The Importance of Copywriting in Web Design

by on 15th June 2010

Designers often neglect to focus on both well-written copy and structuring a design so that it highlights the copy on the page. Today we’ll discuss why copywriting is so important, who needs to learn it, and how to create content-centric designs.

Good Design, Bad Copy

As designers, we rightfully spend our time focused on aesthetics. We are pixel pushers who firmly believe with the strongest conviction that attractive websites are fundamentally better websites.

We build our mockups with “lorem ipsum” so we can go back and write something better when we have the time. Deadlines approach and still we put off the text until the last possible second. Finally, as our various GTD apps inform us that the time has come to submit the artwork, we hash out some quick text to throw onto our beautiful creations and send them off, without a visual blemish yet still marred by the subpar copy that appears on every page.

For many of us, this is simply how we’re programmed. We’re visual beasts that thrive on good design. The problem of course is that the neglect of solid copy will often cause the finished product to suffer as much or more than a poor design. Unless designers are your target market, your user base will be populated largely by individuals that don’t speak design. Show them and they’ll wonder aloud why anyone would ever create such a service.

Sure, they can often interpret what is ugly and what isn’t similarly to how we can, but only on an intuitive level. What they really notice is how the website feels. Whether it’s smooth or clunky, easy to navigate or impossible. This is what is meant when designers say that great design is transparent. If your users notice your interface too much, it’s probably because they hate it.

This same metaphor of transparency applies to copywriting on the web. It’s worth noting that the average user is in fact trained in reading and writing far more than design, though still only as much as a standard education supplies. To these users, we’ll call them “normal people” as opposed to we visual freaks, browsing the web is a reading experience. Evaluating a service involves skimming the sales pitch and reading the list of features as much or more than evaluating the visual layout of the elements on the page. They’ll even hire a designer based as much on what he says about himself as what appears in his portfolio. If you have strong copy, they won’t notice or evaluate it too much, they’ll be far too busy being convinced of what it’s saying.

Heads or Tails?

The point that I’m driving at here is that design and copywriting are two sides of the same coin; inseparable in every way. The user doesn’t see the design and the text, he sees a website. A single integrated item that is either desirable or not.

The trick then is to toss out “lorem ipsum” for as much of the design process as possible. Stop designing without any notion of the goal of the design. To engage in design without copy is to build a box before you know what will be placed inside. To put it differently, consider the following quote from Jeffrey Zeldman:

“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

This is precisely my point. Unless you’re designing purely for the sake of design and not engaging in some professional venture, the design should serve to reinforce the message, not the other way around.

As an experiment, try building your next project by first placing in all the content that should be on the page. Throw in the headlines, the copy, the features, the widgets, the navigation; everything you can think of, but do so without design. The first step is merely to put it all in one place. Once you’ve got it there, then begin to style it. Think about different ways you can arrange it, color it, and bring it to life.

This will lead to design that is both more effective and more original. It will be more effective because the entire page is structured to highlight and communicate your primary message. Obviously, to even begin this design process, you’re forced to focus entirely on structuring your communication. Use a simple text editor so that you’re not distracted by how the message looks. Instead pay attention only to how it reads.

Consider above all else your target audience. Who are you seeking to appeal to with this message? What do they already possess in this area and why ins’t it good enough? And of course the most important question of all: Why wouldn’t they want to use the site, buy the product, hire the person, etc.? We’ll discuss this question more in a later article so for now just know that this question is the key to great marketing.

Finally, the method mentioned above will lead to more original design because you’re not designing by using other sites you’ve seen as a starting point. Rather than wireframing someone else’s design with your own coat of paint you’re instead solving a puzzle. The puzzle is of course how to best arrange and style the content that is already on the page. The tradition method involves jamming content into a predefined space as is the case when you purchase a pre-built design template. The better route is to tailor and evolve the space to accommodate pre-existing content.

Focusing On Content Whether You’re Writing it or Not

A common question that arises out of this question is whether or not it’s your job as a designer to write good copy. The ultimate answer sounds like a copout but is completely accurate in real-world settings: it depends. However, no matter what the answer to this question is for you personally, your job is still to focus on the content.

There are cases where designers need never consider writing a single word themselves. These settings exist mostly in traditional brick and mortar design offices that contain both a design department and a copywriting department. I’ve personally seen this setup in most of the big marketing companies that I’ve worked with as well as print-based businesses such as magazine layout departments.

In this latter situation, magazines employ countless writers and would never expect their designers to be gifted in sesquipedalian locution. However, the mode of operation in these businesses is often exactly that which I suggested for the web design experiment. Magazine designers are daily given new content to work with and “pretty up.” The magazine already has a developed style, but this can and does vary drastically from page to page and each issue presents new challenges for both creativity and spatial requirements. As a result, even though they’re not writers, magazine designers often excel at creating content-centric designs.

The other common scenario is the plight of the freelancer. In this case, you’re a one man/woman show. There’s no copywriting department or senior editor working in conjunction with a design team, just you. In these circumstances, it becomes absolutely necessary for you to hone your copywriting skills. Whether or not you think it’s fair for clients to expect this of you, the truth is they will.

I apologize for the harshness, but if you can wield Photoshop better than Deke McClelland but can’t write a great headline to save your life, you’re a bad freelancer. It’s time to drop the excuses and learn to write great copy. Turn your weakness into one of your strongpoints. Make it your competitive advantage, something you can tell potential clients that they won’t find in cheaper designers dishing out templated designs from the other side of the planet.

Resources for Writers

To get you started on your path to becoming a copywriting guru, here are some excellent resources.

Closing Thoughts

To sum up, remember that the goal of your designs is to reinforce the content on the page. If you’re the kind of designer that does it all, make writing strong, convincing copy a primary goal in every job you take.

Leave a comment below and let us know what you thought of the article and whether or not copywriting is a main function of your design process.

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