Applying a content first mind set to design

I’ve been working in digital design for the past 14 years and as such I’ve seen plenty of industry changes — because, well, the industry is continually changing!

The way we think about content in particular has changed massively, particularly in the last few years.

Content management systems shifted the goal posts

Back when I first started and the industry was still developing, ‘web designers’ had to Design, UX and Code the front end. Coming from a graphics degree background, learning to build websites in CSS was very challenging but ultimately manageable when we were dealing with a five-page brochure website.

As the industry evolved and matured, though, sites became bigger and more complex and generally driven by a CMS — so the ‘designer does all’ approach was no longer practical.

The introduction of the CMS enabled content to be owned by the client. This combined with limited budgets and tight timescales meant designers began to focus primarily on the look and feel of the ‘chrome’ of the site and not on the content. We used placeholder copy and images to fill out the site, and designed pages in a kind of ‘ideal world’ scenario without really considering what the actual content would be.

Basically, we designed a fancy framework and handed it over empty, leaving the decisions around what content to populate the site with entirely to the client, almost as an afterthought.

This often left us with websites that looked empty because the client didn’t have enough copy to fill them or poor quality because they couldn’t source big enough images. It opened up a whole world of pain for the user and the client, plus the designer was left feeling disappointed with the end result.

Looking back now, I realise that this was a disastrous way to do things; we forgot that the role of the website is to communicate the brand message and that this is mainly done through content. Yes, the experience, UX and interaction all add to the brand perception but if the content is failing then your website simply won’t work.

Responsive design has to be ‘content first’

With the wealth of different devices that people are using to browse the web now growing by the day, responsive design really needs to be thought of as responsive content. Somewhere along the responsive journey the ‘chrome’ of the site had to take a step back and content became the focus.

There are two key factors we now need to consider when we talk about content first.

1. When designing for a small screen experience, you need the content up front so that you can design the framework around the content (and not the other way around). We shouldn’t just guess at a component layout and hope it works when the content is eventually added. The design needs to handle the demands of the actual text requirement, such as headline lengths. We’ve recently been working on a high-profile project with a ‘content first’ approach, which has enabled the designers to answer and solve difficult problems early on. We can ensure the content is being presented right for the small screen and enhance when we need to. This results in a far better user experience for the user.

2. We shouldn’t just be handing over a fancy-looking ‘chrome’ anymore; we should be guiding and advising the client on the correct content in the form of showing them complete designs and prototypes with content, and support this with a content plan. We need to lead by example and show the client what excellent content looks like on a page.

Content is the future

Increasingly, clients are asking for style guides and templates that can handle any eventually. It’s simply not cost effective to design every page on a 300-page website; as brand sites become more homogenous or streamlined, we need to keep finding ways to stand out in the crowd.

For me, that difference will be exploring new ways to deliver content to suit the many screen sizes and being more creative in communicating the brand message.