As a website copywriter, the most common question prospective clients and new business owners ask me is this: Which comes first, copy or design?
Copy dictates, design.
The answer isn’t a matter of preference, it’s a matter of strategy and practicality. Doing things in the wrong order will cause frustration, cost you more money to fix your mistakes, and result in work that feels taped together, rather than seamless.
When you are starting a new project where copy or content will be paired with visuals or design, you need to start by writing the copy first.
Why does copy come first?
(And why design is still, really, really important, but not your first move…)
We’ve all felt the temptation to jump right into the design process, or start sketching out how we want our website, landing pages, and sales pages to look—design is fun and creative work!
But what ends up happening is you end up trying to make the copy fit the design. The space left for text is very, very short. When you don’t have a lot of room to write what needs to be said, you leave key messaging on the cutting room floor. A website that is more about aesthetics rather than messaging isn’t going to convert (more on that in the next section.)
Even worse, when you realize you need to add another section or expand on your copy, your designer will have to go back and redesign part of your website, which they will likely charge you for—which is fair because no one should work for free.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t reign in and edit your copy when you start designing your website. It’s one big balancing act and a seasoned copywriter and designer *should* be expected to manage the balance and even work together as needed.
Copy and design are BFFs because copy IS a design element too. Copy without design can become overwhelming. Design without copy lacks substance and doesn’t give your audience reasons to buy, subscribe, book a call, or click to learn more.
Design also has a huge impact on readability–the two elements have to work in harmony.
How your words and headers sit on the page, flow down the page, and play off the design and imagery is what makes a blah webpage look oh, la, la!
Design primes, and copy sells.
This is true for both service-based and product businesses. Imagine scrolling through Instagram and seeing an ad for a gorgeously packaged night cream. It’s giving modern, luxe, and lovely.
You click over to the product page and discover there’s no information about the product. Nothing about who it’s for, what it’s made of, why it’s different or better than other night creams…that’s what it’s like trying to launch something before you’ve figured out how to talk about it.
You need to figure out your sales messaging and copy: (“Cruelty-free vegan collagen and white tea extract deliver dewy, silky skin and a youthful glaze worthy of a Hailey Bieber selfie.)
The copy sells you on the transformation you’re pining for, which the packaging itself can’t do.
If you designed the packaging first, before strategically thinking about your messaging, the designers might not leave room to incorporate the product tagline or a piece of copy that hooks customers.
The case for working out your copy first is more obvious if you’re selling a service because a pretty website alone can’t convince me that you understand my problems and have the skill set to help me achieve my goals.
So often a pretty website is about you and your preferences, rather than the client and your ability to help them.
Okay, so you now know copy comes before design, but there’s actually something that comes before the copy…
New Project Order of Operations
STEP 1: BRAND STRATEGY
Before you or your copywriter can write a single word, you have to get clear on your brand and your offers. Your brand strategy is not your logo, colors or typography. Your brand strategy is about settling on your Purpose, Perceptions, Personality, Promotion, and Positioning. Everything from your copy to your design identity (the visuals) stems from your 5Ps.
Every client who goes through the Big Picture Brand Discovery process is treated to a business deep-dive, in addition to the messaging components like brand voice, language, archetypes, and audience persona messaging mapping. In the end, you’ll walk away with your custom Brand Strategy Blueprint you can share with your designer, contractors, and team members so that everyone is on the same page about what your brand and business is all about and how you communicate your offers and products in an on-brand voice.
STEP 2: COPYWRITING
Once your brand has crystallized and your offers are in place, your copywriter will use the deck to inform the words, phrases, descriptions, headers, taglines—the copy—that get used on the page. Some copywriters will create un-designed skeleton wireframes or a messaging hierarchy, while others will follow their signature framework and tweak it for your business needs. Your copywriter will also consider SEO, conversion goals, additional content (especially if you are an educator or blogger) and work through several drafts and feedback sessions to ensure the copy is what you want, and what you need to reach your business goals.
STEP 3: BRAND DESIGN
After you’ve gone through your copywriter’s strategy process, you can send your Brand Strategy Blueprint to your designer so they can use your strategy to start developing your brand visuals (logo, colors, typography, patterns, icons, etc.) BUT, they absolutely should not start designing the website layout until the copy is finished.
What happens if my designer starts developing my website before the copy is finished?
Issue #1: There is a high probability that your designer will have to go back and redesign the website to fit the copy. If this extra work is out-of-scope, both your designer and your copywriter can charge you to make changes and edits.
Issue #2: Because these changes are ad-hoc, the end result can look and sound choppy. It’s like when you paint a wall, and then go back and touch up areas you missed, only to realize the sections you touched are a slightly different shade than the rest of the wall and don’t blend well.
STEP 4: WEBSITE DESIGN
Commence the design process, but be sure to ask your designer and copywriter if they will be in communication with each other in case they want to consult on changes, or if either has an offer in place, like a Copy Installation Day where everyone comes together to review the site and make adjustments as needed.
STEP 5: WEBSITE DEVELOPMENT
Some designers also develop the sites they design, but not always, so be sure to ask. Every designer and developer has their own process, so make sure you understand what that process is, what the timeline is, and how often you will need to be on-call for reviews and feedback.
What if you have a limited budget and can only afford to invest in one done-for-you service?
If you’re a DIY-er or on a shoestring budget, it’s time to go hybrid:
- Choose one task you can DIY
- One task you can do with someone, like a course or mentorship
- One done-for-you-service you know you have zero ability to pull off yourself
When it comes to your copywriting, I offer a number of options for your budget:
DIY YOUR COPY
Break out a new notebook and read the BP Blog archives covering everything you could ever want to learn about brand strategy and copywriting.
WRITE YOUR COPY *WITH* ME
Write your Home, About and Services pages (plural!) written (by you), and edited and approved (by me) in just 6 weeks. The Copywriting Cohort Course + Mastermind is the complete A-Z course for DIY-ers who want to write or rewrite their website copy under the wing of a seasoned professional copywriter.
LET ME TUNE-UP AND EDIT YOUR DIY COPY
Button up your copy with my copy edits or get a diagnosis on what’s not working—and how to fix it! Just send me your docs, let me work my magic, and we’ll walk through your changes over a Zoom coffee date.
LET ME WRITE YOUR COPY FOR YOU
When it’s too hard to see the forest from the trees, it’s time to call an audible on doing it all yourself. Skip those weeks (months?) of analysis paralysis and let me deep-dive into your business and brand. Afterward, I’ll roll that work into SEO-rich copy for your site. We’ll look at voice-of-customer pulls, outline site goals, page goals, keyword research, CTAs, and recommended lead magnets. Google docs and Loom video check-ins ensure a solid feedback loop. We’ll cross our Ts and dot our Is to make sure everything is pitch-perfect and ready for you to hand over to your web designer to implement.
Hot take bonus advice:
Here’s why investing in your brand identity or logo first is a terrible investment (for most of us.)
So you’ve got a logo and a color palette you love. Now what? A logo cannot tell your audience who you are, what you do, and how you do it better or differently than someone else.
You can get by without a logo. You cannot get by with bad copy.
Your website can simply feature your business name—no fancy typography necessary. You can get by with the template’s font and color scheme for months, while your copy and pitch help you book work and save up to work with that designer you’ve been dreaming about.
Ideally, we’d all like to launch with a bang—fresh copy, gorgeous design, and every bell and whistle out there, but realistically, that’s going to run you upwards of $20,000. If you’re not sitting on a nest egg, you need to invest in the services that will have the highest ROI first and no one is going to book your services or buy your product because of the way your R swooped through your logo.
I said what I said. Designers, I love you, and I need you. This PSA is for everyone’s benefit, so don’t come for me. 💞
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