Is Content Always King? Thoughts on Real World Constraints in Design

Content should precede design. It’s a basic and essential piece of advice that you’ll hear from me as well as countless other designers. But what about the situations where this idea breaks down? We’d like to imagine that it’s never the case that design must take place before certainty about content can be reached, but in truth this simply isn’t the case.

What circumstances are there that force designers to proceed with a lack of content? How should you respond to such scenarios? Keep reading as we explore these ideas.

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The Tweet Heard Round the World

On May 5th, 2008, Jeffrey Zeldman sent out one of the most quoted tweets in the design industry: “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” (source)


This simple message really hit home for a lot of designers, including me. It has been my own personal mantra for design ever since. It helps me to remember the real set of goals behind a given design instead of merely considering aesthetics.

To this day I think the quote is highly relevant and has a lot to teach us. This article is not in any way meant to dispute this idea. Content-focused design is good design. In fact, in many ways, this mindset makes the difference between art and design.

With that said, I’ve seen a lot of designers really latch onto this idea without putting any critical thought behind it. In the same way that some people cling to a set of religious rules in favor of a critically explored personal faith, these designers analyze everything in light of content-first design without analyzing the concept of content-first design itself.

How Is This a Problem?

So what’s the big deal? I just said that content-first design is the defining aspect of good design and now I’m complaining that people follow the idea! Isn’t that a bit two-faced?

Recently, it has occurred to me that there are in fact areas where this becomes a bit fuzzy. Any argument can be framed to appear as an absolute, but this is often just a result of a narrow focus that doesn’t consider the bigger picture. I think many designers suffer from this sort of tunnel vision in the content-first debate.

One of the examples that got me started on this line of thought was last week’s article on Lorem Ipsum Generators. In this article I outlined a familiar argument that Greek text has absolutely no place in design and should never be used. One author even suggested that it was “a plague” and a “massive obstacle” to web design.

“The argument assumes that designers only use placeholder content when they are too lazy to design around actual content.”

The thought behind that argument was of course a content-first one (rightfully so). The problem is though that the argument assumes that designers only use placeholder content when they are too lazy to design around actual content. It’s not that designers truly lack resources or content, they simply don’t want to do their jobs and generate that content. I’m sure this is in fact an issue but to assume that this is true for everyone using placeholder text paints designers with a fairly broad and unfair stroke.

Two Archetypes

To bring some perspective to the discussion, I think one of the most useful things we can do is to take a look at reality. Theories and principles are great, but real designers with real projects are the ones coming up against these theories daily and often find that things just aren’t as simple in the real world as they seemed on the design blog.

“Things just aren’t as simple in the real world as they seemed on the design blog.”

With this in mind, we can come up with two archetype design projects. Despite the fact that these are still hypotheticals, hopefully they can get us a bit closer to real world design situations than the average aphorism or epithet. Both archetypes come from my personal experience and absolutely exist and therefore reflect real design situations.

Situation A: The All-Knowing Designer

This situation is the one that we base all of our arguments on. In this scenario the designer is basically the project manager. Everything goes through the designer(s), major decisions are made by the designer and a large portion of the content itself is actually generated by the designer, even if that content isn’t traditionally placed in the hands of a designer.

For instance, instead of using placeholder copy, designers should use real copy because ultimately the responsibility for generating this content lies with them.

Knowing the End Game
Perhaps the most important concept here is that the designer knows exactly how his or her design will be used. This may seem strange and obvious, but as we’ll see in the next section, it actually isn’t always the case. Here lies the point where some of the content-centric arguments become a little bit harder to manage.

Situation B: The Ill-Informed Designer

Those of us who chant the content-focused mantra (myself included) hardly ever consider that all design jobs are not created equal. Freelancers tend to have a lot of say over what types of projects they take on and how they’re structured. But what about the full-time employee who is forced to deliver comps based on limited information and resources?

Tons of designers in the real world simply don’t enjoy the kind of control and information that some content-centric enthusiasts demand. For instance, when I worked for a major marketing firm we had a magic little stamp that we placed all over our comps that said “FPO”, which meant, “For Position Only.” If an element was shown in the design that really only represented the idea that something would be there later, it got an FPO stamp.

This existed because we rarely started a job with the kind of resources that were required to finish it, through no fault of our own. It was often the case that you were forced to wait on the copy department to provide a headline or some legal copy, or perhaps there was a team doing some custom photography that would take a week or two to be completed. Just because you didn’t have these resources didn’t mean you could take the day off!

You were still expected to begin your basic layout, Greek text and all! I would’ve loved to drop an argument about how “content is king” and that I shouldn’t design a thing without completely understanding the content to be used, but that would’ve gotten at best a laugh and at worst a threat that my team’s projects could be given to someone more competent.

As I mentioned above, there are cases where, even when your design work is 100% done, you still have no idea what the design will be used for. Further, this constraint is often self-imposed!

Some designers spend a great deal of time designing general use templates. Like it or not, this is a legitimate design practice for which there is a huge audience as proved by professional marketplaces like ThemeForest.

“As a good designer you want to make sure that content precedes design, but ultimately you’re in a workflow where the layout and aesthetic styling are absolutely forced to precede the content.”

Here you have an interesting dilemma, as a good designer you want to make sure that content precedes design, but ultimately you’re in a workflow where the layout and aesthetic styling are absolutely forced to precede the content.

It’s nice and quaint to simply suggest that template-based design shouldn’t exist for this reason, but that argument is completely pointless as there is zero chance of your content-first utopia ever existing without the need and customer demand for turnkey design templates.

Designing In The Real World

At this point, I seem to have set up the content-first argument only to attempt to knock it down. So where does this leave us?

The answer is that this leaves us in the exact same position as countless real designers every day. You know, the hardworking people that we throw stones at for using placeholder content because we’re so sure that they’re just too dang lazy to do it right.

“Content first is the ultimate goal to be striven for without necessarily being achieved in every circumstance.”

The answer of course is that “content first” is the ultimate goal to be striven for without necessarily being achieved in every circumstance. As a designer, it is your job to work in light of the information and resources that you have at your disposal. Where possible, you should remember that you’re more than an artist, that “designing” something is far more than making it pretty and that good design always seeks to structure, highlight and convey information in a way that is satisfactory both to the client and the ultimate viewer or user.

What About Templates?

If we really think about it, content-first design can even be a primary goal in template design. Once again, you can’t perfectly meet this ideal because you ultimately have no control over what someone will place in the box that you build, but you can at least structure your design is such a way that it achieves success under certain circumstances.

“Being able to design something that effectively works for a wide variety of circumstances makes you a valuable asset.”

For instance, specifically targeted templates often sell quite well in light of this idea. If I need a portfolio website, I don’t look for general website templates, I search for those that were specifically designed to contain and showcase portfolio elements. These designers based all of their decisions on the idea that the purchaser would be inserting a very specific type of content into the design. So in a sense, despite the fact that the same template could be used for an architect and a web designer, a “content-first” strategy is still pursued. The same is true of broad categories like “blog templates” and very defined categories such as “independent realtor websites.”

Being able to design something that effectively works for a wide variety of circumstances makes you a valuable asset. The trick to achieving this is to learn to walk that line between placing content first and designing for general use.

Conclusion: The Key Takeaway

The main point of this article is to actually further the content-first argument by bridging the gap between the theoretical ideas and reality. Is it always going to be the case that content can completely precede design? Absolutely not. Does that mean we should give up that goal entirely? Absolutely not.

Whatever you’re working on, however limited your resources and information may be, you can still do your absolute best to be more than a decorator by structuring designs to serve the content that will be placed inside, whether by you or by someone else.

Leave a comment below and tell me about your workflow. As the designer, are you in complete control over the project’s flow and even the various aspects of content creation or are you one piece of a larger team that is often forced to stretch or even break the concept that content should precede design?