Design & Content – The Balancing Challenge
Being a graphic designer, this is a topic that I find to be the most interesting thing to talk about. A lot of people think that just because I’m a designer, I only care about the design and not the content that goes into what I’m creating. What people don’t realize is, both are of equal importance to any design, website, book, advertisement, television show, etc. It’s almost like the famous argument, “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” Except, in this case, it’s “Which is more important? The design or the content?” The answer is both! There are so many factors to both design and content and balancing them is easier said than done — even to the most experienced designers out there.
Balancing a design means arranging both positive elements and negative space in a way that neither overpowers the other. Everything fits together into a perfect whole. An unbalanced composition can lead to tension that isn’t pleasing to the eye and can make a viewer feel uncomfortable. To become unbalanced, one element must dominate the other. For example, if a space has too much text and not enough negative space, the design is unbalanced and unpleasant. We’ve all seen those “You Had One Job” memes on social media where a repeating pattern is off by one tile, or something to that effect. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, here’s what I mean:
If you’re OCD with this kind of stuff like me, I share in your frustration. Things like this is exactly what I mean by giving the viewer an unpleasant experience. This unbalanced design can also be a case in website design, or just any design in general. For example:
Not only is this site poorly designed and not really desirable to look at to begin with, it’s also unbalanced and awkward in design. Organizing the content, balancing out the page, and giving it a minor facelift can severely give this site a brand new look.
Then, there are websites like this that just make be happy…perfectly balanced and beautifully designed! There’s little content on this page but the content that there is conveys the exact point this particular page is trying to make.
Why is Visual Balance So Important?
Just like the physical world in the examples above, visual balance is a desirable thing. Balance is everywhere. Balance is even something to be achieved for one’s good mental health. Someone who experiences “good” mental health has found a balance in his or her social, emotional and psychological areas of life.
You want to have the same goal when designing your website. The design should be balanced by the weight of the visuals, as well as the page content. When a design is visually balanced, every part of it, even the negative space, holds some sort of interest. The visual interest is balanced and that keeps the viewers engaged with the design. Without visual balance, there’s a chance viewers might not see all of the areas of the design. They most likely won’t spend any time in areas with less visual weight or interest. Any information in those areas could easily go unnoticed.
You should balance a design, visually, because you want to balance the points of interest in your composition, so that viewers spend time with all of the information you want to convey. Visuals are often-times processed faster than the text in most designs. However, the content on the design provides a greater understanding of the message. Creating a balance between text and visual content gives a combined, full understanding of your design.
Which one is actually more important? Design or Content?
Content is definitely important to get your message across to your audience. Design, which is just as important, helps determine whether people want to browse your site or leave just as quickly as they got there. User experience is a key component to determining the success of your website and both design and content are needed for that. Poor design can easily destroy your great content. On the other hand, bad content can make a great design look thoughtless and half-baked. Do you see where I’m going here? Both are important! Lets break design and content down, separately, to give you an idea of just how important they are to each other.
The Impact of Design
Some people think that the design of a website can’t save it if it’s filled with poor content. I, personally, agree with this way of thinking. Design is so important, but if the content you’re putting out there is bad, the design isn’t going to do anything for you. The purpose of content is to bring traffic to your website. Unless people find you organically or by your own marketing efforts, there is little chance of your website receiving a lot of traffic. You must have great content for your design to work properly. Great design means thinking about the best ways to give your customers the most enjoyable experiences and give them the value and the benefits that your products and services offer. The easier and more enjoyable you make interacting with your business, the more inclined they’ll be to stick around and see what you’ve got.
The only exception to this would be Craigslist, for example. Craigslist isn’t the best designed website in the world, but it’s one of the most popular websites on the web. The content is what people go there for. Craigslist is not colorful, it doesn’t have an even mixture of visuals and text, but yet, it still does its job! It only “gets away with” not being well designed because the content is so great. The point here is that if you don’t have great, quality content, then the design of your website doesn’t matter. However, in Craigslist’s case, if you have great content that you can’t get anywhere else, you can just barely get by with a not-so-greatly designed website.
The Impact of Content
It’s important for you to understand the role of content in your marketing strategy and how and where to find it. Content is not just the text on your website; it can mean a list of things. There’s content that is more commonly represented with visuals and there’s content that is more commonly represented with text. For example:
Content represented with visuals:
- Commerce and sales
- Social media
- Ads for products
- Apps and website homepages
Content represented with text:
- Books and e-books
- Instructions and manuals
Let’s take videos for example. If you are going to be doing videos extensively, you would need to design a website on a template built specifically for videos. If you’re going to choose a WordPress theme, you’d want to choose a template that allows you to customize the website with as many video plugins as you want. On the other hand, if you are going to be doing more text-based content, you’d want to choose a theme built for that, or design a website accordingly. You must know what content you’ll be working with before you start designing a website.
A design agency’s content would primarily be their design. Their website would act as their own personal PR agent. The design would take priority over the text. An eCommerce website would also use design as their content. They have products that they want to be sold and they need high-quality images to sell those products. They will also have text to accompany the images to give detail about the products. Craigslist, on the other hand, as mentioned above, relies on its text-based content. As you can see, the content that you put out heavily determines the design of your website.
How do I balance content and design?
A great way to think about the balance between content and design is by using a scale. Write down all of your content on one side and the text elements on the other side. Does one side of the scale outweigh the other? If so, can you think of any ideas on how to even it out?
Think about visual weight when looking at the scale. Visual weight is the distinguishable weight of a visual element. It’s a measure of how much anything on the page attracts the eye of the viewer. While there may only be a small amount of words on a page, the size, color, and placement of those elements can really tip the scale and not provide enough balance in the design. Visual weight plays a role in how large or small images and text are in relation to one another.
Here are some tips to consider when it comes to creating balance. Don’t use words if you don’t need them. Present information in a visual way (don’t describe things that you can show). Sometimes this rule can be exempt if the design feels lopsided. Don’t use unnecessary words and information or repeating images. If you don’t know how much text you need, aim for an equal surface area for visuals and text to create an “obvious balance.”
There is no official ratio or formula that I can give you to determine how much space to give your text and visual elements. You just have to use trial and error and lots of planning. Here are some guidelines that can help you:
- You will need both text and visuals. There are few projects that are successful without one or the other. – Craigslist, for example
- Get on board the visual trend. Big visuals grab attention to your audience.
- A good portion of projects out there are going to include more images than text. That’s ok, but be sure to balance the images out with quality text. It’s also ok to have more text than images. Again, just be sure to balance the text out with images to give it that visual aspect.
- Visuals and text should feel balanced, or equal, across your website. Not just one particular page. The pages don’t all have to be designed the same but keep the visual balance consistent throughout the website.
- Ensure that your text and images don’t conflict with one another. There’s nothing more confusing than an image that doesn’t go along with the message you’re trying to convey with text or vice versa.
- Let you content dictate the strategy of the design.
How To Get Started on Content Strategy
To conclude, I’m going to share with you a fantastic, and rather comical, blog post about the importance of content strategy within the design process written by Brad Shorr over at Ceros. Shorr understands that both design and content are of equal importance. One particular section of his post stood out to me:
Project manager: We need a landing page for client X.
Designer: I can’t start the design until I see some content.
Writer: I can’t start writing until I see a design.
You may find this dialogue amusing… until it happens to you! At our firm, we find that the best way to get past such a standoff is to write first. This is because content strategy, at a fundamental level, frames a project for the designer. As a content strategist, my job is to articulate the why, where, who, what and how of the content:
- Why is it important to convey this message? This speaks to purpose.
- Where on the website should the message appear? This speaks to context.
- Who is the audience? This speaks to the precision of the message.
- What are we trying to say? This speaks to clarity.
- How do we convey and sequence the information for maximum impact? This speaks to persuasiveness.
Bringing it down to a more detailed level, let’s consider a landing page. A content strategist will determine such things as the following:
- Audience Is the audience sophisticated? Down to earth? College-level? Predominately male? Female? Etc.
- Word count Some pitches scream for long copy, while others must be stripped to the bare minimum. SEO might factor into the equation as well.
- Messaging priorities What is the most important point to convey? The least important? What needs to be said first (the hook)? What needs to be said just leading up to the call to action?
- Call to action What will the precise wording be? What emotional and intellectual factors will motivate the visitor to click through?
- Clear direction on these points not only helps the writer write but helps the designer with the layout, color palettes, and image selection. When we start with words, we produce designs that are more reflective of the product’s purpose.
Landing pages are a great place to try this workflow, because, in terms of content strategy, they are less complex than many other types of Web pages. A product category page, on the other hand, might have a less obvious purpose or multiple purposes, considerably greater word counts, more (and more involved) messaging points, and a variety of SEO considerations, all of which would affect its design.
Here are some examples of beautifully designed and balanced websites!