Why Content-Driven Web Development Trumps Design-First Process

So, you have a message you want to shout to the world, right? Well, a content-driven web development process will help you do exactly that. And with far more Rah-Rah-Rah than a design-first process can muster.

Unfortunately, clients who aren’t familiar with this ideas-first method might be frustrated when realization strikes: You mean I can’t get my hands on the design…now?


And I get it. Design is beautiful—it’s exciting to play with color, typography and layout.

So, developing content without those trappings may seem tedious, but if content comes first, you’re more likely to end up with a website that effectively drives traffic, delivers on user expectations, and reinforces your brand—and all with fewer headaches and unexpected expenses.

So, let’s explore why content-first is the way to go, even if it might feel uncomfortable for some.

In future posts, we’ll explore the different ways a web developer might approach a content-driven process, and the pros and cons of each.

Now, to the wibbly wobbly world of content-driven development…

Developing content, sans design

Frenzy sometimes sets in as clients feel directionless without a design to guide them. (You won’t feel that way, of course, because you’ll understand the method behind the madness.)

They question how and where to begin, because they’re operating on the old, “I need to see it first,” expectation. In essence, they want to select the shoe and then find the foot to match.

And, if they’re not careful, their Cinderella could wind up looking like a Drizella.

So, if you’re worried about planning out content or beginning the writing process without a picture in your head, remember that your content is the art direction—and it informs your designer’s entire process.

They build the shoe to fit your foot.

If you’re working with a great designer, they’ll be able to display your information in a way that compliments your message and reinforces your brand. In fact, your content might inspire interesting elements that could not have been conceived without it.

It’s a smarter, more time and cost-efficient way to work.

Don’t believe me?

Why design-first approaches fail clients

In the rush to complete a web project and bill a client, sometimes developers move forward with design—heck, they’ll even build templates—all without clear content direction, only to discover major flaws and important missing elements.

Not that these issues couldn’t be somewhat rectified after-the-fact, but a content-first development process would have identified those needs from the get-go. It would have saved the back-and-forthing between clients, developers and designers, as they discussed, estimated and evaluated new solutions.

And time is money.

This backwards approach doesn’t just cost you money, though.

There’s an expectation that when designs are turned over to the front-end developer, and the web content begins to flow in, that they’ll be able to shoehorn in any missing elements. Unfortunately, the new “pieces” don’t always fit, which can result in messy code and a clunky, mish-mashed look and feel—or what’s often called a “Frankenstein aesthetic.” All, which you’ll probably need to rectify later. (Back to that whole “time and money” thing.)

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster

Prioritizing content development, however, will help avoid those hiccups that cost you money and potentially postpone your website launch.

So, let go of those old design-first notions.

As web designer, Jeffrey Zeldman, once said, “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

And decoration doesn’t drive home your message.

Content does.