Content focused design: why we do it and why you should care

Content focused design: why we do it and why you should care

Straight up, we take a content focused approach to web design and development. This means, before any design (layouts and all) happens, we need to see the content. No exceptions.

We don’t do this because we researched it thoroughly and it’s been shown to be successful in all cases. It was the obvious path to take, and I’ve never had any doubt that it’s the right way for us and the people we work with.

Let me start from the beginning.

The Beginning

Understanding who we are

When Aurooba and I began, we spent a lot of time thinking about the big picture, our motivations, and what we needed our business to be, in order for us to be happy. We wrote out what we thought individually, and then brought it together.

This is something that wasn’t written to be published, so it’s not perfect. Instead of altering it and perfecting it for this article, I’m sharing its original form with you:

Wanderoak is the spirit of someone wild and adventurous but with a thoughtful and kind heart. She takes life in a stride, not too seriously, but seriously enough to not throw it away. She follows her intuition, well developed and seasoned by experience, knowledge, and the love of others. Wanderoak is living life. Exploring the world, your city, your backyard, your mind. Family. Understanding the importance of where you came from. Embracing change. Reaching for new ideas. Creating your best life and taking care of it. Helping those around you. Connecting. Doing the things that light you up. Caring. Having fun. Enjoying the journey for itself, not for where it will take you. Laughing. Being present. Creative expression.

This is essentially the personality of Wanderoak. It’s bits of Aurooba and bits of me, and bits of the people we’re striving to be, all smashed together—it’s better and stronger than we are individually.

Together, we knew we wanted to make our mark on the world. We needed to be doing something good, to be helping make a difference in the world. Not necessarily in some grand way, just in our own way, at the very least.

We knew we needed this in order to be fulfilled, proud, and happy with our business.

What that means for how we work

We’ve written about doing good and being good at length before, and it comes down to the people we work with, and how we work with them. It’s from a foundation of good. We’re helping people do good and contribute to the world, and we’re using our creativity and skills to do so.

We believe, in order to actually help someone succeed, you need to get personal with them. You need to know what their goals are; you need to know their personality and how they’re going about accomplishing something. Their plan. Their values. Their reason for doing what they’re doing.

You need to really understand them.

So here we are, back to content focused design and development. When you really think about it the way we do—what we believe, our personality, and how we’re striving to run our business—you can see that the answer to the process question is obvious. Content-focused. It doesn’t make sense to create a pretty website and then force someone’s goals, dreams, ambitions, plans, and personality into it. That concept just doesn’t fit with the rest of our mindset. We want to get personal with people, and getting personal with their content is an extension of that. The content should be a reflection of their goals—of who they are and who they want to be—so to disregard content when creating a website is to disregard the foundation and purpose of who and what you’re creating the website for.

Being content focused was an easy decision to make, in fact, it wasn’t even a decision, it was the obvious path to take. Let’s take a look at how this plays out in real life.

Content focused design in the real world.

Because we do content focused design, it means we need the content before any design happens. That’s any design, including layouts and wireframes and site structure. Since we live in the real world, and not a theoretical paradise, not everyone is where we need them, when we need them.

When you realize you need a website, these are the most common stages you’re in (in regards to content):

  1. You have none, you haven’t thought about it, and you weren’t planning on thinking about it until you had somewhere to put it.
  2. You have some idea for a site structure.
  3. You have content drafts.
  4. You have content and a website already, but your content is outdated,
    or
  5. (the rarest of them all) You have all your content finalized and ready to go.

Before the design happens, we need everyone to be at least be at level 3: you need to know what you want to say, and how you want to say it.

Moving from level 1 to level 2 is the easiest—that’s a step most people are prepared to do right off the bat. It’s getting to level 3 that can be tough, for the following reasons:

  1. It takes work, and it’s time consuming. Coming up with content when you have no constraints is hard. If you already have a layout that comes with spaces for certain things (description here, call to action here, button here, menu here), you can come up with something that works. However, when every door is open and there are almost infinite ways to go, it becomes harder, because you’re required to think about it a lot more.
  2. You have to think about content separately from design and layout. We’ve found that when we tell people to write up content, they can’t help but think about layout and design as well. We ask for what we call plain text documents and what we often get are wireframes, or people using tables to try and simulate a layout. This can defeat the whole purpose of getting content first, because what it means is that you (the person giving the content) have limited yourself by your own knowledge of design and what is possible.
  3. It forces you to think about things you should have already, but haven’t. Things like your goals, your values, and your audience. These are easy once you’ve put in the time, but if you haven’t done that yet, it exhausts your brain very quickly. Especially if you just thought you needed a website, and now the crazy website people (that’s us!) are making you think about bigger and harder things.

To help people along, we put the focus on goals. When you have your goals in mind and you know where you’re headed, it becomes a lot easier to write content. That’s easier, not easy. So that being said, it can still end up drawing out the process. Of course, this isn’t ideal on anyone’s end, but it leads to a stronger and more successful outcome that’s aligned with your goals, plus the other—super practical—things that come alongside working out the content first.

Since this is an article, of course I’m going to mention them.

The practicalities of content focused design and development.

Fewer design revisions.

Sometimes design revisions happen because the content that gets created (or changed!) after the design is complete physically does not fit within the constraints of the design. In the best cases it means a small change, but sometimes it means rethinking the entire design. However, when the content is done first, there are usually fewer revisions, which means higher efficiency, fewer extra costs, and happier people all around.

A more customized layout.

When a design is based on content, it means the design will be more unique. The pieces that make up the website will be created with exactly your content and goals in mind. Instead of having one blocky area for all your content, you’ll have pieces that fit what you need and do what you want (and bonus, they’ll end up being more readable and responsive to screen size).

Fewer frustrations when working with it.

Fitting content into a restricted space can be super frustrating, and trying to force a design to do something it wasn’t made for is usually time consuming, and ends with you having to alter your content to make it work. However, when the website was made for your content, with knowledge of what your plan is, and with how you work and what you need in mind, those frustrations melt away and everything just works.

Long term use benefit.

We ask about goals for many reasons. One of them is because it gives us a look into how fast you want to grow, and in which direction. We have no interest in building something that will only work short term. This information, combined with knowing what your content is and how it may evolve means we can make sure the website is flexible enough to handle some growth.

What content focused means from a development standpoint.

I am first and foremost a designer, but Aurooba and I are crazy collaborative. To do my job well, I believe it’s important to have enough knowledge of the development side of things in order to share ideas, do my best to get Aurooba what she needs, and help with any problem solving.

So let me explain (with a disclaimer that this is definitely not an in depth conversation, but simply a brief introduction).

Gone are the days when you can get away with creating a website that doesn’t change based on screen size. There are an infinite number of screen sizes out there, and websites need to look good and be readable everywhere (especially on mobile, but that’s an whole different conversation).

In real life, this means the different pieces of the website shift around a lot. They stack, unstack, become sticky, move from rows to columns. You get the idea.

Now, to be realistic, everything cannot have unlimited number of lengths and be made to work in every case, no matter what the content is. This is impossible. However, when you know the content that will be placed in each area, you can make it work for that content, and then make it work for reasonable variations of that content.

As well, there are many ways to code a website and set up the behind-the-scenes structure. When you know what the content is and the goals are for the content, you can set things up with that in mind. When this happens, what you end up with is something that feels intuitive instead of overly complex.

For us, working with content first impacts every part of the process for the better. Rooted in our desire to get behind the causes, goals, and values of the people we work with, focusing on content means we’re in a better place to create beautiful and functional websites that support the visions of entrepreneurs, artists, game-changers, activists, leaders, rebels, and change-makers.

How you can be content focused, too.

You’ve read to the bottom of this article (congrats, it’s a bit long!) and now you may be wondering what this can mean for you, as someone who either knows they need a website, or knows theirs should up updated.

If you aren’t in a position to pay for help

No shame, we all start somewhere! There are plenty of ways to get started with low costs. Think free or premium premade WordPress themes, Squarespace, etc. The trick we’re focusing on here, though, is that you should be writing your content before you even think about finding a theme.

I repeat:

Content first. Theme/design after.

I’d say it again, but I know you understand. It’s going to be extremely tempting to take a peek at themes beforehand (and you may already have done that) but I urge you, if you haven’t written your content yet, forget about anything you’ve seen and just write. If you’re having trouble with content, remember to consider your goals, values, and audience.

You may find that once you’ve written your content first, you’ll be able to eliminate options more easily Not every theme will do what you need. This is a good thing. This is what you want.

You may also find yourself in a position where no theme will do what you need. Don’t panic. Focus on the essentials and find something that fits as closely as possible. It may mean some compromise and changes to your ideas, but this is okay (and to be expected); you’ll still end up with something that aligns much more closely with your vision than if you had just found a pretty theme and wrote content to fit it.

If you’re going to pay someone to design and develop the website

Ask them about their process and where content fits in. If you agree with anything I’ve talked about throughout this article, you’re going to want to make sure the content is thought about and considered near the beginning of the process, and not tacked onto the end.

At the very least, and something you have full control over, is having content written before you go out and hire someone. If you’ve already thought about your goals and written your content, you’ll have a much better understanding of what you need your website to do. The better you understand yourself and your position, the better you’ll be able to communicate this to the designer and/or developer, and the better equipped they’ll be to actually solve your problems and create something amazing for you.

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