We’ve all seen it happen: a great design that is carrying really ordinary copy, or beautiful copy housed in a design that is (unintentionally) jarring. At best, the marketing piece in question will have no impact at all, at worst it can do serious damage to your brand.
So, how do you prevent that from happening and ensure your copy and design are a match made in heaven? It all comes down to understanding how your content writer and designer like to work, giving them what they need and helping them work together.
I teamed up with the talented Teri Sutherland from Away with the Moon Design to talk pet peeves, deadlines, communication, and even file preferences to bring you advice that will ensure your project runs smoothly and you walk away with a fantastic design and inspiring, effective copy (oh, and two very happy creatives!).
Working with your copy & design team
I know what you're thinking, 'team' is a big word that conjures up images of a roomful of designers, web developers, PRs, marketers and content writers. But even if it’s just you, the designer and the writer, you are still a team, so structure the way you run the project as such.
Get us together
The first thing to do is to bring everyone together at the start of the project face-to-face or, more likely these days, over Zoom. Starting everyone off on the same page with a clear understanding of your vision, goals, visual and written style, project scope and the timeline for drafts, completion and approvals will save everyone a great deal of confusion later.
Give us tools
Secondly, connect everyone on a simple project management tool like Trello and, if you can, a collaboration platform like Confluence. This means people can send messages, discuss changes and comment directly on the work itself, and it’s all saved on the platform to keep your inbox clean. You can even attach briefs, reference material, ideas and links to your job boards and collaboration pages.
Finally, trust your professionals. Allow us to work together with as few interruptions as possible so we can meet your brief and solve challenges quickly. For example, if some words need to be removed to fit within a design, the writer can advise the designer while they are working on the project so there's no delays. We really do know our craft and will only suggest doing something that looks and sounds great.
Working with your designer
Copy first, please
A big pet peeve of almost every designer we’ve ever known (and that’s a few!) is being asked to design something before we receive any copy.
On a purely practical level, there is no way we can produce something that will resemble what you need without knowing the word count, how long titles and headings are, and what the key messages are. This is particularly true when designing web sites - if you don't have content it's impossible to know how to lay it out and work on the navigation.
On a creative level, the copy can inspire our design. Certain words and phrases, and the tone used (e.g. formal or casual), can guide us down the right design path.
Before you’d like us to start, send us a thorough brief and the finalised, approved copy as a Word document. If the project is a website, ensure the copy document includes a clear indication of headings (e.g. H1, H2, H3), button text/microcopy) and the meta description. It’s even better if the writer provides us with a wireframe for how they see the content laid out.
Keep those amends to a minimum
When we say “finalised” copy, we know it will change a bit, and proofreading always throws up a few changes and corrections. It’s how you manage these that makes all the difference to our working relationship, and the final product.
If we work for as a freelancer or for an agency, we will usually tell you how many rounds of amends are included in our fee – we do this to keep the process moving quickly and efficiently. If you have to go over the stated number of amends, understand that we will have to charge you for it.
In any case, nothing frustrates us more than being expected to make twelve rounds of amends, so when you have changes, try and get all of your stakeholders to make comments on the one document and send it to us in one go. This is much easier to manage - we can make all the changes quickly and can see where there may be conflicts in the design and can flag them with you straight away.
Words matter to us, too
We love it when you send your style guide to us with the brief so we can align the design with your brand. But did you also know that we find it helpful to read the tone of voice, brand personality and written style guide documents as well? The words that are meaningful to your brand will inspire us and help us create a clearer picture of how to apply your brand to your projects.
These documents are often developed as part of your overall brand strategy, but we can work with your content writer to do this if it hasn’t been done.
Working with your content writer
Let the content lead your design
One of the hardest things to do is to try and write copy for a design that has already been done. Word counts, page counts and the size or format of the design (e.g. a banner ad or a six-page brochure) give us important parameters to work within, but writing to a design that has already been created often results in copy with much less impact than you were hoping for. It can also mean compromising on good copy and confusing your audience.
Design matters to writers, too
Your visual brand style guide, mood boards and mock-ups are valuable sources of reference and inspiration for us. They help us ensure that your copy aligns with your brand and reflects the intention and personality of the project, particularly if you don’t have a tone of voice or written style guide available.
Keep us close in the design phase
We love designers – they are a talented bunch. But sometimes they take our words and break them to fit their design: I’ve seen paragraphs chopped up and moved around and headings changed, often to a point that the copy no longer makes sense.
Please allow us to work with the designers throughout the design phase and encourage them to contact us if they have questions or a design idea that affects how text is presented. It will keep your writer’s blood pressure low and the designer will have the clarity they need to make the copy look great.
Proofreading is not optional
Please allow us to do a proofread once the work has been designed. We can then check for typesetting errors and identify if some of the copy just isn’t working in the design. You’d be amazed at how a typo can completely change the meaning of a design…
Which one is more important, copy or design? Well, neither really. They serve equally important, yet different roles. The important thing is that they are created in harmony to have the most impact. The best way to achieve this is to encourage both parties work closely together and manage them according to the tips we’ve laid out above. Your marketing efforts will be far more successful and your team will be happier for it.