Copy vs design – which comes first when you’re allocating resources?

Like the chicken and egg conundrum, which comes first, copy vs design?

Copy v. design – for many people, it poses the same dilemma as the age-old chicken and egg debate. Which should come first? Which is more important? Can you get away with poor copy as long as the design looks great? Can compelling copy close a sale even if it’s poorly presented? If yours is a small business with a limited marketing budget, should you spend it on design or content?

Often people prioritise design over copy (or vice versa) based on their own backgrounds, experiences and preferences. Surprisingly though, many businesses don’t give much thought to how copy and design work together at all.

Having asked the question on my Facebook page this week, I thought it would be fun to look at the different sides of the argument.


Round one: Design vs copy – it’s all about looking good

I’ve spoken to a lot of people over the years who have paid designers to work on their websites but never previously considered using a copywriter. Websites need to look good, they argue, that’s what draws people in. The copy is an afterthought.

Certainly, if you think about ‘the blink test’ – those three to five seconds that you have to convince someone to stay on your website – then the design needs to be strong, clear and impactful. Research suggests that eight out of ten people read a page’s headline but only two out of ten read the copy in the first paragraph. If the design hasn’t captured a visitor’s attention, the copy is never going to get a chance to do its job.

I have been involved in many successful projects where I was presented with the final design and asked to come up with copy to fit. I can see why this approach might be favoured. It certainly makes my life easier in some ways. I know exactly what word count I need to work to, where headings and sub headings sit, what images are being used, and where the call of action sits in the design.

Still, it feels as though something is missing, almost a painting by numbers approach to content that sells the reader short. After all, people want substance as well as style, don’t they?


Round two: Copy vs design – first appearances aren’t everything

Of course, looks aren’t everything. Design may draw the reader in, it may get you through the door, but it’s what comes out of your mouth that’s going to make the sale. Copy lets you show the reader that you’re trustworthy, what you’re trying to sell and what value you bring to the marketplace. Come up with the right words and, even if they’re poorly packaged, you’ll still have a chance to make your pitch.

I’ve had copywriting jobs where clients have refused to book a job in with their designer until the copy is 100% complete. Their reasoning is that the design can be crafted around the content, leading the eye to key points, headlines, calls to action, and even what images to use.

Again, I can see why this approach might be favoured. From my own point of view, I can write without restriction, adhering only to my own rules, my own sense of how the copy should flow, how it should be broken up or what the call to action should be.

Something is missing though. If I knew more about how the copy will be used and presented, perhaps there would be a different way of delivering the message, a way that complements the packaging, instead of being at odds with it?


Round three: All’s equal in love and war

Having spent more than 13 years as a copywriter, I’ve worked on projects where I’ve been brought in as an afterthought and projects where the copy has led everything. Both can work and achieve good results.

What makes my heart sing, however, is when stunning artwork and compelling copy are created hand in hand. These are the projects that begin with a concept, an idea, a purpose – a clear brief that goes to both copywriter and designer, so we’re singing from the same hymn sheet.

Copy and design have equal weight in my mind. Yes, beautiful design is like a well-dressed salesman – it might get you through the door – but what comes out of the salesman’s mouth is equally important. It’s what he says that will make people trust him, listen to him, and buy from him.

Copywriters and graphic designers need each other, and they need to understand each other. As a copywriter, I need to know how images and layout affect copy. The designer needs to know how copy can influence design.

When the delicate balance between copy and design is right, customers can identify a brand as much from its graphics as its tagline. Copy and design support one another, and together they are worth more than the sum of their parts.

What do you think? What are your experiences of copy vs. design? Do you agree or disagree? I’d love to hear from you on my Facebook page.

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