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What Comes First: The Design or The Copy?

January 29, 2020  /  by  Roger West

Design, copy. Copy, design.

Does the order really matter?

As with most things in life and business that require a little extra thought, the answer is: it depends…but also, yes.

Any time an organization is working to produce a piece of marketing collateral or content, whether that be a web page, a brochure, an email, or a direct mail piece – they will be faced with this question. The great debate this topic stirs up within creative teams can easily stall progress – so it’s important to explore the theology of marketing’s chicken-or-the-egg rumination before you get started.

Copywriters will most likely want to get a feel for the design and spatial limitations of the deliverable prior to developing the messaging, and designers will want to see most of the copy before they begin their mock-up. Who should get their way? This is largely dependent on where you are in the lifecycle of your project.

Ask yourself these questions to determine who gets to take the lead on content creation:

  • Is brand messaging already complete and approved?
  • Is this one piece of a larger campaign that has already launched?
  • Do you have specifications on the dimensions and desired length of the collateral?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then design can probably come first – but know that the mock-up or draft you receive will probably need to undergo more rounds of revision. Design can go first because messaging has already been approved and there are points of reference within the overall campaign and the specifications that have been laid out – but it still probably won’t be print ready after round one (but is it ever?).

“I prefer when copy is finished before I start designing,” says Eddie Kranjcec, Senior Art Director at Roger West. “I want to be able to see how much copy is there so I can prioritize the content and visually distribute it throughout whichever medium I’m working with.”

Beyond preferences, this is a good rule of thumb. When copy precedes design, there is usually a smaller margin of error – which reduces overall workload and revision time. Good copy dictates the size, tone, and direction of collateral, so using it as the foundation of a strong campaign is the most effective strategy. Finish the copy, get it approved, then design. This way, if the client wants to make design changes – the project doesn’t have to start from scratch. Designers can plug and play the pre-approved copy until they find the right layout. And, depending on the piece of content, the approved design can then seamlessly go into development for landing pages or microsites.

“I think overall messaging should come first – at least a headline. The best work I’ve done integrates messaging and visual together. I’m a big advocate of designers working with writers to see the project through,” says Sarah Pierce, Art Director at Roger West.

If you’re in a time crunch, and design and copy need to work in tandem, that’s okay. Figure out what you want to say, then figure out how you want to say it. Even if this means copy sending headlines or calls-to-action to designers – these are powerful ways copy can inform design before the idea is fully realized. The most important takeaway from the great designer-writer debate is that you need to have a plan before you pursue the creation of high-quality content. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown plan. Good marketers will work with you to nurture your ideas and bring them to fruition.

Want to work with a team of writers and designers who get along AND make killer content for web, print, video, and more? The Roger West team is here to help.