What Comes First: Design or Copy?

June 09, 2022   /   by  Roger West

Design, copy? Copy, design? Does the order really matter?

The short answer: yes, but it depends. Any time an organization is working to produce a piece of marketing content like 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 things 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. At the same time, designers will want to see most of the copy before they begin their mock-up. So, who should get their way? This is largely dependent on where you are in the lifecycle of your project, as long as both elements are getting an equivalent amount of effort and dedicated time.

Creating Copy First

When copy comes before 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 work on designing. 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. Depending on the piece of content, the approved design can then seamlessly go into development for websites or landing pages.

We asked some of our experts at Roger West, who say that having a clear message first is the best strategy when beginning a project for a client:

  • “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,” said Sarah Pierce, Senior Art Director.
  • “What works best for my design and most projects that I have seen, is having the copy first. In particular, the amount of copy provides me with technical decisions for the proper space, hierarchy, and contrast.  The designs only have so much space within certain dimensions. Once I get through that, the fun of the design begins. I find keywords that jump out to me, then I dive into the emphasis, mood, illustration, and personification. Words can come to life with visuals to compliment the copy,” said Evan Gambill, Graphic Designer.

Taking the Lead with Design

When creating design elements for a project, you are creating a visual that will draw in the eyes of consumers. Without a clear vision of what the goal and message will portray, beginning the designing process can pose challenges. But that doesn’t mean doing at least some of the design ahead of the copy is necessarily a bad idea.

“In some instances, it’s actually easier to write copy to fit an existing design because you know your limitations going in,” said Ben Sperduto, Senior Copywriter at Roger West. “Understanding those design constraints before you start writing can help you avoid overwriting the copy and minimize revisions. It also allows you to make it really clear to the designer where content should go and which elements are important.”

Ask yourself these questions these questions when thinking of leading with design:

Is brand messaging already complete and approved?

Like mentioned before, creating designed content for a project can be difficult to get started on if there is not a clear message for the brand in mind. If the design process begins with a message that isn’t fully set in stone, there’s a possibility it may get changed along the way. When this happens, you are using up extra time and resources from your marketing budget to change the project, which could have been avoided.

Is this one piece of a larger campaign that has already launched?

When designing for a brand, consistency is key. If you are beginning a design that represents just one part of a larger campaign, your team is going to want to make sure that bigger picture is kept in mind. The client may want a project to have similar looks, wording, and other designs that will complement the larger campaign at hand. If you and your team fully understand the purpose that the new collateral will serve, getting started with design first may just work.

Do you have specifications on the dimensions and desired length of the collateral?

When designing a piece for a client, it’s no secret there will be nitty gritty details. Depending on where the campaign is launching, there will be very specific sizing and dimensions needed. You may be able to add more wording and imagery for a large sign or magazine, but if the campaign is launching within a mobile app or email, the room for graphics will be much smaller. If your team is unsure of what those dimensions are or will be, starting the designing process first will be like taking a shot in the dark.

Let’s say your answer to all these questions is yes. In that case, design can come first!  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. Just know that it definitely won’t be one and done. The mock-up or draft of the campaign design will probably need to undergo more rounds of revision before it can move on to adding the copy.

How to Balance Both

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, and how you want to say it.

If you need just a little bit of copy to get started with design, that could mean sending headlines or calls-to-action to designers, both powerful ways to inform the designers of which direction to go before the idea is fully realized. If needing a little bit of design before fully diving into the copy, you’ll want to make sure the colors, fonts, and imagery used will help to make the copy impactful and readable.

Either way, both departments will need to work side to side to make sure there is a clear picture before anything is executed. It’s also important to note that one element is not more important than the other. The two need to bounce off each other to the create the perfect balance the client will be looking for.

Help Us Help You

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. The relieving part is that it doesn’t have to be a full-blown plan, just something to get the ball rolling. Good marketers will work with you to nurture your ideas and bring them to fruition.

Here at Roger West, we are equipped with skilled writers and designers who get along AND make killer content for web, print, video, and more. Need help with your design and copy needs? Roger West team is here to help.


Roger West Creative + Code

Roger West Creative & Code is a full-service digital marketing agency that helps companies build brands, generate leads, and keep customers inspired and engaged. The agency provides a dynamic environment for marketing pros to innovate and team up with clients to drive traffic to vibrant places and send messages that pack a punch.