Content is more important than design – do we need any more proof?

In April I wrote an article for Smashing Magazine entitled ‘Designing for the Future Web‘. In it I laid out my thoughts and opinions on how our experience of the web would change over the next few years, and how we would need to adapt our thinking around design and content. The main points of the article were:

  1. The number of devices connected to the internet would grow
  2. We would not be able to predict with any certainty where or how our sites would be seen
  3. To maintain a seamless customer experience, users should be able to have the same core experience regardless of the device, and switching from one to the other should present no challenge.
  4. To design for this we would need to concentrate on content structure first and visual design second, creating richer experiences for more capable devices.

Unsurprisingly, considering the general audience demographic of Smashing Magazine, this didn’t go down well with some of the readers. My favourite comments being:

i feel you my friend, as far from i know design is dead and designer swept away by the multitude of the wave. im thinking doing some admin/ Logistic work rather than be a creative. suck my balls corporate people – YR


…. that’s Fking RETARDED, please get better authors on here…. – Nick

Yes, I have taken that last comment slightly out of context, but it tickled me, what can you do? (He was actually talking about my views on keeping JavaScript off of first generation mobile phones).

Well, I’ll ready myself for more of the same, because, without a doubt, content is more important than design.

Go on then, tell us why

The internet has always been a joined up medium. HTML was designed to link together documents to create a ‘web’ of content that could be searched and explored.

Since the days of CERN, the amount of content that has been created has grown in unspeakably large volumes, to the point where no human could ever possibly know where to find the content they need. So we developed search engines to help us with this. They crawled and indexed on our behalf so that we could bring information to us when we needed it. And this is the crux of it: the right information when we need it.

We’ve now reached a point where the ability to access information is driving changes in the products and services that are being developed, and in our own behaviour.

Product evolution

In iOS5, Safari has finally gained the same ‘Reader’ functionality that is available on the Mac OSX version. Pressing the ‘Reader’ button will strip all design from the page and publish only the content, resized and restyled. No fancy fonts, just Georgia. It’s like you’re reading a page from a paperback. If you like it, but don’t have the time to finish it, just save it for later.

Why have they introduced this? Because Apple understands that you go to sites to consume information. That content is valuable as a traffic driver, and in turn, a revenue generator. So the experience of reading that content on a mobile devices must be as clear and simple as possible.

Service evolution

The concept that information is always available, wherever we are, is defining a new set of services. Companies like FourSquare could not have existed a few years ago, but the broad availability of hardware-specific functionality such as geo-location has changed the game. Their partnership with Groupon to provide localised real-time deals starts to hit the mark, despite the issues with the Groupon IPO. These service are not about design, they are about content. Targeted content.

Behaviour change

The evolutions in products and services are in turn driving a behaviour change. Our ability to access information wherever we are is funnelling into the purchase process. We check prices and specification in-store at the point of purchase, we may even be swayed from one brand to another, or one shop to another, by the targeted offers we receive.  Targeted location-aware, identity-aware content is turning us into savvy consumers.

The result…

We’re finally able to make good on the marketer’s dream: the ability to deliver the right  content to the right person at the right time, driving sales and adding value to the purchasing process.

It’s clear, design is the enabler not the driver; users don’t need design, they need information that benefits them in a clear and tangible way.

So, sorry designers, but content is more important than design.

4 thoughts on “Content is more important than design – do we need any more proof?

  1. That’s effin’ RETARDED! Get better writers on your blog. 😉

    Smashing is very hit or miss. And I can’t quite figure out yet if people like Paul Boag are slumming it when they write there or if they’re honestly trying to up the quality on a site that holds a high mind-share among young webbies. I _have_ seen some really good stuff there. But they have yet to develop the kind of brand that makes me want to click every link I see pointing to their content. (There’s that word again.)

    Don’t let the haters get you down. I’d say what you’ve written above is a very succinct summation of the main point I took away from the Breaking Development conference this past September in Nashville. (There was another event in Dallas i April–during the time you would have been writing you Smashing piece–that I probably also largely supports your position here, but I wasn’t at that one to say for sure.)

    A few people hung out around Nashville for an extra week after the conference and produced which covers the same ground you’re covering here. I’m not saying that to mean “Other people have already said this.” What I mean is the people who agree with you write books and present at conferences. The people that disagree with you leave childish comments on the internet.

    1. Thanks for your comment Derek, it’s the best one I’ve had in ages!

      I had a look at a while back; I agree, it’s right in line with what I was trying to get to in the Smashing article. For me, it seems the only sensible way to proceed at the moment (and in the future of course). It’s good to know that there are people out there who share the same views.

      I wasn’t aware of the Breaking Development conference, but having visited at the site, it looks really good. Did you attend all three days?


  2. I totally agree with you James. Content is more important than design, period. Web surfing is like a journey from point A to point B which is the destination and represents the information or content a web user is searching for. Design can be viewed at the means to get to point B, varying from walking, driving, sailing or flying in first class to the destination/content.

  3. Completely agree. Although it’s always nice to be getting your information from a source that’s easy on the eye, at the end of the day I just need to be able to find the information I’m after quickly.

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