Content comes in many shapes and sizes:
By far the most common type of content on the internet, though, is words. Words are easy to create, easy to consume, and unlike all of the above types of content, can reflow to fit whatever size screen you throw at them. They're the backbone of the web, as Mig Reyes says:
Click away from the pen tool... Put down your Pantone book... Stop rearranging your layers... Close your stock texture folder... Log out of your Dribbble... And god dammit, hug your copywriter... Designing for the web is still about words.
Words aren't as flashy as photos, videos, or illustrations, but they're just as if not more important, depending on the context. Businesses have been created off the back of words. Look at any newspaper, for one, but also at websites like Stratechery. Ben Thompson writes articles about the tech industry. He charges money for access, and people pay him. Thousands of people trust his take on tech, enough for him to earn a living, and it was all built on words.
Part of the beauty of words is that, as long as you can write, the internet makes it very easy for you to put them in a place where anyone can see them. Photography, videography, and illustration all have higher barriers to entry, and more costs associated with storing and serving content.
Justin Jackson very passionately shows that words are extremely versatile, and often are the only thing you need to be successful, to reach people, to make a living.
We've become obsessed with fancy designs, responsive layouts, and scripts that do magical things. But the most powerful tool on the web is still words ... Think about all the things you could communicate with a simple page like this. If you're a businessperson, you could sell something. If you're a teacher, you could teach something. If you're an artist, you could show something you've made. And if your words are good, people will read them. If you're a web designer, I challenge you to think about the words first ... Just start with one page, with a single focus. Write it and publish it, and then iterate on that. Every time you're about to add something, ask yourself: does this help me communicate better? Will that additional styling, image, or hyperlink give my audience more understanding? If the answer is "no," don't add it.
In Writing for Designers, Scott Kubie shares the secret behind words.
Words are one of the most powerful design materials available. They convey deeply complex meanings in a compact space. They load fast. They're easy to manipulate and easy to transmit.
I emailed Jonas Downey at Basecamp to ask about their approach to design. He explained that at Basecamp they prefer to use words if they can get away with it. If you're familiar with their products, you'll know that in most cases, they can.
[One of our design principles is] preferring good copywriting, and taking the time and space to explain things with words, instead of making minimalist UIs with lots of unlabeled buttons, etc. (Although we're still guilty of having a few of those.)
But even when you need to use images, you still need words. Youtube's content is videos, but there are words everywhere. The title, the description, the comments, the interface copy. Youtube wouldn't work if those videos weren't surrounded by words. Frank Chimero points out how important words are even in a field that's thought of as visual:
Graphic design has just as much to do with words as it does with pictures, and a lot of my favorite designers come to design from the world of words instead of the world of pictures.
Beyond the usefulness of words is the effect they can have in our minds. Images often show us something exact: A photograph of a bowl of fruit, for example. There's not much room for imagination or engaging with the content when it's so precise. Illustrations move away from that, and abstract art even further. But words are at the far end of the spectrum, where the imagination can easily take over from the content.
Christian Heilmann makes the point very convincingly:
Words are powerful, they spark a theatre in the head. People reading your words make their own pictures at a speed pictures could never be transmitted. Instead of giving one image you create a gallery, one that you will never see, but your readers do. And this gallery is very personal to them and thus gets remembered much more ... Words are beautiful. Paint with them, compose with them, woo people with them.
On his website, Mark Pollard makes a similar point:
words can do anything. A novel’s words can take us into someone else’s life. Two words can seal a promise. Words can start and end marriages, deals, and wars. One word can forever follow a newborn. A magic word can help a child get what she needs. Final words can give peace to a life as it ends.
Frank Chimero brings the same point a little closer to Earth, and suggests that more words might be better than fewer for communicating something clearly, which might not be what you assume when you hear "simple design":
Sometimes puffy writing is more efficient communication, because it's the best way to get a complex idea through. I'm learning to appreciate that the clear thing isn't always the simple thing.
There's a temptation to believe that as long as the visual style of the words - the typography - is good enough, you don't need to pay much attention to the words themselves. Beautiful things will distract your users, won't they? Probably not. As Frank Chimero suggests, if you haven't got the words right you can't fix it in other ways. It's still a pig, even in lipstick.
Once a designer has the typographic skills in their pocket, anyone with their head on straight realizes ugly words in beautiful typefaces are still pretty dumb. I tripped over this observation while struggling to make good designs and clear illustrations for idiotic articles and muddled ideas. I then fell into something I'm still attempting to understand: words are the most explicit example of clear thinking.
I want to be very clear: Words have their place, and I think that place is larger than many designers assume. I do not want to suggest, though, that other types of content don't have their place. As Instagram, Apple Music, Youtube, and Wikihow prove, the internet would be worse off if content other than words didn't exist. But, start with the words, and see if they're not enough.Minimal → ← Content first Back to the table of contents