What’s More Important: Copy or Design?

December 1st, 2008 by Bob Bly

When the ad’s intent is to generate a response, copy trumps art, says marketing consultant Ruth Stevens, writing in Direct (12/08, p. 16).

In a visual society, why is copy more important than graphics?

“When the ad’s intent is to motivate a response, it’s about selling, persuasion, and the call to action,” writes Stevens. “These appeals are delivered in words and sentences.”

According to Stevens, that makes copywriters more important than designers in marketing.

“The great direct response creative directors are all from the copy side,” she says. “Art directors are their partners, but the copywriters rule the roost.”

Do these statements strike you as a tad controversial or confrontational?

Is copy really more important than design in direct marketing, online or offline?

If so, is the contribution of the copywriter more important than the contribution of the graphic artist in direct marketing?

Or is even discussing the issue counter-productive? Is it more accurate — and useful — to say each is important, and each depends upon the other for success?

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30 responses about “What’s More Important: Copy or Design?”

  1. Dianna Huff said:

    Bob,

    The best book written on this topic is, “Type and Layout: How typography and design can get your message across — or get in the way” by Colin Wheildon.

    (It goes by another title now.)

    Wheildon did all kinds of studies which proved that poor design lowers reader comprehension.

    Bottom line: You can have great copy but the design can render it virtually unreadable.

    (Tom Collins, who writes the Makeover Maven column for Direct, writes about this topic a lot.)

  2. dianacacy said:

    What you said here:
    “Or is even discussing the issue counter-productive? Is it more accurate — and useful — to say each is important, and each depends upon the other for success?”

    You need both for a good response. Bad copy can nullify the effects of good design and vice versa.

    That makes them even in my book. I just think the copy needs to come first so you know what design to partner with it.

  3. Jim Logan said:

    I believe both are required and equally important. Design is important to grab attention and convey a “feeling” of legitimacy and worthiness to read. Copy is important to make an argument and offer a call to action.

    The subject of a great test…

  4. Ken said:

    Are copy and design equally important?
    If you took away the design aspect but kept the copy, would you make any sales?
    Now, if you had the greatest design in the world, but no words, would you make any sales?
    Good design is a wonderful compliment to good copy, but I don’t know how there can be any argument as to which is more important…

  5. Louis Burns said:

    Ken said it. If you had to go with one or the other, you’d go with copy. People send plain text letters and emails every day. I’ve never heard of anyone only sending a picture expecting to make sales.

    It IS a team effort though. Either one can blow a promotion. Is a running back more important than a lineman? Probably. But both can make or break a play.

  6. Fiona Fell - The Profit Maximising Web Geek said:

    Copy and Design both have their place.

    Copy grabs the reader and moves thaem towards action.

    Design supports the presentaiton of the copy.

    Design is the bullet points, indents, unerlining, italics, bold and colour.

    Copy is the items in the list and the words used to express them.

    Without one the other falls down.

  7. Dianna Huff said:

    But pictures without words sell things every single day . . . as any parent of a two-year old can tell you.

    My son knew the logos for all sorts of things long before he could read.

  8. Note Taking Nerd said:

    Your package, email or web page has 3-7 seconds of air in it’s tank once it lands in someones face.

    If it’s a direct mail package it better not scream boring form letter from faceless corporation. If it does, consider it dead on arrival.

    If your email hits me and you’ve typed all the way across the screen I want to hit you. I hate reading like this and if you’re not saying something that’s gonna make my life better in 3-7 seconds, I’m gone.

    If I get to your web page and it’s designed in a way that doesn’t tell me instantly that shows me you have what I’m looking for, I’m getting one step closer to the door with every second I don’t see what you can do for me.

    If I had to choose between design or copy, I’d definitely go with copy.

    But I know someone’s first impression of my package can make the difference between my copy be reading read by my prospect or by the seagulls out at the landfill.

    Copy can work alone but without proper graphic or web design your glorious copy might never meet face to face with your ideal prospect.

    Note Taking Nerd Numba 2
    http://www.mynotetakingnerd.wordpress.com

  9. Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan said:

    I think it also depends on what we’re selling. Junk food can be sold using images only. McDonald’s or other suspicious food-looking gunk doesn’t really need much explanation. They are 100% emotional impulse purchases made by laypeople.

    But a security system or web design services for $10,000 may need a bit more explanation and different kind of images. And the images won’t be the company’s logo. And these babies are considered purchases, often bought by skilled buyers.

    So, I think success lies in the synergy of copy and images but they must be the right type of images.

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  11. Bob Bly said:

    DH: Words without pictures sell things every day, too: text e-mails, text e-zine ads, sales letters, classified ads, radio commercials. But for your B2B clients, if you could only have one — pictures or words — which would you select?

  12. Stacey said:

    Even as a copywriter, I do have to agree with Tom “Bald Dog” Varjan; it depends on what you’re selling. Fast food and food in general, when it’s clearly associated with a restaurant or supermarket, etc. does not necessarily require copy.

  13. Michael Kelberer said:

    I think most of this thread revolves around a false choice. First, every piece has design since design is merely how it looks. Every piece IS a picture. Second, graphics and text have different (overlapping) roles – graphics helps get the audience to stop in the first place to have a look. Copy confirms their decision and tells them what to do next. And the more they work to reinforce each other, the better.

  14. Dianna Huff said:

    I agree with Michael K — even text emails and sales letters have a “design.” (Have you ever tried to read a poorly formatted text email?)

    Bob, your original question was about print ads. Poor design renders great copy useless — that was my point.

    I’m not sure that great design sells anything if we’re talking about an ad for B2C or B2B (and that is what Tom Collins talks about.)

    So to answer your question, both design and copy have to work together.

  15. dianacacy said:

    When I answered, I was stuck in the direct mail sales letter frame of mind. I agree also with those saying it depends on what you’re presenting, and with what medium. I can see that some magazine ads would need the graphics first to know what words to put with them – and to know whether they just need to see where to get the item or if they also needs words to express the big benefit more fully.

    My thought on the B2B discussion part… Wouldn’t that be introducing a third element in there? Wouldn’t you need the right combination of copy, graphics, and specs in most cases? I know, most would consider the specs part of the copy, but for this purpose maybe it should be considered separately for discussion. I haven’t worked for B2B, so that’s just my “uneducated” thought.

  16. Bob Bly said:

    Dianacacy: I view specs, tables, graphs, and charts as the copywriter’s responsibility, since they are part of the content.

  17. Ted Grigg said:

    I had a great direct response copywriter once tell me that his preferred art director made him look good.

    He also believed that great design made his copy stronger.

    In the direct marketing world, copy is king. And I prefer working with a creative director in direct response with a copywriting background.

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  21. Bob Bly said:

    Ted: I think every competent direct response copywriter feels exactly the same way as your colleague. We prefer to work with our favorite designers. We care about graphic design. We want the piece to look great. And we hate it when poor design ruins our copy.

  22. Cynthia Maniglia said:

    Did anyone mention that a picture is worth a thousand words?
    Or the pen is mightier than the sword?
    Or how about the ultimate phrase relevant to your post, “The medium is the message.”

    : )

    I say – a GREAT CONCEPT trumps copy and design. IDEAS rule. To the idea person, the highest pay!

    Hey – guess what? The code thingie I have to type in below my comment to submit says “Ballard pen.” Interesting … ironic?

  23. Angeline Plesek said:

    I agree with Bob on this issue; copy is more important than design.

    That is not to say design isn’t important.
    I think it is very important in terms of readability. If someone has to “try hard” to read your copy; they are out of there.

    Go to a webpage with a black background and white or red text. Your eyes will hurt.

    As an advertising copy expert once said, “You can have the most handsome salesperson standing there next to a product, but if he or she isn’t saying anything, nothing sells…it’s the words that sell!”

  24. Robert said:

    Prof. Lessig, who writes about copyrights as opposed to writing copy, noted once that historically, we were first visual in our communications, but that language was created because people were searching for meaning, and pictures were insufficient to convey meaning. I think that the same holds true in the design v. copy issue. A good design can draw the reader in on a primitive level because of the original role that played in human communications, but then he wants more meaning, and the copy gives it to him or her.

  25. Sam Nichols said:

    To be honest, I believe the question is a bit irrelevant: what stops one to have grea copy and at the same time a great design?
    They can and should coexist in my opinion :)

  26. Brian Terry said:

    As a direct response website designer I must admit to being biased towards the importance of design.

    Having said that…

    It’s got to be the combination of compelling copy with eye catching design that is the real winner.

    In my experience great copy on a page with no design elements will sell. But it won’t sell as much as if you combined this with great copy.

    In other words…

    It’s the design (visual elements) that pulls people into the copy and it’s the combination of both that sell.

  27. Ken Norkin - freelance copywriter said:

    In a message to art directors on my Web site and in my direct mail targeted to them, here’s how I address the importance of design and copy working together:

    “You work hard to produce designs that convey your clients’ personalities and grab their prospects’ attention. But after first impressions, the message only gets across if the words are right.”

    I know there are many “no-copy” ads that have won creative awards. And I supsect that those ads were well-liked by TV viewers and magazine readers. What I don’t know is if they actually sold anything.

  28. owen frager said:

    Copy and long copy does SELL
    Ogilvy said :”the headline is the ticket on the meat”
    You don’t make a decision based on the look of the ticket versus the content

  29. Xtend-Life Review said:

    Short answer: Both.

    I agree with what Bob said, the design is the copywriters responsibility. I would hate to spend time writing the copy to not have any say so in how it actually gets put on paper or the website.

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