designing ebooks and other fun things

What’s more important, what you say or how you say it?

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So I had one of those rather pointless discussions about content and design with an SEO person a few days ago. Pointless, because I don’t think he ever understood what I was trying to say with my “content and design should be one” statement.

And after listening to my argument, he said: “Sure, you’re right, design is important because it attracts visitors. But content is what keeps them there!” and happily proceeded to tweet at random people with #SEO hashtags, completely missing the point.

I shrugged and moved on, but it got me thinking…

Message vs. execution.
Content vs. design.
What you say vs. How you say it.

Everywhere you look, there are heated discussions on which one is more important. Not even the advertising industry’s gurus and founders agree on this one.

David Ogilvy, often referred to as the Father of Advertising, stated:

What you say in advertising is more important than how you say it.

(To give credit where it’s due, this may have been true in the 1960s, when advertising was a new shiny thing, and competition was scarce, when new was indeed new, and when people were more receptive to marketing messages.)

Bill Bernbach, the author of many creative breakthrough campaigns (if you watch Mad Men, there are plenty of references to Bernbach sprinkled in the show), claimed that it’s not what you say, but how you say it:

The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you are saying, and they can’t know what you are saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you are not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.

So which is it?

I say both.

(Though the above quote does imply that there is a starting point — the truth, the message. The What.)

There is no way just a dry description of a feature can be emotionally attractive to a potential customer; just as there is no way a designer can decide what to emphasize, without understanding the benefit — truly understanding it.

Content and design, working together, to the extent where the borders are blurred and you can’t tell where one ends and the other starts. That’s what I mean by both.

You have all heard the story of a blind man and a stranger, right?
The one where he starts out asking for coins with a simple cardboard like this:

We know how the story goes: the stranger comes by and changes the phrase on the cardboard, which leads many more people to leave some coins for the blind man.

But let’s pretend for a second that this is happening today, in our overwhelmed-by-messages world, and that instead of that stranger, a marketing team happened to walk by and wanted to help — and attract the attention even of those not yet close enough to read the words.

And since nowadays, simply changing the phrase may not be enough — making it more noticeable is almost always the first step — they call a designer to enhance it visually.

The designer might come up with something like this:

Sure, that would be visible from across the street. Sure, more people would notice it. But would more people actually be moved to give the man a coin? Somehow, I don’t really think so.

The design could have taken it a step further, tried to provide a visual example, be more specific about what the man is asking, ending up with something like this:

Is that clearer? Yep. Visible across the street? Yep.
But more emotionally appealing? No, not really.

Creating something that attracts attention and appeals to our emotions would require our designer to wear the hat of that stranger from the story for a bit. (Or to call a copywriter friend, if he is out of ideas.) Not to just go with the original headline given to him by the blind man, but to ask how that message can be injected with more feeling, more emotion — and not simply more design elements.

And then, something like this might be born:

Bright and visible from a distance. With an unexpected message not many can resist.
The underlying meaning is the same one as the original phrase, but the overall impact isn’t.

Image working together with the content, not separate pieces stitched together.
And while in the pure design sense, the red background with white lettering would be considered aesthetically more appealing, I dare you to find someone who would be more moved by that than by this.

So what does that have to do with your message?

I know that the example is rather strong and drastic, but the main point is valid for all kinds of messages and situations:

Effective design is not just about adding visual elements, or prettifying. The presentation that naturally, unobtrusively integrates with the message itself is the kind that works best.

With both words and images — content and design.

And then, there is no longer a need to argue which is more important.

2 Comments on this Post.

  1. Hi Lisa

    So well put and just what I would expect from you :-) I agree that we need both and really all these people who are trying to prove a point without stopping to think about what they are saying….I tend to now bounce off their sites.

    I know with my very simple site that people still came over and apparently enjoyed reading my posts cos they are still coming back to read whatever is next published. However, since I’ve had the upgrade they do admit it looks more professional and much to my relief, still think it is welcoming.

    I like your examples too showing us what is much more inviting and effective. Thanks for sharing Lisa. Appreciated.

    Patricia Perth Australia

    • Thanks so much for the compliments Patricia!

      So many focus on the wrong things, or irrelevant details… And this isn’t just websites, it’s true with any medium. When often turning around the message and the presentation of it doesn’t take much… just some extra thought and care.

      And yes, your site is indeed looking more professional. (though of course there is still room for improvement.. but you knew I’d say that!)

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