Change your focus and design “Content First”

Bobby Anderson
5 min readApr 14, 2016
This was an article that I originally posted in October 2013 on Everyday Designer and is as relevant now as it was when I posted it then. I hope that you find it useful…

Content is king, it always has been and always will be. Content is why users visit your site, subscribe to your newsletters and follow you on social media. Content is the single most important aspect of your website yet for some projects that I’ve worked on, content seems to be one of the last things to be taken into consideration by clients when it comes to the redesign and rebuild of their site.

“Content First” is a term that I’ve been using for a while. As someone who doesn’t have a background in content writing or strategy, I’ve found it particularly difficult to express myself about this in more than 140 characters while at the same time not resembling verbal diarrhoea… so here goes.

Where “Content First” came from

Having your client’s content before starting the design process isn’t the be all and end of designing content-first. “Content First” is about giving the website’s content first priority over every other aspect in the design process. This is a concept I learned to realise after years of mocking up homepage layouts with nothing more than filler text and placeholder images or a fuller idea of what the client wanted to achieve.

As designers it’s not only us who are required to take on a “Content First” mindset, this is a process that will require the full co-operation of our clients. Communication is always a vital part of the client/designer (agency) relationship and it may take some convincing on your part to help guide your clients towards a content first methodology. I think we can all for forgiven at times for expecting too much from our clients with regards to knowledge and/or experience in the web but for content first to work, you will need to work hand in hand with your client to make sure that their goals are achieved.

Being asked by a client to ‘mockup a few ideas’ seems great at first, you can create a few layouts, throw in some filler text and some placeholder images and you think you’re there. You feel good, you’re happy that you’ve been able to turnover some designs for a client that you really want to impress and you PDF those designs up to send them over for feedback. You provide design concepts hoping to get the ball rolling on the project, give the client some idea of where to start from and ideally provide some inspiration to get the client on a similar level of enthusiasm as you.

This is where it can all start to go wrong. Designing blind like this may actually have the opposite effect on the client, seeing designs they might not have been expecting from an initial meet may actually result in them ‘reassessing’ the project and leaving you in a position to claw back the positivity that was originally invested in the relationship.

Changing Focus

How many times have we been asked to use ‘filler’ content and stock imagery so that the client can gauge and approve the layout of their new site? The correct answer is too many. The benefits of adopting a content first method can include optimised, relevant and efficient content which will increase awareness, visitors and ultimately sales but the process can also result in an overall more efficient project. Would working with Lorem Ipsum do this? If you answered yes to this, you’ve been very fortunate thus far.

By having content that you and the client have worked closely on to hand rather than dropping in filler text, not only are you already closer to a more complete, finalised design that can be signed off for development, but your design is a lot more content focussed and will give the client a more accurate idea of how their message is going to be delivered to the website’s visitors.

Say no to Lorem Ipsum

Lorem Ipsum and, to an extent, content management systems have given clients a get out clause of supplying designers with finalised and approved content before the design process gets underway. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard “we’ll know what to supply when we’ve seen the design” or “we can replace the text in the CMS anyway can’t we?” I’d have been able to retire years ago on the interest alone. It is lazy on the client’s part for not being particularly bothered about supplying content until later and dangerous on the designer’s part to rush through the design process without it and underestimate the effect final content would have on the mockups.

5 lines of Lorem Ipsum in your mockups may initially fit well and the client might love how it looks but what happens as soon as the client eventually replaces the filler text and either shoehorns their own content into the design or they realise that they don’t really need 3 calls to action? The design breaks and you’ve wasted time.

Wasting time is dangerous for both the designer and the client. Time wasted can result in slipping deadlines, disgruntled management and what about the knock on effects with budget? Would your client be happy to continue paying for you to produce concept work with content they’ve not supplied? How many concepts would you be happy supplying until you’ve realised that the fee you’ve quoted is resulting in a smaller rate by the day?

The lesson I’ve learned is that I’m an idiot for designing a site with filler content and an even bigger idiot for developing a site designed with filler content. All problems and issues that would be avoided by using a content first design process.

Designing “Content First”

We design for the web, a singular entity that isn’t defined by a device’s resolution but a format with only one constant — the content. By designing “Content First” we’re stripping away all of the nonsense and focussing on what is important. Designing “Content First” is about gathering your client’s assets and laying them out within the design in order of importance, optimising the content for a web audience and ensuring that the message(s) and/or features that the client wants to get across to their users is consistent across all devices.

It’s a workflow that puts content at the centre of the focus, not the style, not the transitions between slider frames, but communicating the goals/product/mission in a user friendly fashion and one that I have found greatly beneficial.

Discuss using a content first method with your clients, as I previously mentioned it may require some arm-twisting as it will require more involvement from them but the benefits far outweigh the negatives. By adopting a content first design process your projects will become much more efficient with fewer design iterations, more accurate design mockups, less time wasted while waiting for assets and from the client’s point of view, projects will meet not only deadlines but budgets too.