Bridging the gap between content and design

by , Creative Director, Netlife Research

The “content-first” design approach has improved the quality of everything we see online, but the term is misleading. Every time I hear comments such as “this is done without design” or “and then we add the design later”, my heart fills with sadness.

For those of you who don’t understand why, let me tell you a secret: nothing designed is “filled up” with design afterwards.

Everything around us is designed on some level. There are decisions made about both the function and the form. This does not mean that everything is good design and that everyone should be a designer – just as every piece of content is not good content and everyone should not become a content manager or copywriter.

Think about a letter you are writing. You have a choice of how much of the paper you fill with your writing, how wide you will fill up the lines and how much space you want to give between them. You can also choose which font you want to write the text with, if you want images, which images it will be, etc.

Or think about a wireframe you are making to A/B test with text. How the words are written and how they relate to the other words and elements around it, is also a part of a design process – even if your sketch is hand drawn.


Some of these glasses are designed to look simple (glass 1), some are designed to enhance taste (glass 4) and others are designed mainly to support a message: glass 2 was very likely designed to communicate something like “this is evil liquid”, “I’m bad” or “dangerous”. For glass 3, the design is focused on illustrating the saying “the glass is half full”. Independent of the different intentions, someone, at some point, designed all of them.

The belief that some things are designed and others are not, usually comes from the misuse of the word design to represent something expensive or exclusive. But even simple things are designed to look simple, and cheap things are sometimes designed to look cheap.

Making design choices does not make you a designer

A designer can control the tools available to them and use them to achieve a certain result. A professional designer can identify and use visual elements with a purpose, to communicate a message and to achieve certain goals with that message.

When someone says “add the design later”, it contributes to creating the false idea that design is simply adding colours and choosing what kind of typeface to use. It contributes to this idea that design is a superficial element, that it exists only to make things pretty – and who needs pretty? Design can do much more than that!

Design + content = !!!

For our projects, we define clear goals and a smart strategy and begin by creating quality content.

But content is not only the written words. The origin of the word ‘content’ comes from medieval Latin contentum/contentawhich means “things contained”. With that in mind we can say that content is also design; all of the visual elements of a website (pictures, fonts, white spaces, hierarchy, colours etc) are there to communicate something.

The origin of the word design comes from the latin word designare meaning “to designate”. With that in mind we can say that design is also content; both the process of developing content and designing demand an intention, they both produce a plan and follow a plan and finally make actions giving birth/universe to the content.

Communication is king!

Is it time to review the content-first idea? Not really. But instead of thinking of design as a layer of ‘pretty’, or any other quality you want to add to your work, use it to amplify your message. Instead of “adding the design once the ‘content’ is defined”, think of design as content too.

When work is the result of cooperation between creative designers and content people, the power of the communication is multiplied. These professionals have different perspectives in a project and consider different sides and possibilities on how to better solve a communication problem.

After all, design is a tool – just like written words – for communication.

Linn Eriksen, graphic designer at Netlife Research, collaborated with Renata on this article.

About the Author

Creative Director, Netlife Research

Renata is a Brazilian graphic designer and the executive creative director at Netlife Research, a digital design consultancy in Oslo, Norway. What she finds mostly fascinating about her work is how design processes which include clients and trans-disciplinary teams can actually give much more powerful results within brand building and communication.

You will find her  at Twitter giving random opinions as @rjmbarros 

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