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Stop ignoring Lorem Ipsum

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A quick Google search shows the “Death to Lorem Ipsum” meme is a reoccurring one that is once again hitting the twittersphere this week while An Event Apart is in Boston. Their points about understanding the content during the design phase are completely essential when creating websites, but their rallying cry is completely off base.

Crying “death to lorem ipsum” because real content keeps breaking our design is like crying “death to hammers” because we keep hitting our thumb.

Imagine if Vera Wang was asked to design outfits for a team of people.

Let’s say her client doesn’t initially tell her anything about the people she needs to design clothing for. So, Vera uses Elle McPherson as the model. And the client approves of the design because, of course, it looks fantastic on Elle.

But when Lebron James and the Miami Heat show up for their outfits and look completely ridiculous in misshapen clothing, let me be clear…

Do not blame Elle McPherson!

Lorem ipsum is just a model of real content. If the designer uses the wrong model, its not the model’s fault.

How did we get here?

“Death to

Lorem ipsum has been a tool we’ve been using for decades. Because real clients never hand their homework in on time. And designers almost never get the content before they are required to start the design.

If we use realistic-looking, but fake content, the client often freaks out saying “That text doesn’t reflect our brand message. You can’t use that!” And even though we assure them its just dummy text, the unease they feel sets the tone for the rest of the design review. Its a losing formula for designers. And Karen McGrane elegantly describes why using real draft content in designs is a never-ending battle.

So we invented Lorem Ipsum. Completely fake content that is so far off message that the client can’t even attempt to improve the content or disapprove of it. At worst, it creates initial confusion about what’s going on. But after some reassurances and eduction, the client can settle down and get down to the business we want them to focus on: our designs.

So where did we go wrong? We repeated the phrase “just ignore the lorem ipsum” one too many times. It’s a mantra that we used to get clients to ignore the fake content. But unfortunately, we now ignore the fake content too.

We’ve forgotten the fake content is supposed to be a model of the real content. By ignoring Lorem Ipsum we’ve ignored the living, breathing content that it is supposed represent.

Getting out of the trap we built for ourselves

We’ve been doing web design for nearly 20 years and we still fall into the trap of wanting perfectly sized content. There is no such thing on real websites. If your designs have features that require the content to be limited to a certain number of characters, I highly recommend you re-think that approach. Why?
  1. The people signing off on your design are often not the people writing the content. This is a reality of large organizations. The people with the authority to approve representations of the company’s brand are not the same ones in charge of writing the copy. It’s likely the copy writers will never hear your recommendations about content length.
  2. The content that fits in your design today will not be the same content that is put into the website tomorrow. Organizations change. Whether its their writing style, the people, or their goals, you shouldn’t rely on what you “know” about the content today. Because it will change over time. And your designs have to be able to cope with those new parameters.

I know. I know. Design loves constraints. (I do listen to Mark Boulton.) And, yes, your design may not be as pretty when the client puts a “too long” piece of content into your designs. But it shouldn’t break! Create a design that looks great for the 80%, but also looks fine for the other 20%. Your design must be flexible.

The perfect solution to the problem of not knowing what the real content looks like is to use Lorem Ipsum. But you have to learn how to use it properly. Stop editing it to fit perfectly in your design.

Learning to use “Real Lorem Ipsum”

I’m not a designer (as you can see from my blog’s design); I’m a professional site implementer. And I know where the pain points are when putting real content into carefully crafted designs. Here’s a short checklist for you to double check your designs against Real Lorem Ipsum™:

  • Headlines. If you have a list of content and they all have titles with roughly the same length, then you’ve only designed for the 80%. You’ve forgotten about the odd-ball 20% that every site has. Make some really long titles. Make some really short ones.
  • Tables. Those grids of text next to images where the bottom of the text perfectly aligns with the bottom of the image? That never happens with real content. Make some of your Lorem Ipsum text be longer than the image for some examples.
  • Names. If you’ve designed any name tags, you’ll already know what I’m talking about. Al Grey and Dikembe Wamutombo both have to fit.
  • Small boxes/labels. Those tiny boxes of text better be able to handle a concept longer than 4 words if you know what I mean.

There’s lots more examples, but that should get your left brain thinking in the right direction. ;-)

Finally, a compromise

I hate ending on this note, but I’m radical centrist by nature. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, you really do need to constrain the content. In those rare cases, I cannot stress enough that you need to:

  1. Get the client’s buy-in now. If there is a limitation to the length of content, make sure the client agrees to every single limitation.
  2. Educate the client. Provide documentation so that everyone can understand why the constraints are necessary.
  3. Re-educate the client. You’re building the site in a CMS, right? Make the CMS notify the user about the constraints as they enter the content. I’m a big fan of (and contributor to) Drupal. In Drupal, you would add a description for the field with the constraint. Make the inline help short and to the point so the user will actually read it.
  4. Optionally, force the client to listen. Again, using a CMS, you should be able to validate the content as they submit it. I’d recommend against cutting off the extra characters. Instead prevent the form from submitting, display all the content and display a helpful error message so the user can edit the content to match the required limitations. In Drupal, you’d just write a custom validation function for that form field.

A summary slightly too long for twitter

Instead of just dumping fake Lorem Ipsum into your design and editing it to fit your design, create “Real Lorem Ipsum” where the content challenges the design to think about real world problems.

Update: Oooh. Rachel Lehman has a great idea in the comments below. “You can even ask for the draft content, then place the Lorem Ipsum in the length of the draft content! Then you get the best of both worlds - no distractions from unfinished content, but realistic length representation.” Fantastic!

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