Content is King

Paul Boag

If ‘content is king’ then the designer is like the King’s tailor – there to make the King look fabulous without taking any of the limelight for themselves.

Just because content is king doesn’t mean, however, that the designer’s job is any less important. How seriously would people take the King if his suit was poorly made? It has to look good.

An unhealthy obsession with aesthetics

I’ve been a designer for 15 years and I started out with a very unhealthy obsession for aesthetics. It was always about how good, or trendy, or innovative a design was. Making it readable was just an irritating request from the copywriters.

Thankfully, I soon realised just how important content is and began to change the way I worked to suit. And quickly went from being obsessed with immitating every fashionable design going to really thinking about how messages should be presented. Which is pretty important, really, because the message is usually conveniently encapsulated in the copy – which should make it a lot easier to choose the right design style.

It sounds obvious now.

Are you weakening the message?

But I still see bucket loads of designs that don’t do the content any justice because they ignore it and go off and do their own thing.

They end up giving conflicting messages – weakening the overall effectiveness of the piece. I’ve seen many ill-conceived designs that probably damaged the brand that the designer should have been going out of their way to enhance.

The problem is, a lot of designers have a gaping hole in their CV that leads to this misunderstanding about the importance of content. They’re missing experience of working with copywriters.

I’ve been really lucky to have worked with loads of copywriters over the years. There’s one who I’m still in touch with today – who incidentally gave me a lift to my first interview for a design job.

He’s very talented and I learned a great deal from him. He’s very passionate about words – and grammar and punctuation – and it he had a positive influence on me very early on in my career.

These days I’m part of a small – and very active – design team supporting a very large and knowledgeable group of content people. We are a PR agency, so you’d expect a lot of writers! But the crucial thing for us is as an agency we seriously care about the quality of the content we produce for and on behalf of our clients. It can’t help but make a positive influence on our designs.

What can a copywriter  teach you?

So what can a copywriter teach a designer? Actually, a lot. A good writer will have done their research for a start. So the copy they’ve written should be looked at as an integral part of the design brief.

It should tell you in black and white how you should approach the design – regardless of whether it’s online or for print.

Copywriters also tend to know how to spell and, vitally, how to use grammar properly. If you’re a designer and you doodled through English lessons at school, you should do all you can to catch up on your grammar and spelling. A miss-placed apostrophe or hyphen could change the entire meaning of your piece. At which point you’ve failed as a designer.

It also makes proof reading much easier because you’ll actually know what to look for. Trust me when I say copywriters think dimly of designers who drop errors into headlines and don’t clean them up before passing the design back for checking. Learn from copywriters and you will end up with fewer mistakes in your designs as a result.

Copy can be frustrating

Even so, after all these years, I still find it a challenge to get the best out of the copy – maybe it’s the pressure of not mucking up the message. But I’m comfortable with that: setting high standards for the design with content taking the lead just adds to the challenge. Which adds to the fun. And design should be fun and challenging.

I really hope that gives some comfort to any designers who are afraid they’ll relinquish some kind of power by embracing content.

Copywriters aren’t totally perfect though. The big thing is that they tend not to be able to visualise their copy in situ while they are writing it. Certainly not in the same way a designer can.

I’ve often been frustrated that copy isn’t fit for the purpose of the design (the writers here do a great job by the way).

The classic one we’ve all had is when there’s too much copy. But there are new challenges – the online world is creating new rules for writers all the time; keyword optimisation and meta tagging are relatively new concepts for copywriters, as is the importance of micro-copy to usability.

Designers have a responsibility to appropriately present the message, but copywriters should be learning too. And to that end, if you’re going to learn from a copywriter, the learning process should be as mutually beneficial as possible.

Don’t expect too much, though. Copywriters are just wired differently and their primary focus should still be on what they’re absolutely best at – figuring out the right message and skillfully organising the words.

So, as a designer you should take the lead. The ultimate responsibility for the message carrier – which is your design – lies with you.

What you can do to improve your content

So, as well as befriending a good copywriter, what else can you do?

Read. Read everything. Read the free newspaper in the morning, the signs and ads on the bus. Or the back of your coffee cup. Read stuff you wouldn’t otherwise read – magazines and ads that aren’t aimed at you are brilliant at widening your design and copy horizons. And if you haven’t go it, get the internet on your phone. The hour I spend travelling to work and back each day is usually spent reading blogs and news stories, and following random links on Twitter – just out of curiosity. If you don’t travel far to work, get up half an hour earlier each day and grab a coffee. Reading lots will hard-wire correct spelling and grammar into your brain and get you used to seeing words in context. You’ll develop an instinct for what works – in terms of copy and designs. And you’ll learn mega amounts of other stuff as an added bonus.

Content really is the King – and it’s what your audience are REALLY interested in. Embrace it, tailor your designs to fit, and enjoy seeing the quality of your work improve immeasurably.