It used to be that when you designed a website, you started with the visuals, and then fit the copy into the space available. A lot of designers I work with still start projects with this in mind — and with print design, it’s very much a consideration.
The web, however, has evolved. It’s OK that pages have an almost limitless height. They should be designed to accommodate large amounts of text and images. Even usability curmudgeons like Jakob Nielsen admit that scrolling has become a natural and expected user behavior. The popularity of long-form blogs and the prevalence of scroll wheels and (more recently) multitouch trackpads in computer hardware has made scrolling easier and more obvious to the user.
True, people pay more attention to the stuff at the top of the page, but it’s no longer reasonable to assume that users just won’t scroll. The net effect is stronger than you might realize: Instead of scrolling just being OK, it means you need a Content Strategy.
Content Strategy is just a fancy way of saying “figure out what you want your site to say first, and then design a kick-ass way to present it to visitors.”
Jeffrey Zeldman, king of web standards, says that having professional writers and editors on board during the design process is helpful — if not critical. During the planning process, writers can identify the kinds and tone of the copy necessary for the site. Writing something light and fun, for example, is very different than writing serious medical information. Having writers and editors working with the designers early on means that the design can accurately reflect the tone of the copy, and also determine the position and size of the copy in-layout.
I’ve said on several occasions that having an editor or copywriter on staff (or part of your project) is critical — more critical, I daresay, than the designer or developer you choose. If customers, visitors, and clients can’t understand what your business offers, how are they going to feel comfortable handing over their hard-earned money to you? If they read copy riddled with spelling and basic grammar errors, how will they have confidence in the product or service you sell?
If there’s one thing to take away from this post, it’s sort out your content first. Know what you’re going to say before you say it, and make sure you’re saying it well.