Updated March 2, 2020

Content breaking design is a critical issue for us content strategists. One of the goals of content strategy is to make meaning out of content BEFORE the design process begins (if possible) so that you don’t end up with the problem described so well by Charlie Peverett here:

And when does a ‘content person’ get involved? Usually at what is, effectively, the last minute. When the lorem ipsem (that placeholder copy that’s just stuck there by a designer) needs to be magically transformed into sparkling, all-singing all-dancing ‘copy’. At this point you’d be better off with an alchemist than a writer.

So, how do you avoid that huge old mess? In other words:

How can content strategists inform designers to know what to expect so they can move ahead with design?

One of the best ways to do this is a page spec. A page spec gives the designer the “specifications” for what should be on the page. And your specs should include keywords and character counts. In this way, you may give the designer the room to create more interesting templates.

So, what does a page spec look like?

Really, it can be a list, diagram, etc.  But, it needs to be a document that summarizes :

  • All the different sections of the site
  • Types of content that each section holds
  • Description of the different types of content each page will have on it

For example:

About Us Section

  1. This section will encompass the following six pages: X, X, X, etc…
  2. Each page must have the following elements:
    • Three paragraphs no more than 250 words each
    • Two ad holder spaces
    • Two award graphics
    • A picture placeholder
  3. Headlines should hug content
  4. Social media icons should be clearly visible
  5. A print this icon is necessary

Why moving is such a pain in the ass

I know this is an oversimplification of an important idea, but I do think it’s important for us, as a community of content strategists, to talk about best practices for solving problems. After all, when we’re moving, we don’t call a furniture company and say, “I need to move.” We call and say, “I need to move a four-bedroom house with basement, living room and dining room furniture about 250 miles away–would you like more specifics?” Then we label the boxes so the movers can put the stuff into the right room.  And then, we unpack and decorate our new home with stuff from our old home, trying to figure out how it all fits together.  A messy process, indeed.

Content & Web Design: Working Hand-in-Hand

If I asked you to build me a house, what would be the questions you would ask before you began planning?

Let’s hope: How many people will live in your house? What is your budget? How large is the land? How many bathrooms do you want? How many kitchens do you want? Oh right, just 1 kitchen, usually.

If I asked you to buy me a car, what would you ask me?

Let’s hope: What kind of car do you need? Are you looking for a mini, subcompact (what does this mean, anyway?), compact, large, van, RV? How many people will you be transporting on a regular basis? What is your budget? Is the cost of gas important to you? Do you like the feel of a racecar underneath your fingertips? Do you prefer leather or fabric seats?

If I asked you to build me a website, what would you ask me?

Let’s hope: What do your users need to do? What kind of content do you have? How often do people come to the site? What is the primary function of the site to them? What is the primary function of the site to you?

Let’s keep hoping, because as we all know, that isn’t typically what happens. Instead, I find many Web professionals asking these questions:

  • What color do you want it to be?
  • Is it content management system driven?
  • How many pages do you think it will have?
  • What do you want the home page to look like?
  • Should we include Facebook and Twitter icons?

Almost all these questions have to do with visual design. And we can’t blame the designers. The truth is, most people are visual. And they contemplate the success of something based on how it looks. See, like the entire history of the world, for proof of this concept.

But users (people who use your website) do not surf the Web looking for beautifully designed websites. On the contrary, I’ve seen them hang out on the ugliest website you’ve ever seen for the promise of GETTING the thing they came to the website to get.

Users come to websites for content—text, pictures, slideshows, videos, status updates, purchasing power, personal information updating and the list goes on and on.

Um…don’t we know all this already?

A potential client inspired this blog post; he told me he had found a Web design firm and now he wanted to find a writer to fix his content (I’m thinking of changing my title to digital communications fixer). I told him flat out:

“That’s backwards. First, you assess and audit your content and decide on a messaging strategy. Then you identify and collaborate with a designer.”

In the words of Margot Bloomstein, “We don’t want our content to break the design.” We need to think about the types of content that exist BEFORE we create the design. Dan Brown explains how content strategists function as a type of designer in his post, “Letter to a Content Strategist.” He does a GREAT job suggesting the intricacies of how information architects and content strategists can work together to build better websites.

We need to start urging our clients to think about their content not just as a commodity, but as the starting point, the building blocks of a website. It’s time to stop designing the car before we know how many people it has to transport. It’s time to stop building the house without knowing how many bedrooms it may need. It’s a paradigm shift in the way we think about building websites.

But, it has to be done. Because you know what they call things that are beautiful, but have no function?

Useless.

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