Can we kill off lorem ipsum?

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December 09, 2013
Can we kill off lorem ipsum?.

thumbnailOnce upon a time, in decades and centuries past, Lorem Ipsum served typesetters and printers well. That was back in the day when communication vehicles provided a passive, one-way experience. Today’s communication landscape is vastly different. The Web allows us to create rich, multi-dimensional, interactive experiences.

With this in mind, using Lorem Ipsum no longer makes sense. It breeds dummy designs and short sells everyone. It diminishes problem-solving designers into pixel pushers, handcuffs content writers, frustrates users, and shortchanges clients.

So the time has come to have a good, hard look at ditching the dummy text from the design process wherever possible, and placing real content in the forefront, where it belongs.

Where did lorem ipsum come from?

Lorem ipsum’s roots are derived from classical Latin literature "de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum" (The Extremes of Good and Evil), written by Cicero in 45 BC. It became the printing industry’s standard dummy text in the 1500s when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it during production. The tradition continued for centuries, adapted by modern typesetters.

The Latin text gained popularity in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lorem Ipsum passages, and more recently through popular desktop publishing software, which actually include Lorem Ipsum.

Today’s fans of Lorem Ipsum argue that clients are distracted by the readable content when reviewing layout, and so the use of model or dummy text.

Moving forward

As the Internet ushered in a revolution and changed our lives, it radically altered the way we must communicate, market and brand.

In the Web world, people come for the content, not the design. Content is the reason a site exists; it’s the core of communication, and drives meaningful experiences. Content informs and — coupled with good design — helps people complete tasks.

Lorem Ipsum creates the illusion that content is secondary, prompting designers to create aesthetically pleasing designs with boxes to be ‘filled in’ at a later time. In essence, design starts forming how things are communicated before determining what needs to be communicated.

Imagining what text might say compromises the integrity and effectiveness of both the content and design. It doesn’t allow designers to think through real content implications and leverage unique opportunities. Web designer and author Jeffrey Zeldman nailed it when he stated: “Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

The benefits of putting content first

Business objectives and audience needs drive content, and content should drive or at the very least influence design decisions. The thing many designers don’t realize is that good copywriting is interface design.

A skilled and knowledgeable content strategist or writer dissects key elements during the content research and development process, like corporate objectives and goals, desired audiences and calls to action. This leads to information being fleshed out, segmented and prioritized, which naturally shapes information flow and structure.

The ‘content first’ scenario also promotes a more efficient design process. When the content is firmed up and approved, the designer knows exactly what he or she needs to work with. No assumptions, no guessing and no going back and forth with the client. In fact, a couple of our design partners insist their clients complete the content creation process before they embark on design.

More original, effective design

When design follows content creation, it reinforces the message, making it stronger and more direct. Specific pages can then be strategically structured to highlight and communicate key messages and focus on explicit tasks and goals. Additionally, the more content drives design, the less competitors’ sites are used as starting points, further cultivating originality and differentiation.

The ‘content first’ approach also aids scenarios involving templates. Knowing the messages up front makes the content requirements clear, allowing designers to choose the most suitable template for the business’ objectives and audience(s).

When design comes first, which is all too common (often due to clients dropping the ball), content writers get handcuffed and compromise ensues. We frequently work in this scenario, and have approached designers with concerns numerous times. For instance, more call-outs were required, or more or less space was necessary for particular copy. The designers understandably cringe as the design is approved and they don’t want to open a can of worms. So we sometimes proceed with deficient design, at the client’s expense.

When I wrote for international airline publications, I faced similar dilemmas. My managing editor would bark, “Give me 1,500 words!” when 600 would suffice, or I’d be limited to 300 words when 800 was needed to tell the whole story. But, due to chaotic deadlines, format often drove content, and communication quality was sacrificed. Content was merely poured into the mould.

Differing opinions

As a writer there’s a chance I’m biased on the design/content debate. After all, I brand with words, not design. So I was compelled to reach out to several design agencies and gather different points of view.

We asked, “Which do you believe should come first, content or design?” Here’s what they had to say:

Design First

This [design first] approach enabled us to ensure the site design was attractive and easy to navigate. It does not matter how good the content is if the look and feel turns off the visitor and they bounce away. — Sammy James, speak2leads

Content First

Whether it's simply defining the project (i.e., audience, emotional objective, or desired outcome) or crafting the actual design, you have to start with an understanding of the content. Neglecting this order is why so many websites and infographics, born out of Lorem Ipsum, seem incongruous. — Bill Rice, Kaleidico

We now spend more time in review and planning with a qualified copywriter in order to have our sitemap in place, calls to action and the lion’s share of the content in hand before we even start our design process. Consequently, we find that when we present designs to our clients they are far better received and the project continues in a more efficient manner. — Brad Haima, Circle Graphics

Content, always. Both follow a communication, marketing, or business strategy, therefore design looks to optimize and differentiate the content through its strategic objectives. — Gonzalo Alatorre, Creative Engine

Most people are either audio, visual, or kinaesthetic — that is to say that they are either predominantly moved by sounds (or words), sights, or movement. So you could begin to make the argument that maybe design could come first in certain instances. However, in order for a thing to exist it must first have certain intrinsic qualities. it must first ‘be’ something in order to be visually incarnated, however you end up making it look. So even if you are intending to create a visual site to appeal to a visually minded audience, what it is must ultimately forerun how it looks, even if that just refers to the product or service you’re offering, so therefore content by default has to come first. — Jamie Gavin, InPress Online

Content frames what needs to be communicated to the user and, after all, as designers we're visual communicators. But let's face it, we've all been extremely excited about a project to the point that we just jump into our pixel pushing program of choice, and begin cranking out beautiful creative that is driven by very little understanding of what the big picture needs to say in the end. Then we get in front the client and they struggle to understand how to place content into the perfectly designed confines of what we've created. That's what happens when you arbitrarily assume word counts for pages, etcetera.

In a perfect world, the client would deliver artful copy days in advance of our creative process that would help to fuel our approach. Now, we all know that's never the case. So how do you solve this conundrum? The best case would be to share early stage wireframes with your copywriter or client. That way they can craft copy to your wireframes and you both can be under the same assumptions going into the process. It also helps to mitigate surprises in the end. — Mike Miller, Motive Media

Content informs everything. It tells us to whom we are speaking, what motivates them, and how we want to be perceived. Content draws customers, not the pretty aesthetics. That is not to say aesthetics are unimportant; the look and feel of a site are critical, but the content defines the direction of both. — Peter Bernardo, 352

In a perfect world, content should come first. In working experience, that is not the case. It is usually the last piece to arrive when a client wants to be the one to provide it. This can lead to a big design problem because what may have been designed for three content boxes, now has to fit seven. — Darren Fox, Idea Marketing Group

We design the content for human understanding. It is obvious content comes first. — Adam Qureshi, Qureshi Media

I believe content is king and design the cupbearer. Trying to fit copy into a design that is already made is a logistical disaster. The copy should have major influence over the design creative and set the theme/style and tone for how a page should be branded. While there are 'foundational' rules for great design, they should not come into play until after the copy has been completed — you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. As a designer, I personally admit that you need a fine balance of both but ultimately the copy is the major influential factor for any advertising and therefore should hold prominence, yet still complement with appropriate design. — Ryan Jackson, DGR

Content should always come first. Content is the stuff that informs what the design should be. Without it, the design is just a shallow veneer. In so many ways, content is like a skeleton of a body, and design is the muscle, skin, and clothes. — Bobby Black, Bobby Black

I would have to say content should come first because the organization of the content and menu/content structure can play a large role in how that should be made available through the design. To make that content accessible in the most intuitive way possible it really helps to know what that content is, or at least have a high-level view of the content before starting a design. — Adam Chernenkoff, Claro Solutions

Many people want a website but they don't always know what they want on it. Figuring out the content first and foremost, along with an idea of the size of project, is the most productive way to go. Otherwise you're in a position I was in years ago of having the design ready but no content, or worse going back and needing to make modifications at the database level.

The people working with content provide the site developer with an outline of what the content will be helps the developers create a UML map. It takes a team effort to get large projects working with an open line of communication between people involved in the web copy and the site developers. — Eric Stasiak, XLS Designs

Designing without copy is like painting a wall without the wall — it can't be done. Equally, content without the design is not engaging or exciting.

Trying to design a web page with no content is incredibly difficult — design and content are so intertwined that, without such consideration to that fact, neither the content nor the design will make sense, and you run the risk of confusing visitors, or boring them. Either way, your page will not convert. It is important to design the content, not around the content. — Lee Baillie, MintTwist

Content + Design Simultaneously

I think that this is one of those ‘chicken and egg’ kind of questions. In the digital realm, design is content and content is inherently designed. This is a space of visual communication where design and content must co-exist and mutually support each other. While in some projects content is fundamentally king, without design the message is easily lost. That said, I’ve seen engaging, successful projects that have sprung out of great design where the content was specifically written to support the design.

If I had to pick which comes first I would have to say design, albeit I would extend the definition of design beyond merely visual design. I speak here of ‘design’ in a broader sense more in keeping with overall plan or strategy. This overall strategy/approach/theme/ is what comes first — from this all content and visual design are created. — Karen Wood, Thrillworks

Aesthetic design and content have to coexist and are symbiotic to an effective communications solution. If you want to ask which is more important, the answer is of course content. But how it is presented is especially important with regard to legibility and comprehension online and across devices.

Design is a word that gets used without context by the vast majority of web design firms. Are we talking about information design, interaction design, interface design, the design of a content strategy?

Aesthetic visual design should always be the last part of the creative process once all the content or at least the scope of the content has been identified and the data architecture for the templates has been created. — Kyle Bailey, E-Cubed Media

Copy and design simply can’t live in silos — they need to work hand in hand to be effective. I learned this lesson the hard way when working as a designer for Natural Golf. They hired me to design an ad, and I made what I thought was the best design of all time, only get the worst results of any ad they’d ever run. And to add some salt to the wound, a really ugly ad they ran right after mine produced a strong return.

What I gleaned from this is that design alone cannot do the selling; content, including a strong call to action and a sense of urgency, is just as important. People need to know how you can solve their needs — and a pretty picture can’t accomplish that all by its lonesome. You really need to tell a story through copy and images together if you want to resonate with your audience. — Steve Gaither, JB Chicago

Asking whether design or content comes first is like asking whether you should start cooking with ingredients or a recipe. They're not separate steps in a sequence, but interconnected elements of the same thing.

Depending on the situation, you might change your recipe (or invent a new one) to accommodate the ingredients you have on hand. Or, you might go shopping for new ingredients to fit the recipe you want to make.

Neither of those is a ‘right’ answer. You just have to evaluate your situation and ask yourself what you're really trying to accomplish. — James Archer, Forty

Neither. Strategy comes first. To communicate a message, tell a story, sell a product, or service, design and content need to be developed together strategically, purposefully.

Life is too fast on the Net, especially on mobile environments. We surf, browse, scan, tap, swipe, share, like, tweet — instantly. Content needs to be structured, written, and designed to attract and keep the attention of the user. Just like content is not only about information, design is not only the end result, or final presentation. It begins much earlier in the process and helps define the context, and enables organizing purposeful, concise, scannable content. — Mustafa Demir, freshmark

Let the message lead the way

With strong community support for content-driven and influenced design, there’s hope lorem ipsum will gradually be eradicated from the design process.

Designers and content writers need to collaborate more closely to ensure messages shape design, so we can collectively yield more meaningful and powerful results.

Which comes first, content or design? How do you design a site for a client who doesn't deliver content? Let us know your experiences in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, uses pop-art image via Shutterstock.

WDD Staff

WDD staff are proud to be able to bring you this daily blog about web design and development. If there's something you think we should be talking about let us know @DesignerDepot.

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