    The answer to this, like pretty much every other design question in the world is: it depends.

  • http://twitter.com/gona daniel

    i would second your point, that most clients do not understand why they should use their own copy and pictures.

    but: i do not think it’s as simple as reducing websites to billboards (or books for that mather).  a (commercial) website has a purpose.  to communicate in the best possible way in order to fullfil this purpose(s) it is not enough to code well or have nice design.  the content needs to be adjusted as well.  

    at some point content by the customer (read: user generated content) is fine or even inteded, for a billboard style advertising website good copy by professionals is needed though.

    i suspect clients wanting to make their own content, as the do not understand it is (equal) important to other parts of a website, they are not able to create on their own (e.g.,  code) – “but why should i spend $$$ on photos, i do have a camera on my smartphone” – some clients rather have one more fancy (and potentially not needed) feature than spend the money on professional content.  those clients might be better of if we consult them how to use facebook right instead.

    imo we must educate our clients to understand, that a nice suit does not make a gentleman.

  • ann

    So true! People that surf the internet look for things that are eye-catching and things that leave an impression. The attention span of an online surfer is extremely short, so scannability is a must

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