Change your focus and design “Content First”

Content is king, it always has been and always will be. Content is why users visit your site, subscribe to your newsletters and follow you on social media. Content is the single most important aspect of your website yet for some projects that I’ve worked on, content seems to be one of the last things to be taken into consideration by clients when it comes to the redesign and rebuild of their site.

“Content First” is a term that I’ve been using for a while. As someone who doesn’t have a background in content writing or strategy, I’ve found it particularly difficult to express myself about this in more than 140 characters while at the same time not resembling verbal diarrhoea… so here goes.

Where “Content First” came from

Having your client’s content before starting the design process isn’t the be all and end of designing content-first. “Content First” is about giving the website’s content first priority over every other aspect in the design process. This is a concept I learned to realise after years of mocking up homepage layouts with nothing more than filler text and placeholder images or a fuller idea of what the client wanted to achieve.

As designers it’s not only us who are required to take on a “Content First” mindset, this is a process that will require the full co-operation of our clients. Communication is always a vital part of the client/designer (agency) relationship and it may take some convincing on your part to help guide your clients towards a content first methodology. I think we can all for forgiven at times for expecting too much from our clients with regards to knowledge and/or experience in the web but for content first to work, you will need to work hand in hand with your client to make sure that their goals are achieved.

Being asked by a client to ‘mockup a few ideas’ seems great at first, you can create a few layouts, throw in some filler text and some placeholder images and you think you’re there. You feel good, you’re happy that you’ve been able to turnover some designs for a client that you really want to impress and you PDF those designs up to send them over for feedback. You provide design concepts hoping to get the ball rolling on the project, give the client some idea of where to start from and ideally provide some inspiration to get the client on a similar level of enthusiasm as you.

This is where it can all start to go wrong. Designing blind like this may actually have the opposite effect on the client, seeing designs they might not have been expecting from an initial meet may actually result in them ‘reassessing’ the project and leaving you in a position to claw back the positivity that was originally invested in the relationship.

Changing Focus

How many times have we been asked to use ‘filler’ content and stock imagery so that the client can gauge and approve the layout of their new site? The correct answer is too many. The benefits of adopting a content first method can include optimised, relevant and efficient content which will increase awareness, visitors and ultimately sales but the process can also result in an overall more efficient project. Would working with Lorem Ipsum do this? If you answered yes to this, you’ve been very fortunate thus far.

By having content that you and the client have worked closely on to hand rather than dropping in filler text, not only are you already closer to a more complete, finalised design that can be signed off for development, but your design is a lot more content focussed and will give the client a more accurate idea of how their message is going to be delivered to the website’s visitors.

Say no to Lorem Ipsum

Lorem Ipsum and, to an extent, content management systems have given clients a get out clause of supplying designers with finalised and approved content before the design process gets underway. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard “we’ll know what to supply when we’ve seen the design” or “we can replace the text in the CMS anyway can’t we?” I’d have been able to retire years ago on the interest alone. It is lazy on the client’s part for not being particularly bothered about supplying content until later and dangerous on the designer’s part to rush through the design process without it and underestimate the effect final content would have on the mockups.

5 lines of Lorem Ipsum in your mockups may initially fit well and the client might love how it looks but what happens as soon as the client eventually replaces the filler text and either shoehorns their own content into the design or they realise that they don’t really need 3 calls to action? The design breaks and you’ve wasted time.

Wasting time is dangerous for both the designer and the client. Time wasted can result in slipping deadlines, disgruntled management and what about the knock on effects with budget? Would your client be happy to continue paying for you to produce concept work with content they’ve not supplied? How many concepts would you be happy supplying until you’ve realised that the fee you’ve quoted is resulting in a smaller rate by the day?

The lesson I’ve learned is that I’m an idiot for designing a site with filler content and an even bigger idiot for developing a site designed with filler content. All problems and issues that would be avoided by using a content first design process.

Designing “Content First”

We design for the web, a singular entity that isn’t defined by a device’s resolution but a format with only one constant – the content. By designing “Content First” we’re stripping away all of the nonsense and focussing on what is important. Designing “Content First” is about gathering your client’s assets and laying them out within the design in order of importance, optimising the content for a web audience and ensuring that the message(s) and/or features that the client wants to get across to their users is consistent across all devices.

It’s a workflow that puts content at the centre of the focus, not the style, not the transitions between slider frames, but communicating the goals/product/mission in a user friendly fashion and one that I have found greatly beneficial.

Discuss using a content first method with your clients, as I previously mentioned it may require some arm-twisting as it will require more involvement from them but the benefits far outweigh the negatives. By adopting a content first design process your projects will become much more efficient with fewer design iterations, more accurate design mockups, less time wasted while waiting for assets and from the client’s point of view, projects will meet not only deadlines but budgets too.

  • Rich Smith

    Couldn’t agree more with this Bobby, it’s absolutely the way I’d prefer to work, but as you well know – sometimes we just cant. The design & advertising industry has dug it’s own grave in a sense by bending over backwards to meet silly deadlines or throw together some idea’s to give clients an “idea for what it’ll look like” (in essence, a “shiny shiny” to show their bosses) and like you said “to get the ball rolling”. We work in a service industry and ultimately; what the client wants the client gets so all we can do is keep on trying to persuade or even wrestle them into the right direction, stop being yes men and start telling clients what we need from them in order to move forward and create something that actually does what it needs to do!

    • Thanks Rich, some very good points in what you’ve said. The industry is definitely in the position its in with regards to content and concept production purely down to bending over backwards to impress potential clients and win business. It gives the client the ‘upper hand’ from day 1 as naturally we say yes to any and all requests even if in the back of our minds we know it’s going to result in all nighters and lost money.

      As you say we as an industry need to make a stand, stop being yes men and start working with our clients rather than for them. I’m in a fortunate position where the freelance work I do is on a part time basis as an additional income so I can afford to be a lot pickier with the clients I work with; if they’re not willing to put in the time then neither am I.

  • Heather Burns

    Great piece, Bobby. I feel so strongly about content first that I’m closing a client’s account because of it. They have been giving me excuses since last winter for supplying content – not one paragraph yet – so I gave them a final deadline. Their response to the deadline was a bluff: they asked if I can simply hand over the finished designed site to them for them to populate with content when they’re ready. What this has told me is that they do not understand my role as a web designer or their role as web site owners. That, not their inability to communicate, is what must ultimately end the project.

    • I like how they asked for the “finished designed site” so that they could populate it themselves; but with regards to that, when do you draw the line? When would you end up being paid? Once you’ve handed over the design, once they’ve taken their time populating it or if and when the site ever goes live? Think you dodged a bullet with them!

      • Heather Burns

        Well, there you go: this was my charity project for the year. They were getting my services for free, no strings attached. And there is a universal truth about how much people value “free” services.

  • welcomebrand

    You can’t always get away with not using Lipsum, sometimes you just need some filler but you know that there will be a certain “type” of content somewhere.

    We built Cutting Edge Knives ( content first, and while we knew that a knife review would contain certain bits of copy in certain places, we didn’t know exactly what but we did know things like “an intro quote would be a short one liner” and so I think it’s fine to use Lipsum for that.

    As an aside, if you need to use Lipsum in prototypes, why not try Surprise Lipsum –


    • I agree, its difficult to judge at times if you are relying on dynamic content for things such as reviews as you mentioned but at the same time because CEK was a project of yours, you knew what to more or less expect and could get away with using it.

      I don’t know if it would be as simple if it was for a client project on a topic that you weren’t as interested in or knowledgeable about. I guess like most things on the web, it depends on the type of project you’re working on before you can really judge what kind of workflow you’re going to use.

  • bzle

    Thanks Bobby. I really like this idea… care to write a second article about how to make this happen? As a designer I come up with a plan of attack for getting my client’s message across. If I simply ask a client for content they’ll likely provide me with something like one heading and three paragraphs of text (for the homepage). Is that how content first design works? You take the mass of text from the client and then break it apart and start designing from there? I’m just a little inexperienced, but I would love to try content first designing.

    • It goes a little bit further than being provided with content and you designing around what you’ve been given. You should have aims and goals for the project, what does the client want to achieve? Is it more sales? Better online presence? Does the content they’ve provided you with do that or has it simply been cut from previous non web based marketing materials? You need to work with your client, not for them, give them your professional advice and do what’s best for the benefit of the project because after all – it will reflect on you and you will want to have produced work that not only the client is happy with but you are too.

      If you’re given a heading and three paragraphs and told to put it into a certain type of design, that’s not designing, and 9 times out of 10 your client’s project will not have the desired impact. It’s taken me a few years of part time freelance work for my workflow to evolve and accommodate content first. It’s not something I learned straight away and came from a number of issues/mistakes on either mine or the client’s side simply due to inexperience but I learned from my mistakes and I believe I’m now a better designer for it. Give content first a go and see how it works out for you.

      • bzle

        Alright, I’m beginning to see how this would play out. Thanks for going into some details. I’ll certainly give it a try.

  • williamduijzer

    Thanks, nice article! The only situation where this will be a problem is when you are starting a project and you still have to ‘win’ the client. You basically are not working together but you will need to convince the client that your design is the best. Many times clients want to have a concept (or a general style) on which they decide to go forward with the project. That’s when you’re not working closely together (sometimes you still have to close the deal) so getting content is difficult. What’s your experience on that?

    • Thanks William, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I see what you mean with regards to doing concept work to ‘win’ clients, however this is something I avoid doing because not only is it time that goes unpaid, but if a client has come to me wanting design work then they should already have an idea of what I am capable of producing from a portfolio or a selection of past projects.

      • williamduijzer

        That works with smaller projects, however if the client is bigger just showing a portfolio won’t do all the time. They want to get to know you and hear about your vision on the project. But it’s still a very good approach to focus on content 😉

  • jkinley

    Excellent article, Bobby. You are spot on. It’s no wonder why designers and clients mutually suffer sometimes. I never found the words to explain it like you did. I’d say things like, “I can’t build the house if I don’t have the lumber”, which you think would help, but it doesn’t. I am bookmarking this and going to link to it from within my future contracts. Well done.

    Here is a similar article that sheds some light on this topic:

  • Tim13Swinson

    Timely piece , Apropos , if someone requires a a form , my friend found a blank version here

  • Ninfa Shock

    Great Article. I also can share my experience in filling forms. BTW, if anyone needs to fill out a CA FTB 3520, I found a blank fillable form here

Subscribe to our mailing list