Chicken or egg? Copy or design?

By Carl Genatossio
September 16, 2020

Chicken or egg? Copy or design?

It’s a debate that has been going on since long before “copy” became “content,” kids.

In a recent meeting with our copy/editor team, the topic was an infographic. As such things go, the initial wireframe was clean, the copy amount at the edge of minimal. All-in-all, the piece looked well balanced.

The copywriter relayed a comment the designer made in a previous meeting—“We need more copy, to fill the space”—and a lively discussion ensued. The ACD defended the minimal copy and explained that age-old idea that less is more, especially when it comes to infographics.

When asked my thoughts, I became animated as if I had a canned presentation in my head. I have been a designer, art director, or creative director for a long time, and I’ve always held a strong opinion on the design/copy issue.

I have been in many situations, teamed with a new writer partner, who—after being briefed on a project—would say to me, “Why don’t you sketch something, so I can write to it?”

My response is always, “Let’s figure out what we want to say before putting any visuals to this.”

In this brave new world where messages are spun out into the world and live for mere minutes, I’ve heard graphic designers say, “I don’t do words, I do design.”

I believe that the message is key and is obviously the reason for any communication. Decorating can only get you so far. Words act as an outline for design. Great visuals are inspired by great words.

In B2B technology marketing, the copy can be extremely dry, making it a real challenge to design for. The key to successful projects lies in making the complex simple. A balance of clean, elegant design along with clear, uncluttered copy is always a winning formula.

The answer is COLLABORATE!


When copy and design work together on a data sheet, landing page, banner ad, or website, all come together as one fluid communication that takes the reader from beginning to end seamlessly with understanding and retention.

In a September 2013 article in Smashing Magazine, Sam Wright, founder of Blink, states: "Design is a process that should happen with content, not just for it, and the practice of creating a page full of lorem ipsum and getting the copywriter to fill in the blanks just doesn’t cut it anymore…. No matter how clearly laid out a design is or how elegant the infographics are, our number one visual tool for relaying information to the audience is well-written text."

He’s right, but going back through almost a century of advertising, design, and marketing communications, “getting the copywriter to fill in the blanks” has never cut it. Thinking about message and visuals together has always made the most meaningful work.

In the world that calls it communication design, I think the message is finally getting through. Perhaps we should stop calling it “graphic design” altogether, for you are actually designing communications.