When starting down the path toward developing a new website, the first major obstacle is usually deciding who has to produce something first.
The party responsible for the look of the site and the party responsible for generating content are generally not the same. Typically, each would like to have an idea of where the other is headed, to serve as a guideline for what they should be doing. These conversations usually start like this:
Content Writer: “Let me know how many columns you have on the front page, so I can group my content accordingly.”
Web Designer: “How much content do you have? I can make as many columns as you need.”
I’ve spent the last few years in the designer role, but I’ve done both. While there’s not an empirically correct answer to this problem, it can typically be resolved by answering one question: Is my message important?
If it’s important that your readers/customers/clients actually consume the information that your site will provide, the content needs to come first.
If your message is important, your designer should be familiar with your message. This will help him/her create a layout that will provide the easiest access to the information on your site. Elements of the site such as the menu structure are best declared at the onset of a new design project, because changing them midway through the design can be time-consuming (and costly).
For example, your designer initially creates a page structure that is intended to navigate between four distinct, equally-relevant ideas. A week later, he/she is presented with dozens of files full of page copy. The original 4-button header menu really needs to be changed to a sidebar with 9 sections, each with 2-6 subsections, some of which have subsections of their own. While it can be done, does the banner graphic at the top of the page look weird without the four big buttons? Do the background images have to be changed to accommodate a sidebar? Has the designer already set up the mobile and print stylesheets, and will they have to be redone?
This situation probably involves restarting from scratch — not just a a few edits. Had the designer known how much content you wanted from the beginning, the original layout style would not have been considered. Restarting a site design has many consequences:
- Loss of time, possibly resulting in missed deadlines.
- Increased cost, whether you’re paying an in-house designer or contracting with a design firm.
- Lower morale for the designer who wasted his/her time on the needless work.
You may be able to re-use assets from an initial design, but don’t count on it. It’s very important to have a cohesive design, in which all of the elements look good together. Trying to save money by re-using large graphics that simply don’t work results in a design that looks awkward. This is largely unnecessary, as good designers can typically build a complete, cohesive design in about the same amount of time it takes to hack an existing one into a new shape.
Don’t assume or “have faith” that your designer can create the perfect site for you without any direction. If your message is important, take the time to write it before you start picking colors.
If you consider your site to be more of a gallery or portfolio, then you can start with the visual design. Web designers, graphic artists, painters and photographers will often start with the design of the site because their visual work speaks for itself. Even then, it’s probably helpful to know something about your content — how many pictures, how many categories, whether you’ll have a bio, etc. You can add the actual photos and content later, but decide what will be there.
Web designers have other reasons for creating design-driven sites, such as CMS templates and portfolio fodder; however, these situations still have a general content framework in mind (type of menu, sidebar, etc.).
What if you don’t want to add any content to your site? If you simply want to establish a web presence and get your name out there, a business card site might be right for you. Business card sites can start from design, as they only accept a limited amount of information.
Regardless of the type of site you’re making, you should have a general idea of what content it should contain before you get started. Remember, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Just as you wouldn’t decide how many kids you should have based on the size of your car, it generally makes sense to decide what you want your website to say before deciding how it should look.
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