Which comes first, the copy or the design? - Carney

Which comes first, the copy or the design?

What mental model would you use to describe the relationship between copy and design?

A classic chicken and egg dilemma? 🐔🔄 🥚  

Or worse yet, a showdown at high noon? 🤠🤠

There’s a better mental model. 

It’s electric. 

Well, electro-magnetic. ⚡🧲

An animated electromagnetic wave illustrating the relationship between copywriting and design. By Carney.

I love this description of the discovery of electromagnetic waves:

“A new kind of wave, with electric and magnetic fields dancing together in a pas de deux. A changing electric field would generate a changing magnetic field, which in turn would regenerate the electric field, and so on, each field bootstrapping the other forward, propagating together as a wave of traveling energy.” (Infinite Powers, Steven Strogatz, p. xi)

That’s how the relationship between content and design should be. 

Not a standoff. A pas de deux.

Fewer bullets. 🤠 More ballet. 🩰

A generative cycle of divergence and convergence moving toward a shared goal.

But that requires a flashpoint of inspiration for both sides of the equation…

The Importance of Clear Constraints and Clear Objectives

To illustrate, let’s start with a straightforward example: Creating a billboard advertisement.

A billboard has the benefit of inherent constraints and (hopefully) a clear objective.

  • Constraints: A billboard has clearly defined dimensions. Also, it needs to be legible at a glance. From a distance. While moving at 65 mph.
  • Objective: A billboard (hopefully) has a clear, singular objective. Something like ‘take the next exit to eat some tacos’, or ‘apply for a job at this awesome local company that makes tacos.’

When both the copywriter and the designer have the constraints and objectives in mind they can retreat to their respective corners (diverge), create ad concepts, and then come back together (converge) to bounce those ideas off each other.

They can then repeat that cycle, each providing ideas that pull the process forward.

With the clear constraints of a billboard it’s unlikely that a copywriter will write too much or too little copy for the design. And it’s unlikely the designer will allow too much or too little space for the copy. They both know what they have to work with.

So what is needed with larger, more complex projects?

Taming the Wild West of Website Design

For a large project, like designing a website, suddenly there are few if any inherent constraints.

  • Pages can scroll infinitely. Vertically and horizontally
  • Viewports can change radically from ultra-large monitors to my teeny-tiny mobile devices.
  • The sheer volume of content can mean that objectives can lack clarity. (Our website should appeal to… everyone!)

Suddenly we’re writing and designing for a much larger group of audiences with differing objectives competing for attention.

So before design and copywriting begins, clear constraints and objectives need to be established.

Here’s how we approach it at Carney. During the discovery phase of the project we answer questions such as:

  • Who are the intended audiences? 
    • Ok, of those, which one is the true, honest-to-goodness priority? (Definition, that which comes prior or first; before all others.)
  • What are the intended goals for each audience?
    • Ok, of those, which one is the true, honest-to-goodness priority? (Definition, that which comes prior or first; before all others.)
  • What style of website will best serve the website’s true priority?
    • Do certain sections or pages need to read like billboards? Whitepapers? Something in between?
    • Will the content be broad and shallow? Narrow and deep? Sequential?
    • If there is an existing website, in what ways are the copy and the design serving – or failing to serve – the audience?

Answering questions like these provides the constraints and objectives both copywriters and designers need for a productive collaboration.

A collaboration that can move forward at the speed of light.

Looking for help bootstrapping your copy and design work forward? Carney’s team of writers and designers can help. Let’s chat.


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