You’ve spent months working on a design for a brand new website.
Many moodboards and several design revision rounds later, the client has finally approved a design. They are blissfully happy. You feel joy.
You didn’t think it would really be that easy, did you?
It turns out your victory is short-lived. The client informs you that the copy is still being drafted; they’re waiting for their colleagues to finish drafting it and they need the CEO’s approval to move forward.
You wait patiently.
Months go by and out of nowhere, all of the copy for the new website drops in your inbox.
The carefully selected character limit you set as guidelines in the wireframes and design to help the client? Gone.
The original target launch date? Discarded.
It’s a week before launch. Now you’re stuck with no more time or budget to accommodate type. You retrofit up until the deadline. You are tired and no amount of La Croix or La Colombe’s draft lattes will get you through this abyss.
However, there is another option. We realized this recurring project narrative didn’t have to be the only story told.
Copy, like all other elements of a project, requires planning and foresight. It seems that no matter how much of that planning and foresight that goes into the creation of a new digital product, obtaining and implementing copy, regardless of if you or the client are on the hook for content entry, is always at risk of falling through the cracks. What gradually became abundantly clear was that just because we weren’t the ones writing the actual copy didn’t mean we weren’t accountable for its timely integration.
Any designer worth their salt knows that copy has to be considered as much, if not more so, than other brand elements. Words have power. Design becomes much more challenging, however, when copy isn’t available until halfway through a project.
So, how do we solve for this? Over this past year, our team has experimented with different ways to stay on top of all things copy-related. Below is a list of principles we’ve started incorporating to ensure copy gets implemented on time and as part of the design.
Below are some tactics we’ve picked up overtime to help ensure the success of a project, at least when it comes to copy.
1. Copy should be one of the first things you bring up with a client.
Don’t laugh. It’s not funny, and I love a good joke. If we’re not scoped to write the copy for a digital product, we bring it up during the project kickoff meeting.
We tend to ask things like:
- Who will be writing the copy for this [product]?
- Is there any established timeline for it?
- How much time do you anticipate this taking to complete?
- When should we expect it?
These questions serve several purposes. First, these questions are often the first time the client has ever been asked about copy. It forces them to get mobilized — assign a person or team, and coordinate timelines. Second, it helps establish buy-in. We’ve brought up the fact that we will be working with the client to achieve this product together — that sounds nice during a pitch and a proposal, but these questions help serve as one of the first steps in helping establish that partnership. Third, it helps create accountability. It establishes that this project’s goals and our desired timeline can be met — but that there needs to be accountability on both sides for that to happen.
2. Identify who will actually be writing the copy on the partner/client team.
This assignee is your main point of contact. Once established, you can reach out to them personally to give them a heads up about project benchmarks and key dates — and they can do the same for you. Constant communication makes them feel included in the process and builds camaraderie.
3. Create a content calendar, separate from any other project timeline/plan.
This can be as detailed or vague as you prefer. We’ve found it most helpful to align copy due dates with key project benchmarks.
4. Have a separate kickoff call with the client’s content lead and ask him or her about any preferred workflow strategy and potential barriers.
From there, you can work to create a timeline separate from, but in conjunction with, the overall project timeline that works well for both teams. We like Teamgantt and Google calendar reminders. Consistent check-ins specific to content help ensure that both sides are following through on the agreed upon deadlines and help remind both teams to actually do the work.
5. Use the content entry tool that your client is most comfortable with. When clients ask how you prefer to receive content, it’s important to gauge how comfortable they feel providing it to you in different formats.
Sometimes a client will ask us what format we prefer to receive copy. In reality, this question relates back to the client, not you. We realized this difference after asking a client who was not very technologically savvy to enter copy on an Invision prototype using the commenting tool. We recorded a tutorial and sent over instructions, thinking we were clever and could potentially implement this on all projects going forward. This method failed — the client entered only one page worth of content, got frustrated and ended up sending us piecemeal Word documents for the rest of the copy.
It doesn’t have to be a one size-fits-all approach. After polling our entire team, the preferred way to receive copy from a client is in some editable and organized form that follows the design structure of the product from top to bottom. It doesn’t have to look pretty, it just has to work and make sense to everyone working with it. AKA, Google Docs for the win.
6. If you receive copy in partial or draft form, continue to update the design throughout the entirety of the project.
This might feel like a time suck in the moment, especially after design has been finalized revision rounds have technically finished, but it could potentially save many, many hours in the long run. As a designer, you are the one most knowledgeable about a product’s design. If development hasn’t started, you know what subtle changes the client has asked to make in the copy better than anyone else on the project team (but only then, let’s not get carried away). By always entering the most up to date content in the design, you save yourself and your team from potential version control hell and missing minor changes here and there later on. In addition, you’re also avoiding the enormous headache of sifting through all client correspondence and design drafts. This doesn’t even become an issue if the most recent version of the design also includes the most recent version of the client’s copy.
7. Pause the project (*gasps*), if necessary, until you have all or most of the copy needed.
This might be the most controversial item included on this list and is one that we have not always been able to stick to. After all, sticking to a timeline means launching a project on schedule. However, if a client doesn’t have the copy required for the project, a designer cannot do his or her job as successfully as possible without thinking about all aspects that will affect a product’s design. This could cause massive retrofitting and text feeling unpleasant.
Much of the creativity on a website or app can come from playing with the type. If copy isn’t even considered until midway or near the end of a project, one could miss out on doing some pretty cool design with type in mind. Stronger typographical solutions can be achieved when content is predefined.