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It Ain’t Always that Pretty: Designing for Real Content

I have a confession to make. I love looking at other people’s homes and decor. Not the creepy, spy camera stuff — I mean I love looking at real estate sites, interior design magazines, home furnishing catalogs, lighting shops, bins of architectural thingees — you name it! I get the Crate and Barrel catalog and put little post-it flags on stuff I like and then go to the store to visit them. I sit at tables I like, lie on sofas, recline on chairs, and pretend I’m hosting an outdoor event at an expansive patio dining set. Of course, I live in a tiny Manhattan studio so I can never have any of these things. When I’m feeling particularly devil-may-care I’ll get a set of napkin rings and then spend an afternoon figuring out where to store them. The fact of the matter is that I have the tastes of someone with a big home and money, and the budget and square-footage of, well, someone who doesn’t.

Why am I telling you all this? It’s because I really do understand it when I see designers doing website comps with only the most gorgeous photography and perfectly edited placement copy. Like how I imagine my dream house, they see the design as what it could be if the content and budget were right. Chances are, though, the photography isn’t going to be of lush tropical plants — it’s going to be a snapshot of the CEO taken with a cheap digital camera by his assistant. That succinct copy that looks great with the little thumbnail (of something that looks fabulous as a 80px x 60px postage stamp) is going to be a 400 word mission statement and another grainy photo taken at the annual shareholder meeting. How well does the design hold up now? If you take into account before you start designing the pitfalls of ugly content, it may still work.

Gorgeous Content Can Look Great Even in a Burlap Sack

In a perfect world, you would have the budget to hire photographers and writers to make the site really work. I’ve worked on projects like that and that is the way to go. If you are really lucky, the material you work with is already spectacular. This makes doing design work for museums, artists, and entertainment and fashion clients a thrill. I often get really envious looking at sites that win awards where it’s basically a gallery of amazing artwork with very little design. It’s easy to look at those sites and say “wow, what a great design” when in reality it’s just great looking content. Unfortunately, the world still needs sites for products that help with skin rashes and, well, sites that promote some fairly dull stuff. In other words, everyone doesn’t get to live in the penthouse suite of web design.

Many projects I’ve worked on end up with content creation being the domain of the client. I make the case for hiring writers, photographers and illustrators but often there just isn’t much of a budget. As a project manager, I will spend the time coaching them and giving them templates they can fill in to try and guide them (“short 30 character blurb here with link to read more”). This mitigates some of the worst content problems (like those 400 word mission statements on the home page), and I can do a lot with Photoshop to make their photos look decent. Finally, I can usually convince them to spend a little on stock photography. If I’m lucky it will be from a premium site with shots that are not so overused.

Future—proof the Design for Ugly Content Mishaps

As a designer, I have to think about the REAL content while I’m working. If my design relies entirely on beautiful photos, rich content, or animation and videos — the whole thing is going to fall apart when this isn’t what the content really looks like. Even if you can get the site to look exactly as you want to on launch — what happens when the client is entering in content on their own someday? If they have a designer and a good writer on staff, then there’s a chance it will still look great. Often, though, it’s someone without any training making design decisions. As a designer, it’s my job to make the design unbreakable for future updates.

It’s not just designers who aren’t thinking realistically about their content. I’ve had plenty of clients send me links to sites that are panel after panel of exciting photography and tons of great articles and say “I want something that looks like that”. When we get down to it, we discover that what they like is all the content, not the design. I can show them exactly the same design as the site they love, but with their actual content it looks just terrible.

Design for the Worst Case Scenario

Look, I’m not saying that if you can’t have a big content budget or great material to start with, you can’t have a great looking site. What I’m saying, to both designers and clients alike, is that you need to think about how to design with what you’ve got and embellish where you can. Tackling a design issue now with imperfect content is better than delivering something that will fall apart on the first update.

As for all those sites with beautiful art and photos, we have bookmarks so we can visit them regularly. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get to work on one of those someday. Now I need to go deal with this request to make a toenail fungus website look like HBO.com.

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