The problem with “Lorem Ipsum” and What You Can to Do Instead.

October 20, 2011 in Design, Web Development

Usually when designers are designing both print and website layouts, banner ads and other user interfaces, they need to have some text copy to work with. Most of the time, the client or the company they are working for doesn’t have text copy prepared, so designers usually place so called “Lorem Ipsum” content into their designs.

Lorem Ipsum has been used for many decades as placeholder content in print layout designs. It’s based on latin, but is actually just gibberish and doesn’t have any meaning. It’s purpose is to divert the reader’s attention away from the text itself and onto the layout and the design. That seems very logical.

A lot of the people I’ve worked with and some of my designer-buddies know how much I disapprove of using Lorem Ipsum text in design proposals and pitches.  Here’s why I think it’s a bad idea.

  1. It allows designers to be lazy. When you use Lorem Ipsum you do not think about the actual content you are placing. Therefore you do not think as much about what it’s purpose is, if that text really needs to be there and what it’s importance/weight is.
  2. Text affects layout. Usually, the text you place in different content areas will have a dramatic effect on how much space you have, how everything else aligns against the text and, especially for short words, it’s overall weight. If the final text is much shorter than the text you envisioned your design might look weird – that’s when we also start getting tempted into making short, concise text longer and decorate it with more words. That does not help anybody.
  3. Words move people. We form a emotional bond with what we read based on it’s meaning. Of course images, colors and  fonts also affect our emotions, but I honestly believe bad design with great copy writing can do much more than good design with bad copywriting.
  4. Clients do not understand Lorem Ipsum. Sure, some of them do, especially the more savvy group. But a lot of people will simply look at the text and not understand what it’s doing there. So if you’re presenting a design to a client and have a compelling headline and interesting text, even if it won’t be the final text, the client will have a much easier time understanding the design and the purpose for each placeholder.

If you ignore these things, you will eventually have to redo big parts of whatever it is you are designing.

If you would think about the text before hand, I’ll bet you it will make for a better design.

So what should you do instead?

I’m not a real designer, so I’m probably doing it wrong, but here’s what I think you should do (note: I talk about website design here but this should apply to print design just as well):

  • Since you don’t have any text yet, you’ll simply have to write it. Don’t worry, you can do it really carelessly and since this isn’t your main role you can do a really bad job. But the whole point is that you’ve started to think about it and the client or your employer will appreciate you going the extra mile to think about what it is you’re displaying.
  • Before you start, try to think about the message and the meaning of whatever it is that you’re trying to portray. What is the core concept that you need to introduce right away.
    • Think about what the user knows before he/she sees the website. You should also think about where the user came from. Did he click an ad, did he hear about it locally or from somebody he knew, did he hear about it in a conference.
    • Based on these things, what do you think the user already knows? What will be the most confusing thing for the user to understand?
    • Remember that users on the internet have an attention span of about 20 ms, so you will need to be as concise as possible.
  • Write a 3-paragraph description of the products and/or services the website is promoting. Then write the same in 1 paragraph. Then write the same in 7 words. Then explain it in 1-4 words. Even though you won’t need those versions, it will help you and everybody else get a clear picture of what it is you’re describing and you’ll get down to the core of the value proposition.
  • Make a list of the 3 most important elements/services the website needs to illustrate. This will usually be “Products, about the company, contact us, testimonials” etc..
  • Make a list of at least 6 products that the website promotes – or if there’s a single product – 6 features.

After this you should have a pretty decent deck to work with for your layout.

Testing content

There’s one thing that Lorem Ipsum does somewhat well. Testing content. It’s very easy to copy and paste it into content fields to see how it will look and how the content field resizes. I will forgive you if you use Lorem Ipsum for testing content. But that’s much more of a technical thing.

There are also a few resources you’ll want to look into for content generation. Try some of these:
There are a few tools out there to generate Lorem Ipsum text and even some that can be used to fill databases with content

That’s it. I hope this was helpful.
  • http://twitter.com/CodyBrown Cody Brown

    I find that even the Hipster Lorem Ipsum annoys me in content viewing. It’s funny but it’s distracting and feels visually unnatural. I usually have old articles that I convert to plain text open in TextEdit and when I need content, I’ll drop one in. This doesn’t work though if you’re working on a live website (even if it’s on an obscure test URL) because it can be dangerous. Google can pick it up and notify the author of whatever you’re copy and pasting—I learned this the hard way: http://gaw.kr/nkaJ0r.

    • http://arnorhs.com/ Arnor Heidar Sigurdsson

      That’s interesting. Yeah, I’m not a fan of the Hipster Lorem ipsum text. The novelty wears off / has worn off pretty quickly.

      Interesting post.

  • Jos

    I agree that you want to have real text in place during late-stage design approvals, but there’s a good reason for using Lorem text in the early “does this look right” stages of the design process: clients will get wrapped around the axle trying to fix your text, rather than looking at the visual design and making sure it looks right. I’ve seen this happen time and again, and it’s incredibly frustrating to designers to be unable to get the client to focus on whether the layout and color scheme look right because they’re too busy worrying about why you wrote “we herp the derp in financial demo status hooie” instead of “we herp derping in the status of financial demo hooie.” As you point out, the words are important, which makes it hard for people to disengage from the words and look at the visual design. Lorem is the equivalent of getting someone to squint their eyes and defocus the text for a minute.

    • http://arnorhs.com/ Arnor Heidar Sigurdsson

      I think you just underlined my point precisely. Your clients will look at the text first and foremost and are pretty bad at judging design in general.

      The design discussion also becomes deeper sooner in the process. And that’s exactly what you want. You don’t want to start redesigning everything after the 4th design iteration. Better to take a u-turn right away.

      Thanks for the comment.

    • Jos

      So you would suggest having the content discussions *first*, and then proceeding to layout and design? That would work, if you can hold the client to it. Once it’s their content (or the content you wrote that they’ve approved) on-screen, they ought to be able to let go of it long enough to pay attention to the visuals. I agree with you that most clients are terrible at design, but that doesn’t stop them from having strong opinions of it, so the sooner you can get their input, the sooner you know their requirements. Great article, and something to try for future projects!