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Dummy text will cost you money. Don’t use it.

May 23, 2018

For decades, creative professionals have used placeholder text in design mockups. Designers often use obscure Latin text (e.g. “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit…”) to fill spaces in a mockup where real content will eventually go. You’ll also see things like “Headline goes here” and “Heading 1” in the spots where such things will go. Here’s an example of what it might look like:

Example of placeholder text in a design

It looks harmless, but using placeholder text will often wind up costing you time and money. Let me show you why and suggest alternatives to avoid using dummy text in the future.


Why Dummy Text?

First off, why does anyone use placeholder text?

The usual reason is that clients often have no idea what their content will be. They have hazy, unformed ideas about what will actually go in these spots, but nothing has been written.

Many clients want to be dazzled with a “new look” before they dig into less exciting questions about the actual content that will fill a new design. The designers or developers they hired don’t have the luxury of waiting for the client to write their content, so they have to do the best they can without it.

A common mistake people make is to think of a design or a redesign project as primarily a visual or technical matter. Content is considered a final step in a project when it should be the starting point. Big design and redesign projects should start with a thoughtful, well-planned focus on the content. Effective design supports well-developed content. 

Think of it like buying a house. How can you be sure you’re getting the right house if you don’t know how many rooms you need, or where the windows need to go, or if you need any special electrical or plumbing work done? You can pick out carpet, paint colors, faucet furnishings, and a dazzling backsplash, but if the doors are in all the wrong places, if you wind up with a big yard you can’t possibly maintain, and if you didn’t get an attic to store your extra things, you may be making an expensive mistake.

Still, clients and teams are happy to pick a house and leave it to the movers to figure out where everything will go and if it will all fit.


The Problems with “Lorem Ipsum”

At first, using dummy text seems like a reasonable approach to speed things along. it allows people to hit the snooze button on the urgent need to address meaningful questions about content and messaging for their organization. But eventually, that bill comes due.

The biggest problem is that pages might be built based on that original “Lorem Ipsum” text, and then later, a team realizes that they have a ton of copy to create for a project.

When people finally working on the actual content, they may realize they didn’t leave anywhere enough room for the amount of text they need. Or maybe the space filled with the dummy text isn’t really necessary, but now there’s a big block built into a page that requires text that may be repetitive or unnecessary. And getting rid of that text block might create problems for the development team at this stage.

Ultimately, teams often wind up scrambling to figure out words to fit the spaces on the design, rather than having a design that fits the ideas they really need to communicate. 

Here’s another problem caused by using dummy text: it hides design problems in your work.

Consider that mockup design I showed above. Look what happens when I start to replace the placeholder copy with “real” text and photos:

Sample design with real copy replacing dummy copy

When the design only used mock text with exactly the same length, it looked clean and tidy, but when you try it with actual headlines and photos, some problems emerge.

We see that if headlines vary in length, the photos don’t line up and it all looks a bit ragged. Some headlines run six or eight lines deep, which looks strange. And in the middle photo, the square shape seems like it could be a problem for photos that need a wider perspective. But we didn’t really know any of these problems were a factor until we put in real content.

So maybe you review this and think that the headlines should go below the photos, or maybe the photos should be rectangular rather than square, or maybe you think you should only have two stories per row, not three.

If you go back to try and address this, it’s common for agencies or developers to argue that changing the design at this point in the process would incur extra costs and additional scope. After all, you may have signed off on a mockup of the design that used the dummy text, and they coded up a website based on what you approved. So not only might this add to the price of your project, it might cause delays.

If you happen to be the designer or developer on the project, the flipside of this can be costly as well — you might be willing to address these requests for changes without additional money, but that work will cost you time and effort and cut into your bottom line.

Nobody wins.

So stop using Lorem Ipsum.

Let’s dig into better ways to get those projects done and avoid these problems.


Alternatives to using dummy text

Here are four alternatives to using “Lorem Ipsum”

Recycle old content. If you’re doing a redesign you often have plenty of existing, old content from the original site. Yes, you (or a client) may hate that existing content and see it as full of problems, but as a functional starting point, it’s better to work with existing copy than meaningless Greek text. If that original content is too long or too wordy, cut it down. Use part of it, enough to help flesh out a new design concept. If people hate that old content, good — it will help fuel the urgency to change it.

Borrow comparable content. I’m in no way suggesting that anyone should copy or steal content from someone else. Plagiarism is never acceptable — when your site goes live, your own content needs to be in place. But for a proof of concept during the design phase of a project, it can be helpful to borrow comparable content from another source that can fill the design and help illustrate how it will look. For example, a recent client was designing an email newsletter that included an interview, but they didn’t have any interviews conducted yet. For the design proof, rather than putting in dummy text, I used text from an interview from a magazine on a similar topic to the newsletter. It helped inform the design because it showed us how you’d have to break up an introduction to an interview in the email and link it to the complete story elsewhere. Had we used dummy text, we’d be flying blind about how a real interview with real Q&A would work in that space.

Do a “bad first draft.”  Let’s say you’re rethinking your home page — a totally new approach than your old site. Rather than recycling or borrowing content for the proof-of-concept, just write something fast. Put yourself on a timer and write. Write something everyone knows is a rough first draft. It’s OK if it sucks — first drafts usually suck. The important thing is that your draft design is loosely showing what it should be communicating, even if it’s far from final. Bad first drafts aren’t finished work, but they’re great for starting a conversation about how to improve it and get it closer to where it needs to be. Even a bad first draft will show problems with the design and potential issues that will need to be addressed.

Hire a copywriter.  This, quite honestly, is the best option. The truth is that most teams, even if they have great communicators and writers, are overworked and busy. People always think they’ll have time to create the content they need, but they rarely do. A better way to get the project done right the from the start is to work with an experienced copywriter or content strategist who can partner with you to create effective, compelling content. If you avoid the need for dummy text altogether, everybody wins.

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If you want help with your next design or redesign, or just need help getting the right words for your project, let’s talk. I can help with all aspects of the job — content, design, and strategy. Schedule a free 30-minute consultation today.

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