How Content Drives Design

A designer’s job is to combine content and design in a way that delivers a cohesive message to the viewer. The question of which should come first — content or design — is a frequent topic of discussion among designers. Whether you design your site and promotional material yourself or you hire a designer, understanding how content influences design is invaluable for developing an engaging site experience.

Challenging Basic Assumptions

There are two assumptions that should be addressed when it comes to content and design. The first assumption is that all sites are, or should be, very similar.

In the past, I ran into this frequently as a designer myself. For example, I would often design a website and start by designing the header and a horizontal menu bar — without really considering if that’s the best way to display the information. While certain styles of site elements are common and often work well, assuming all sites should be this way is not necessarily the case.

A second assumption is that good design only happens when designers have all of the content up front. There are many beautiful, well-designed sites that started without having much or any content. Designers recognize that there are familiar elements in web design that allow us to make templates and frameworks for delivering content and these sites are often very well designed. While it frequently helps, having content first is not essential to good design.

Is Content Really King?

The phrase “content is king” is used regularly in the discussion about content and design. The best response I’ve see is from a Forbes article that says “Content is the Kingdom” or “Content is the Castle.” Content is the basis on which a site exists in the first place, but that doesn’t mean design isn’t equally important. The point isn’t to say one is more important than the other, but to understand the best way to use them both together.

Putting Content Before Design

Design delivers content. Most users come to a site for its content, not for its design. One of the major benefits to having content prior to design is it helps direct the design to best deliver the message. Trying to add content after completing in a design can result in needing to adapt the design or alter the content, putting content and design at odds with each other. Starting with a message and keeping design in mind while developing content leads to cohesion between the design and the message.

Context, Content, and Responsive Design

Considering context is important when trying to reconcile content and design. Looking at the context in which an audience will view content influences the way it is presented through the design. This can also influence responsive web design. The way a visitor will view a site on a desktop, tablet, and smartphone will influence the order and the style in which content is displayed. Understanding context requires looking at both content and design from the perspective of the visitor and asking good questions. What are my visitors coming to the site for? How do my visitors use different devices to access content? What is the primary message I am trying to deliver in my content? Context is a key step in designing around content.

Tips for Content Centric Design

Whether you are a designer yourself or you hire a designer, you know you can’t realistically provide all of your content up front. Sites changes, products changes, and content changes happen — sometimes even during the design process. So how much content should you have before designing and how specific should that content be? At what point does the specificity of today’s content limit site changes later?

The first thing to know is your message. What is the primary thing you want to communicate? What is your brand’s story? This information will be the backbone for your content. Using information-gathering methods like page tables — such as the one found halfway down this 24 Ways article — will help you understand and organize your message.






Next, understand the structure of your content. How much space will it take to deliver your message in text on the home page? Will you have videos and pictures throughout the site? How many? Will you need to add content in the future? Understand how much and what kind of content it will take to best deliver your message now and consider if any future content changes will disrupt the design later.

Beware of Lorem Ipsum

“Lorem ipsum” is the most commonly used filler text in web design. Beware Lorem ipsum. If you catch yourself using Lorem ipsum for large portions of text on your site, recognize it as a sign that you probably need more content. It’s better to write loose copy around what you actually want to say and leave room to adjust it later.


The goal of design is to deliver content. While it is very possible to achieve good design before having content, having content up front will make the design more innovative and better communicate your message. Consider your message and the best way to communicate it with content and design. Whether a website or promotional ad, using design as a vehicle for content will help you communicate your message more effectively.