To Lorem ipsum or not to.

A little excourse on the use of placeholders in design and why content is so important for the design process.


Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.


I’d be surprised if you haven’t read those words before. “Lorem ipsum” has become an essential tool of design. It is the placeholder text to be put into a design and filled with actual content later.

Despite the fact that I can type parts of it from memory and would even go back to correct spelling mistakes in this nonsense text, I am not a fan of the concept behind “Lorem ipsum”.

It goes against my principles as a designer to work without content.

Design is nothing without content.

You cannot create good design based on nothing.

So…

What is design?

There are many definitions of what design is, because the term is so very general, ranging from engineering a car to designing a gala dress. But the common denominator in all of this is artificiality.

Design does not exist in nature, it is always man made. It is always the solution to a problem a human has. Whether this is a conscious progress or not is not essential to whether it was designed or not.

Design is the beginning of a solution to a problem a human has faced using his imagination, foresight and creativity.

Not all design is problem/solution oriented, of course. Especially graphic design has developed into finding solutions for different kinds of problem. The invention of the wheel, inspired by nature, has not much to do with the flyer for a summer party. But both were created by humans and solved a problem: how to make objects easier transportable while applying less human force and how to get people’s attention to an event.

Problem solving is the main purpose of design and the solution to the problem is the content.

Good design is invisible, bad design is everywhere.

I believe in that quote: Not being noticed by the user is the main goal of all design. He should be able to use your prodcut without a 200 page instruction manual. I am not denying the existence of well designed complex products, they have their raison d’être and with a more complex life, we need more compley products to cate to our needs.

Good design is self-explanatory

Now, if we cannot work with content in a design, because there is no problem to solve, we are running the risk of overachieving and creating a way too complex solution that will confuse the user.

Of course design does not have to be as minimal as the previous paragraphs suggest. Designs is also about style and character, as long as it does not take away from purpose and functionality. When it comes to building brands, character becomes a big focus point of design, as it increases recognition and association with a brand.

Design starts with an idea

Whether the idea came “naturally” or you applied techniques like brain storming or mind mapping to come to the idea is irrelevant.

The idea is always the starting point. It is the main content of your design.

Dangers of no-content design

Working on “Lorem ipsum” gives us the false impression that we do not need content or even an idea to create a design.

Here’s the deal: we are almost certainly going to run into problems once we enter our actual content. The headlines will run too long, the copy is too short and creates awkward gaps, etc. There is no way around it: We will have to adjust either the design or the content. What a waste of time!

Let us apply this to a few scenarios.


Working with clients

I am a professional graphic designer, mostly digital, but I am not a stranger to print productions and have always had an interest in package design. On a daily basis I work with copywriters and concept creators on client briefings.

Content usually begins with the client briefing and ends with the copy writer finishing up the last commas and misspellings.

There is always content in this design process, just in various states.

Concept and design work together on solutions for the client briefing and develop the right design for the content. Applying this simultaneous process can lead to “Lorem ipsum”. The design might already be at a visual point and it is possible to create layouts; the concept is set up, while the headlines and copies are not yet or still being written. It is possible to have a design at this point, because the content is defined in the client briefing and the work that has been done in preparation to the process of design and concept. “Lorem ipsum” is just minding the gap until the copy writer finishes the texts.

Yet we do not present the designs to our clients with “Lorem ipsum”. It will only lenghten the process of creation. The client might like the design when you first present it with placeholder texts, but when you show it to him again, this time with actual content, he may have changed his mind. Or worse, he realises that the design does not fit the content. You will have to go back to the drawing board and start all over!

So, we banned “Lorem ipsum” from the designs we present to the client.

Another horror scenario is one in which you forget to remove a placeholder from a design and it is actually produced with this mistake. You wouldn’t want a placeholder QR code sending your users to the wrong website…


Working for yourself

Especially when you just start out as a designer you don’t always have a client briefing or, if you are studying, the briefings are broad to give the most creative freedom.

I always struggled with these challenges, because I was lacking content. I had a hard time finding a theme for a project, if none was given. At this point inspiration can become your content.

Let inspiration become your “content” and base your design on that.

Another often used technique is to take an existing product and create a new design for it. A website you like is not as good as it could be or has several flaws? A book cover does not fit the story? The TV guide is hard to read and way too busy? All these are good starting points for a designer, because you already have the content to start with.


Creating design templates

From my mostly digital point of view, another issue appears when it comes to creating templates. They are a great way for a designer to make money without a client briefing by offering them on graphic stock sites. The first thing that comes to mind are WordPress or tumblr themes.

Even though there is no actual content to design around, you can actually choose what kind of content you want to be displayed in the template and know that its purpose is a blog. But you won’t have actual content to put into the design.

You are probably going to use a lot of “Lorem ipsum”.

And that is okay. But…

Chances are that possible buyers will be more inclined to buy your product with fake content, than with something entirely meaningless like “Lorem ipsum”.

Another issue with templates is your unique selling proposition. In order to be interesting for a lot of buyers, you have to create a design that is unique in some way, but at the same time far-reaching. A lot of templates look the same at first glance, due to trends and the effort of each designer to reach an audience as broad as possible.

The more specialized your template is, the better it may fit to some buyers, but there will be less buyers overall.

You have to find a good balance between “Lorem ipsum” and content to make money on your templates.


So, what’s the deal with Lorem ipsum in design then?

Of course it is fine to work with the actual “Lorem ipsum” text as a placeholder in your designs. But you should never neglect actual content. The consequences could be catastrophic.

Start with a problem, work on an idea, and find a good solution. That is design.

So yes, use “Lorem ipsum” and all its relative placeholders, but use them with caution and not carelessly. Always check your design for placeholders before finishing it off.

There is no need to give placeholders a bad name, but they should not be uesd as a standard.

You will create better designs when you work with real content.

And everything is relative ;)