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The ultimate web designer and content writer collaboration playbook

Ok team. It’s pep talk time—huddle in!

When great content writers and great designers are collaborating well, beautiful web design magic happens. The reality is that often this relationship isn’t as good as it could be. This blog is speaking to both designers and writers as equals in a team—like batman and robin other batman—because neither of you is the sidekick.

At Rocketspark we have experience managing the design side of the web design process, but for this article we had some help from Amanda Livingston at Quick Brown Fox Communications to gain insight from a writer’s perspective.

Last month’s partner site of the month award was won by a close collaboration between two of our design partners — one with more of a marketing and content focus (Kim Godfrey from Frank Communications) and the other with more of a design focus (Sara Cameron from Minted Design). Rocketspark Head of Partnerships Jason Tiller interviewed them recently about their collaboration on the award-winning site, so we’ve featured quotes from that interview as well.

Signs of a high-performing writer/designer team ✍️❤️👩🏻‍💻

So what are the secrets of successful web design/content creation teams?

1. A clear strategy and both writer and designer involved early

If the client and the designer get most of the way there with the design and try and force content to fit in a paint by numbers way, the content can be lacking that deeper strategic thinking, shares Amanda from Quick Brown Fox Communications:

“I believe that, in order to achieve optimal results and value for money, a website (or any marketing project) should be based on clearly defined marketing strategy. Many small business clients I work with haven't gone through the process of creating a strategy (either ever or in a long time), and most don't know how, or find the concept too overwhelming.
  
A common misconception is that the writer's role is to make the words flow, fit and read well, but most of my 'writing' projects are actually around 80% research/strategy creation and only 20% writing because it's so vitally important to know WHY - and not just what - you're writing.

It's also important for designers to appreciate that, from the writer's side, it's not just a website - the strategy we produce (or follow) for the website wording will also extend across all other touch points: blogs, social media, newsletters, emails, sales campaigns, and so on. Consistency is key, so getting the website content right is often just one part of a much bigger, overarching, longer-term marketing communications strategy.

I firmly believe that strategy comes first, then design and content should be created in tandem to achieve a set of stated objectives. Often, however, design is already well underway when a writer becomes involved and I'm sure the timing can prove frustrating to both parties. The designer wants the content to fit an established design concept (whether or not space has been created for key messages) and the writer feels curtailed (or fails to end up with a project they'd be happy to display within their own portfolio).”

Amanda Livingston
Quick Brown Fox Communications

2. Align expectations with a conversation before creating

Having a conversation before the content is created can be hugely beneficial. It helps the writer and the designer get on the same page. By aligning expectations on what great content will look like for the client early, it will make the designer’s job easier later to achieve the goals of both parties (great content, great design).

Amanda shares: “If the writer is creating the strategy, does it really make sense for a designer to begin work before seeing it? Equally, if a designer is doing a deep dive on strategy before beginning a project, sharing that information with the writer from the start would be of enormous help.”

Speaking of her collaboration with Kim Godfrey from Frank Communications, Sara Cameron from Minted shares: “We made sure we were on the same page before the full build of the site.

3. Be willing to compromise

Remember that this process will require compromises from both teammates, shares Sara:

“Kim [Frank Communications] is amazing because she’ll adapt [the content] if something is going to work better for design and I think that’s the great thing about having this partnership is you can make it the best of both worlds.  Kim can go back to the client with certain requests and then she can adapt some of the content for what we think is going to work best.”

Sara Cameron
Minted Design

To achieve SEO goals, there might need to be more content on the homepage than the designer would like.

To achieve a great homepage design, you might need to keep the amount of text under each heading quite short and create more sections and headings. As a writer, this might feel different to what you’re used to writing news articles, blog posts or editorials where headings are used less often or not at all.

Great website results for the client come from both getting visits to a website, attracting the visitors to stay and then persuading the visitor to do something (buy, contact, sign up etc). A designer and a content writer can’t do this separately on their own.

Let me clarify one thing. It would be rare for a content writer to nail the best content for design with the first attempt (and designers too for that matter) — and that’s ok. But if the designer takes the first supplied content as the final content locked in stone, there’s no option for improving it together.

Be willing to compromise.

4. A high heading to paragraph ratio

Website visitors don’t like reading long paragraph text, especially on a home page. When writing content for a home page, it is important to break it up into small bite sized blurbs if you want it to get read.

5. The designer has the freedom to propose changes to the content structure

When writing for the web, content in a Google doc can look great but when it’s set up in a design can look like a really boring, overwhelming, text-heavy design. People like to scan headlines so make sure you have lots of great headings that describe the following paragraph. This will draw visitors in to read the content that if left in a long section of text would have been ignored.

Writers—be prepared to receive feedback from the designer on making adjustments to the structure of your content.

Kim from Frank Communications shares: “Sara [Minted Design] is really good at identifying if something is not going to work for the design… I’ll try and chop some content up [to incorporate the design feedback]... One of the advantages of working with Sara… is she has a really good grasp of what we are trying to get across… she still does thinking about how to make the content work in the best way.”

Designers—don’t just take the content verbatim. Amanda shares that “It's very useful for writers to know what's needed (and what doesn't work) from a practical design perspective”. Chat with the writer about breaking up that home page copy with great headings. Show them the way politely and they’ll thank you for it. Just make sure you don’t criticise them in front of the client.

This is usually more acute when it comes to home pages, where attention spans from visitors are mere split seconds. An overly wordy design without engaging headings means visitors are more likely to bounce away from the home page without visiting other pages. Once visitors complete that all-important first click, they may be more willing to read some longer form content on an about us page, specific services pages etc.

6. Grouped content snippets are consistent in length

If you’ve got multiple pieces of content grouped together separately—like a four-column layout with a blurb in each—it is important that before handing it over to the designer, each snippet of text is very close in length (both the headings and the paragraphs). There’s nothing worse than grouping snippets of content together that are variable lengths and this is a part of content creation that is easy to get right in a Google doc.

7. All text is within optimal line lengths

Line length research by usability researchers has proven that optimal line lengths are more appealing to the reader. This means that if your content isn’t at optimal character lengths, it’s less likely to be read. There are two ways to solve line length issues. Either make the column narrower or increase the font size (or both). Once you reduce line length down to the optimal range, if the text is taller than a square shape, it may start looking really strange—like a long pillar of text in the design. If the content supplied is too long between headings, it is very difficult for the designer to solve this.

So how can your team get these winning results? Communication!

As a designer, it can feel a bit helpless to receive content that won’t translate well to a website design. After all, the content writer is the expert at that part aren’t they? No disrespect to content writers, but most aren’t designers. You can help coach them on creating content that is optimised for great design. Many content writers are former journalists, blog authors, writers of editorials etc. Long-form content that is quite different in structure to a business home page.

Likewise, writers can probably help coach designers on the importance of persuasive messaging, headings and SEO rich content. If you approach this relationship with humility and a willingness to learn from each other, you may be pleased with what you find.

Great communication can be achieved in a few ways:

  • The designer could do a rough home page mockup of a potential home page with placeholder lorem ipsum text to give the content writer an idea of the amount of content they had in mind. Ideally this is best done as a conversation between designer and writer (not involving the client).  As placeholder content in a design can be really off putting for clients who struggle to imagine the finished version. A good content writer will be able to tell when the rough mockup has too little space for content and by having a team time out to work this out before any content is written it keeps everyone on the same page.
  • Add a design content review step before starting the design and have a quick huddle to iron out any potential issues that may make design more difficult or less effective.
  • After a first draft of the design, have a quick team huddle on making some changes to the structure of the content to best suit the design. So long as the content is still there and getting the same points across, there should be no issues from the content side. Ideally, this would be before showing the design concept to the client.
  • Designers—you could create a 1 page cheat sheet of guidelines and standards for content writers you work with around length of home page paragraphs per heading, consistent snippet length for groups of side by side content, giving every section, blurb or snippet a heading, keeping headings short or to one line if they’re likely to be in a multi column layout. This is something you could evolve with each project. If this isn’t too lengthy, most content writers should be happy to have some guidance on your preferences.
  • Writers—you could provide some structural variation options of content that says the same thing with slightly different layout or breakdown of headings. The client won’t think anything of it but it gives the designers options of trying things in different ways.
  • Think about a weekly quick checkin. A 10 minute catchup to make sure you’re on the same page as you work on content and design will help align both of you to the strategy and avoid going in different directions.

This may seem like a lot more work but without this additional communication, the end result won’t be as good, the client will be less delighted and the designer will spend a lot more time on the design. If the designer feels like they’re spending a lot of time “fixing” the content to work with the design or toiling over the design to fit the content, they’ll feel less like recommending or working with that content writer in future.

“It comes down to communication.  Us being able to communicate really well together so it works for both of us in terms of the design and what’s being said… With having a good process, you know what to expect of each other.  We both want the best outcome for the client as well.  I know with this client, the colour scheme was quite different to what their branding colours were and Kim really liked it and could see the thinking behind it too.  So being able to back each other up with that was good too.” Sara Cameron | Minted Design

It is difficult for designers and writers to have this relationship with someone you’ve only worked with once and will never work with again. The best results will come from an ongoing peer-coaching relationship where writer educates designer on great content and designer educates the writer on content that will allow for great design.

“We have a similar style of working.  Similar standards. Sara’s standard of work is really high.  I’ve been called a control freak before so that complements each other as well. Trust in the work—Sara’s output we are always happy with so it makes it easy to keep coming back.” Kim Godfrey | Frank Communications

What if I don’t have any relationship with the other party and the client is the go-between?

This can be a risky approach, shares Amanda: “Who is guiding the client through that process if they don't come to you with a clear strategy to create the brief from? If there's no agreed strategy or clear objectives, it's likely that designer and writer can veer off in different directions from day one.

Designers—rather than falling on your sword apple pencil and settling for content that won’t work well in the design, my advice here is to break up the content differently to what was supplied. This may require you to add in some additional “Proposed” headings. Then once the design is done, explain the changes to the client and why you’ve made them (possibly even showing a before and after of making the changes vs keeping the content verbatim)—most clients will be glad you’ve used your initiative.

Just be cautious about removing any supplied content. If the client is paying money for the content, they’ll feel a bit ripped off if you deem some of that content unworthy to be used.

Writers—suggest to the client that the designer may need to adjust the structure of the content slightly but that so long as they don’t remove any content, then that’s fine. You could also offer to the client that you’re happy to review the content in situ once the designer has created their home page concept.

A winning content and design team gets results

By working together as a team, the website you create together for your client will blow them away. Content that looks great in a Google doc and terrible on a website isn’t great content at all and design that looks great until the content is added isn’t great design. You’re in this together, so why not put in the training to become a winning team.

Great results in this area will give you fantastic testimonials, examples for your portfolio that will help you sell more of your services and an advocate on the other side of the design/content fence that is more than happy to recommend you.