Back in the days when I worked at a boutique agency, we would sometimes be asked to produce a design before getting any content. The content would come later and then we would have to slot it in. We did it at the time because that’s what we were told to do. But looking back, I realize that it made no sense.
How could we design something without knowing the message? Without knowing the content? Design serves a purpose and we need to know that purpose. Art serves its own purpose and so can be created for its own sake. Design doesn’t work that way.
Sometimes I still get asked to produce a design without content. I encourage clients to re-think that. The idea is to save time but inevitably we go back and modify the design once we have actual content. So we might as well start with the message. What are we trying to say? Who are we trying to reach? Once we know that, then we can determine how best to communicate it. Maybe the medium isn’t even the right one! Perhaps what we thought we could do with a website actually works better as a video.
The sunk cost fallacy fools us into continuing with a course of action because we’ve already invested time/money in it even if we shouldn’t continue in that direction. The more action/time/money already spent, the more reluctant we are to change because we don’t want to waste the previous investment.
Understanding human nature, we shouldn’t overinvest in a design (or a medium) before knowing what we want to say. Because we’ll be reluctant to change, we may even convince ourselves to bend the message to fit the design!
That’s why words are so wonderful. They’re easy to push around and rearrange. How many times have you crumpled up a draft or, in more modern times, hit the delete key?
Start with the message. Then determine how to express it. Articulate for that medium. And then move to design.
Here’s another way to think about this. Words alone on a page, without design (yes, I know that the minimal layout is its own design), can be powerful because they express the message. But a design, even a beautiful design, but without meaning, is still empty. It might fool some people but ultimately it says nothing.
That’s why I encourage you to start with the message and the words before moving to design. This ensures the best design, custom crafted to your message.