Design vs copy slam down. Who are you backing?
Updated: Jul 14
Design vs copy. You know you need both. But which is going to make most difference to your brand? Which one is more likely to grab attention? Which one will help you win over customers?
Which one would you put your money on?
In the red corner, design. Bright, bold and eye-catching. Design makes a strong first impression and dazzles the audience. But it’s all a matter of taste. The unpredictable whims of customers are kryptonite to design - where good style is in the eye of the beholder.
In the blue corner, copy. Copy isn’t as in-your-face as design. Copy works by stealth. It uses persuasive trickery, emotional blackmail, earworms, and behavioural triggers to get its way. It’s never out for the count, coming back again and again with more and more nudges and calls to action.
So where do you place your bets when it comes to winning over customers?
Round 1: design hooks, copy jabs
Design is immediate. We’re hooked by bold colours, strong images and distinctive typefaces. All add up to a high impact first impression.
But, beyond the initial hook, design can’t deliver much more. You need words to jab your audience, to provoke them. With words, you can take them by surprise and make them think about your message.
Take the Economist ads. Red and white are striking and we can’t help but look. The red screams urgent – it really encourages people to stop and read. But only copy knows exactly where to hit the target audience for ultimate impact.
Round 2 – design draws us in, copy completes
Imagine a charity trying to raise money for starving children. You can probably picture the image they’d use to try and hook their audience. Sadly, we’re desensitised. We can easily ignore this imagery and move on with our lives.
What happens when we add a story? Stories have the power to make us feel something. Telling stories evokes emotion and gives us something we can relate to. That’s why they’re so powerful.
In this ad from Save The Children, the picture is touching but it's Meera’s story that pulls at our heartstrings. It creates empathy. Possibly even guilt. The emotions that trigger us to think about donating. Bonus points for copy!
Round 3 – design shows, copy explains
Imagine flicking through a holiday brochure. The glossy spreads show off ocean views, sandy beaches and delicious food. But would you book on this alone? Probably not. Great travel copy adds benefits: how you'll feel when you wiggle your toes in the sand, how that cocktail will complete an evening you'll treasure forever.
A picture may well be worth a thousand words, but a few words on the side can make all the difference.
This applies to products and services too. Your design can do a brilliant job of showing features, but your audience is on the hunt for benefits.
Monzo is a brilliant example of design that shows the reader what the app is for and copy explains how it works and adds benefits.
Round 4 – design identifies, words define
You need people to recognise your product on the shelf, to know your logo, to see a certain colour and think of your brand.
From a logo, you can sometimes guess what a brand might stand for. You might infer from the Jaguar logo that the cars are powerful. Or you might look at the PETA logo and guess they must like animals.
But the words a company uses are what gives the brand enduring value. The logo may change but great straplines live on.
Nike is the perfect example. The tick alone is recognisable by millions, but “just do it” emphasises the attitude behind the brand and their mission to incentivise atheletes of all levels.
It’s a tie!
There isn’t a clear-cut winner. Design and copy aren't really in competition, it can just seem that way. Especially when you have to weigh up where to spend your marketing budget.
The bells and whistles of design make a more strident claim for your money, but investing in copy as an equal partner will pay dividends too.
Copy and design have different strengths and play different roles in persuading your customer. Something to consider when planning your next project.
If you take away anything from this post:
Design creates recognition, copy gives it meaning
Support your visuals with stories and vice versa
Use design to show and copy to explain
Complete your brand identity with copy that matches your values
Invest in both. Don’t let copy be the poor relation.
Thinking about giving your website a makeover? You might want to read our blog on how to make sure your copy is fit for purpose.