By Clay Delk published October 3, 2012

How to Build a Balanced Content and Design Marriage

marriage of content and design, CMIAlmost everything we create is published in or alongside some kind of design, be it a website, print layout, infographic, or blog post. But in our busy schedules, it’s easy to simply write the content and pass it on, without any thought for the design or the person creating it. Or, the opposite happens — where a design is already complete and we’re asked to simply “plug in the content.” Rarely do either of these situations work out well for the writer, the designer, or the end user.

I’m not here to start a chicken or egg debate — for me, it’s not a matter of content before design or design before content. This is about writing with design in mind. From the initial concept to the final publication, there are a lot of things that we as content creators can do to build a balanced, productive marriage of content and design. 

Take a look at this video for a general overview of the best practices for design that keeps content in mind. Then, I’ll go through the details, step by step.

Lay the groundwork

This is the simplest step you can take to make life easier for your designer: Do your part first.

Don’t go into a project without the content, or at least without a pretty detailed plan for content type, tone and structure. As Jeffrey Zeldman says, “Content informs design; design without content is decoration.”

Without the content, or at least a solid content plan, you’re essentially asking the designer to create a container, without any knowledge of what’s going in it or how people will use it.

When you have a project that you know will need to be designed, don’t just start writing — start planning.

  • Consider the end product: You should already be thinking about the audience and goals, but also try to think about what the final product may look like; for example:
    • Will it have big content blocks or small?
    • Long headlines or short?
    • Will there be pull quotes, images with captions or graphics that you can tie into?

Thinking about these elements early on can help ensure consistency throughout, and it will make your designer’s life a lot easier.

  • Create a template: If you know ahead of time that there will be specific content types, elements, or constraints, create a template. I don’t mean a wireframe necessarily, but just something that identifies the specific details or requirements for each content element. This can be in Word, Excel, XML or whatever platform you feel most comfortable in, as long as it clearly communicates the content structure and hierarchy.
  • Don’t just lob the content over: No doubt your template and your content are great, but don’t leave them to speak for themselves. When it’s time for design to start, schedule a meeting (or at least a phone call) to explain any important details. Oh, and send the content over early, so the designers can be ready with questions and ideas of their own.

Share in the concepting

There’s another great benefit to doing a lot of the heavy lifting early: It typically earns you a spot at the table in the concepting and design phase. Whether it’s a conceptual project like an infographic or advertisement, or a more traditional layout like an eBook or newsletter, your content expertise can go a long way towards shaping the overall design style and approach.

More than simply providing edits and proofing, this is your chance to make the content and concept sing. Here’s what you can do to make sure that happens:

  • Be a good Googler: As a writer, I do a lot of research for my projects, both formal and informal. When you’re researching for your part of the project, keep an eye out for interesting designs, related ideas, competitor work or anything else that may help inform the concept. Share your research with everyone involved, and explain why you think the information matters.
  • Identify key themes and details: As you’re writing the content, highlight any potential hooks your designer can hang their design on. When you hand over the content, make note of any central themes, traits, or other elements that may be useful. If you write the piece with a specific voice, emotion or personality, make sure you communicate that, too.
  • Start sketching: There’s no rule that says all your ideas have to be written. Don’t think you can draw? Who cares? You’re not designing the actual concept, you’re just communicating ideas. The person you’re working with is a very visual thinker, and often a poor drawing can say more than the best description. The same thing applies for quick and dirty Photoshop mock-ups. Plus, the more you do it, the better you’ll get!

Remember, collaboration is give AND take

As the design process moves forward, there will no doubt be edits. How you handle those changes can have a significant effect on your project’s success and on future projects with that team or client. By being responsive to new ideas, answering questions and brainstorming together, you can help your designers realize the benefits of pulling you in early, which can have significant long-term effects.

You don’t have to be completely at the mercy of the design, but choose your battles. Know when to hold your ground, and know when to walk away.

  • Open your mind, open your ears: If you created the content with a particular concept in mind, don’t assume that’s the way the design must go. There’s a big difference between participation and dictation. The first can be the start of a long and prosperous relationship, while the second can ensure you never get invited to the party again. Be open to new ideas and directions, and you never know where your content may go.
  • Learn to love word limits: Don’t fall in love with your content. Or as the old saying goes, “Kill your darlings.” Be willing to make changes, adjustments, additions and, yes, deletions to help your content work with the design. Not only does this give the designer more room to work with, it makes you a better writer. Sometimes you’ll have to make sacrifices, but more often than not it helps you strip away the unnecessary, the trivial, and the mundane from your writing.
  • Don’t hover: If you’re like me, you don’t like writing with someone looking over your shoulder. Just because it’s easier to watch their work in progress, it doesn’t mean your designer wants you sitting next to them the whole time. Help out whenever you can, but be receptive to verbal and non-verbal cues from your teammates. Share your ideas, then let them get to work.

Give quality feedback

Once the initial design is done, it’s time to review. As you know from feedback on your own work, “I like it” and “I don’t like it” rarely help. If you’ve been involved in the concepting and design process, you should have a pretty good idea of what can be done to improve or clarify a design.

As the content expert, your feedback should be some of the most valuable and helpful comments your designer receives, so make it count!

  • Offer explanations, not solutions: If there’s an issue with something in the design, take time to explain the problem and provide any ideas that may help them solve the problem. If you can change the content to help, let them know, but otherwise let them do their job.
  • Embrace your expertise: One place you can be specific with edits is in the content itself. Look critically at your own work and how it comes across within the design. You’re the most qualified person to make changes to the voice, tone and grammar, so don’t be shy. This also applies to the way the content physically appears in the document. If there are awkward line breaks or something is hard to read, let them know.
  • Edit in place: To counter my recommendation about hovering, you should also be willing to sit down next to the designer and make changes in the document. Sometimes it can be much faster and much easier to rework specific pages or sections on the fly, rather than passing emails and documents back and forth.

Learn the language(s)

If you want to take your work to the next level, start learning the basic tenets of design and development. You don’t have to become a full-on graphic designer or web programmer, but it helps to get outside your comfort zone and learn more about the professions you work with.

This can have both short-term and long-term effects on your work. It can help you have meaningful ideas and discussions with your teammates, and it can make you much more attractive to future partners, clients and employers.

  • Learn the basics of graphic design: Start with a general introduction to graphic design principles of layout, grids, typography and white space. Knowing some of these basics can help you create content that supports and enhances the designer’s work.

One of the best introductions to these concepts is The Elements of Graphic Design by Alex W. White. And if you don’t already, I’d recommend regular visits to A List Apart for discussions on new and emerging ideas in design, content and beyond.

  • Understand user experience: It’s important to understand how content and design affect the overall usability of your project. Look for tests on word choice, calls to action, and content structure for your project. Or better yet, start doing your own A/B tests to see what works best for you. There are countless UX and usability resources on the web, but one of my personal favorites is UX Matters, where you’ll find a range of detailed articles on accessibility, design processes, content strategy, information architecture and much, much more.
  • Learn to code. If the majority of your content is for an online publication, learn to code. At a minimum, learn to style an HTML document, so you have a better idea of how your content can and will ultimately look. From there, it can help to have a basic knowledge of what can and can’t be done in each major language, especially new developments in CSS3 and HTML5.

For a great (FREE!) introduction to the basics of HTML, CSS and jQuery, check out Codecademy. If you prefer instructor-led courses, you can learn from top practitioners in person or online at General Assembly.

Create content with design in mind

Ultimately, these recommendations boil down to playing well with your peers and being a part of the team. By thinking about the design (and the designer) during content creation, you’ll set your project up for success.

On formal teams, the writer is often the first person involved in a project, so you get to set the tone. By sharing early and often, you can build trust among the others involved and help foster a collaborative, creative working environment. And that makes everyone’s job easier.

But often, we’re expected to simply write the content and move on, or to come in at the end and write to fill in an existing design. While these situations aren’t ideal, do what you can to make your part go well, and it may be enough to get you included a little earlier the next time.

In the end, creating your content with design in mind will result in a smoother process, better working relationships, and better final products for your audience.

Want more content design & marketing inspiration? Download our ultimate eBook with 100 content marketing examples.

Author: Clay Delk

Clay Delk is Senior Content Strategist at Volusion, Inc., the leading e-commerce SaaS provider, where he oversees web, marketing and interface content. Clay also hosts the Austin Content meetup group. He writes about the intersection of copywriting, usability and design, and how it can help you create content that best serves your users. Read his blog, Method & Message, on Volusion.com, and follow him on Twitter @claydelk

Other posts by Clay Delk

  • http://allmarketingsolutions.co.uk/social-media-marketing-services Ayaz

    Hello Clay!

    Great post and tips and certainly as content creator its really essential to have written any content to keep design in mind and that’s how the designer can work accordingly to the plan and planning properly before the execution can lead to timely managed and organized the project.

    • http://twitter.com/claydelk Clay Delk

      That’s a great point Ayaz. One of the best reasons to work closely with your designer is that it can help you finish projects on time and on budget.

  • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

    Great video. I love working closely with designers, and I find that they really like having a content specialist to work on the copy (rather than having to write it themselves). And yes, there’s no hard and fast rule about who HAS to start first; it’s a collaboration!

    I especially enjoy giving input on typography (to the extent that I can); early on, a boss made me read the book The Mac Is Not a Typewriter. It’s a little dated now, but it gives a great introduction to important typographical concepts.

    Nice work Clay!

    • http://twitter.com/claydelk Clay Delk

      Thanks Melanie,

      I completely forgot about that book–but you’re right, it’s a great resource. I actually borrowed Thinking with Type from a UX friend, and I’ve really enjoyed it.

  • Jimmy Terronez

    I really enjoyed your article! The video was great too! Our Lead Designer also wrote about content and design:
    http://terrostar.com/blog/content-dictates-web-design