Copywriting or Web Design – What Comes First?

April 20, 2018

So… you’re planning an overhaul of your website. The copy needs a proper rewrite and the design needs an update too.

And just so you know, that’s perfectly normal – most businesses update their copy and design around the same time. Usually, you need to update both every few years, or whenever there’s a significant shift in your business, brand, or audience usage habits.

Or perhaps you’re starting from scratch with a new business or idea and need a website design and website copywriting to put it out there to the world.

But that begs the question…

What comes first?

The website copy rewrite? Or the design and development of your new site?

It’s an important question to get your head around because it can affect:

  • How long your project will take
  • The amount of back and forth
  • How involved you’ll need to be in the process
  • How much it will all cost

I’d love to say I have the perfect answer to whether design or copy should come first. That would be easy! But the answer’s not as simple as that.

It's like the chicken and egg situation. This makes me happy because I love chickens and I've been waiting for sooo long to have an excuse to put chicken pics on my blog. YAY!

Chickens being all happy and chickeny in a chook yard
Book-books! Bwaawk bwak bwak.

 What the copywriter says

So, let me start by offering you my perspective as a website copywriter who has seen quite a few projects go through this design/copy overhaul process.

I honestly don’t mind which comes first. I’ve comfortably created copy for websites with finished designs and for websites with designs that don’t yet exist.

Most of the time, small businesses engage a web designer first and don’t tend to think about the copywriter until the website is almost ready to go live (and they realise how much they don’t want to write the copy themselves).

So, if this is your situation ^ then just know that you’re not alone, your copywriter won’t be offended, and they are probably used to working with what you’ve got.

That said, design-first might not be the best option, even if it is the most common and most popular.

What other copywriters say

I asked in Kate Toon’s copywriting group, and it seems that most copywriters prefer a collaborative process… but most agree that the collaboration isn’t always easy to achieve.

One of the copywriters who commented shared a story about how her copy ended up on the wrong page(s) which really affected the end product (especially the website’s SEO). It seems that copy-first can cause problems too if the copywriter isn’t involved in the design process because the designer might not understand exactly where the copy is meant to go.

What the designer says

My husband, Stew, is a web designer, so I thought it was worth asking him for an opinion too.

He seems to think that it’s best if the copy comes before design, or if he can start with at least some guidance on layout/content.

I was talking about it with him just now and he said that it’s often frustrating for web designers to create a design without having the content on hand. This can really delay the process, cause too much back and forth, and waste everyone’s time.

As a minimum, your web designer needs an overview of the pages needed (so basically, a sitemap) and an idea of the type of content that will go on them (generally dot points are acceptable). This will give them a starting point for the design, but it probably won’t be enough to get to the finished product without compromising on function, aesthetic, or the site’s ability to convert.

Of course, it’s common practice for web designers to use filler text (lorem ipsum) until they have all the copy. But this is just to give you (the client) an idea of what the page/site will look like when it’s finished – once the real copy is added, this is when your design really comes to life.

In Stew’s experience (and from what he hears in the web design communities he’s part of), it’s impossible to finish a full web design without content. You just can’t do it.

So… according to the web designer, collaboration or copy first are the ideal scenario. At the very least, you need to have a solid plan for your content before you engage your web designer.

Why collaboration is key

I had a bit of a think about why both web designers and copywriters might prefer collaboration, or at least a partial copy-first approach. From where I stand, it comes down to their goals and how copywriting and design need to support each other to achieve at least some of those goals.

Allow me to explain…

Your web designer’s goals

For the most part, your web designer will be focused on:

  • Aesthetic: is easy and attractive to look at
  • Function: works well and is user-friendly
  • SEO: includes the technical bits needed to be search engine friendly
  • Marketing: design helps your audience to take the right actions and convert
  • Project management: get the project done on time and don’t let it drag on

A good web designer will be able to create a fairly decent website with filler text (good ole Lorem Ipsum) that demonstrates aesthetic and function. But without copy, they’ll get stuck on SEO, marketing, and project management.

From your web designer’s perspective, that last point can be the most important. Web design projects can go on and on while your designer waits for you (or your copywriter) to hand over the copy. This causes havoc with scheduling their other projects and sticking to deadlines. It just ends up making everyone grumpy. And you do not want a grumpy web designer, trust me. 😉

Your copywriter’s goals

During your project, your copywriter will be focused on these aspects:

  • Information: includes all the important bits and communicates clearly
  • Audience: talks to and engages your ideal audience
  • Readability: is technically correct and enjoyable to read
  • SEO: includes the copy bits needed to be search engine friendly
  • Marketing: copy helps your audience to take the right actions and convert
  • Project management: get the project done on time and don’t let it drag on

A good copywriter will be able to write your website copy and visualise the finished product and where that copy might be laid out on your website (even if it doesn’t exist yet). They’ll be able to pull together the information, write with your audience in mind, and make it all read beautifully on paper.

 But - your copy needs to function on screen. Your copywriter won't be able to complete the SEO component or fully realise the marketing potential of your copy without integrating it with design.

Can copy-first work?

Copy-first can work if you have an experienced website copywriter because:

  • They can suggest how your web designer can format the copy rather than trying to fit it into an existing space that a web designer has created
  • They can focus on coming up with great headlines and copy that draws the audience in
  • It ensures that important information, audience experience, and calls to action are supported by the design, not the other way around
  • They can tell your web designer what to do with the SEO bits in the back end (meta description, titles, keywords, etc.)

That said, copy-first isn’t everything. Your copywriter can present the information, try to make it readable, engage your audience with the copy, do the SEO bits, create something that’s totally in line with your marketing, and still… the project can fall apart if your web designer isn’t on the same page.

Collaboration (between your copywriter and designer) is key

In my experience, and from what I’ve heard from many more experienced copywriters and web designers… the ideal situation is if you can get a web designer and copywriter on your team, working on the project at the same time.

They should both be briefed on your goals and come up with the strategy and solution together. Even if they don’t work together in-house, there might be some back and forth to tweak things and make it all perfect.

If you don't collaborate, here's what your process might look like...

But with collaboration, here's a snapshot of what your process might look like:

When they collaborate, your web designer and copywriter might go back and forth many times over until everyone is happy. Your copy and design should work together seamlessly to achieve optimal aesthetics, function, information presentation, audience connection, readability, SEO, and marketing.

What does a copywriting + design collaboration look like?

Let's go into a little more depth. It will, of course, depend on a lot of factors, like:

  • What your project looks like
  • Whether you’re starting from scratch and creating a new brand or refreshing an existing one
  • Your web designer’s usual processes
  • Your copywriter’s usual processes
  • Their availability (they won’t always be able to start at the same time)

But based on my previous collaborations, here’s a process you might follow:

Foundations - Branding

Before you get too deep into copy/design, you need some basic foundations for your business, especially if it's brand new. My lovely friend Sue Parker who is a personal and business branding expert pointed out that I should add this in as it's an important step that should guide everything you do in your business (thanks, Sue!). So, if you haven't created a clear vision for your personal and business brand (including target audience, USP, values, etc.) you'll need to do a bit of work here. If you've already got all this figured out, compile it together into a document so you can hand it to your copywriter and web designer.

Step 1: Goals and strategy

Get clear on your goals and strategy and roughly what you think should go on your website.

Step 2: Dream team

Find a copywriter and web designer who are happy to collaborate.

Step 3: Briefing and proposals

Brief both your copywriter and web designer on your goals/strategy and brand, get their feedback/ideas, and make it clear that you want them to collaborate and communicate throughout (this should give them enough info on the scope to provide you with a quote/estimate).

Step 4: Content plan

Get your copywriter to provide recommendations for how your information is laid out. This is called information architecture and usually includes:

  • Navigation structure and sitemap
  • Page titles
  • Calls to action
  • A rough plan for what might go on each page (some copywriters might do a skeleton draft if that’s part of their process)

Step 5: Website prototype

Send your content plan to your designer so they can do a mock-up, wireframe or prototype.

Step 6: Copy – first draft

Your copywriter will be able to create the first draft of your copy for you to provide feedback and comments.

Step 7: Check and approve website prototype

Your web designer will send you the prototype for feedback and comments.

Step 8: Copy – final

Your copywriter will finalise the copy based on your feedback (they might offer multiple revisions, depending on their process).

Step 9: Final website design

Your web designer will create the final design and add the copy.

Step 10: Fill in the gaps

Your copywriter will check that the copy is in all the right spots and fill in any gaps in the information.

Step 11: Final testing, tweaking, and checking

Your web designer will test the site (and likely find a few more bits and pieces that need copy) and make final tweaks until everyone is happy.

Step 12: Project signoff

The project ends! 🙂 Although chances are, you’ll need your dream team for website maintenance, future promotions, and changes… so make sure you keep in touch.

What if my copywriter offers me web design services?

Occasionally, you might find someone who is willing to do both your copywriting and web design themselves, but… I’d approach with caution. These are both highly specialised skills and require different strengths. It’s tricky to be really good at one, let alone both.

If you only need a basic website, you might find a good copywriter who can set up a website template for you, but if you need something more custom, you’ll need to find help elsewhere.

If it’s the other way around and your web designer offers to write your copy… go carefully. If they’re good with tech/design, they’re usually not great with words ;-). But I’m happy to be proven wrong – you might just find yourself a unicorn.

How to find your dream team

Ideally, find a copywriter and web designer who are willing to work together. Here are a few approaches that can work:

  • They might come as a pre-packaged team who regularly work together, promote each other’s services, or work in an agency
  • You might have to find two stars and match them up yourself
  • Your existing copywriter/web designer might be able to suggest someone they know. Lots of freelancers belong to networks with other freelancers… so they can easily ask for recommendations and find someone they are happy to collaborate with who is a fit for your project.

… which leads me to an exciting announcement 🙂

Maybe you’ve already found it…

I’d like to officially announce my collaboration with my lovely husband, Stew.

We’ve been collaborating (consciously coupled) for 10+ years, married for more than 5, and have worked on website copy/design projects together for most of that time - plus collaborating on a kid or two along the way.

And now we're working together over at our new brand, The Digital Brew. I’ve included more info about this on my website here or you can head directly to The Digital Brew to check out our website packages, which include both copy and design 🎉

Stew and I make a great team – we do projects faster and better because we work together using the process I spoke about here. We keep going until the copy and design are just right. Our clients save time because we project manage ourselves (less go-between) and we collaborate with one another face-to-face just like having your own in-house team.

Plus, we’re not afraid to have a friendly fight or two in the name of making your copywriting and web design as amazing as possible. 🙂

So please have a look and feel free to ask questions about how the copy/design process can work hand in hand.

Over to you…

I know it’s been a LONG post so thanks for sticking through and reading to the end. Hopefully, it’s been helpful and you’ve picked up a tip or two for your future copy/design projects. Whether you're a business owner, copywriter, or web designer yourself, I hope that these tips will save you some time and money.

Before you go, I’d love to know:

Do you prefer copy-first, design-first, or collaboration? Do you agree with what I’ve suggested here? Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.



P.S. If you're looking at refreshing your website copy or launching a new brand, you might want to grab my website copy checklist. It's free!

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One comment on “Copywriting or Web Design – What Comes First?”

  1. Sure. Collaboration is paramount. The web designers and copywriter have to produce a pleasant visual combination together with a compelling message to attract customers.

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