Stop banning Lorem Ipsum: a rebuttal

John McGarvey feels strongly about copy. As a web copywriter, if it were up to him, we'd all stop using Lorem Ipsum as placeholder text during the design process. Period. And in such a role, it's hard to blame him; placeholder text can, I'm sure, be quite an interference on the path to great content. In McGarvey's op-ed, he rightly pointed out, among other things, that nonsense copy can make for shaky sign-offs on the part of clients, who can't possibly strut down a road of design excellence until the content is mixed with water to become concrete.

But is he right that Lorem Ipsum has no value to the design process? In a word, no. And in light of the flood of comments McGarvey's post received, I felt a rebuttal was in order.

That's not quite what they said

First, it's important to dissect the for-or-against statements web design experts have made on the subject so that we can safely move on to discussing Lorem Ipsum's usefulness.

Oliver Lindberg pointed out in his comment on McGarvey's article that 37signals, the company behind the wildly popular project management tool Basecamp, denounces the use of Lorem Ipsum. But members of 37signals have also said they start all their designs with sketches. Interface sketches almost invariably show areas of text in the form of wavy, hand-drawn lines. The difference between Lorem Ipsum and wavy, hand-drawn lines, rest assured, is semantic. Their intent is the same. The only difference is the quality of the artifacts in which they are used.

What 37signals actually said was to use real copy when you build interfaces. And yes, of course, a functioning page should display real copy. But not even 37signals thinks this rule applies to sketches and low-res wireframes.

Even the likes of web standards leader Jeffrey Zeldman has come out against Lorem Ipsum. Zeldman's quote (cited in Luke W's post about Lorem Ipsum), however, was not an outright dismissal of it, but rather a guideline that we must know our content by the time we get to the final stages of a design.

In site design, it's the end that matters, not the journey.

Designing for ideas

A website is more than the sum of its content. Design is not about copy or images or video alone: it's about purpose, scope, task flow, understanding, and much more. And in the early stages of a project, design artifacts are focused on generating and narrowing down ideas, not precise details. Not yet knowing which exact words to use in a line of instructive text in a wireframe, for example, doesn't negate what a wireframe can and should communicate otherwise.

Very often, in other words, the intent of a design is to illustrate a concept. An idea. It's meant to offer a direction and facilitate discussion. It's part of the thinking process. It's not the answer, but an exploration of the question.

Designing for standardisation

Designs are also often meant to serve as templates for pages — to describe typical cases. Yes, final designs should have real copy (whenever possible anyway), but is this true for deliverables used to define a model for a design? Hardly. The only way this would be possible is to design a final comp for each and every page. Imagine the nightmare this would be for, say, a news site.

Designing for the unknown

Quite a lot of sites and apps these days allow for, and indeed encourage, user-generated content. Except for character-count limitations and the like, we can't do much as designers to control that copy. What we can do is design for flexibility.

Consider how the website you're looking at right now might have been designed without filler text. On any site with a commenting system, it's vital to communicate the treatment for copy even when the copy itself can't be known. Headings, fonts, layout, block quotes, leading and kerning, author citations, bylines, avatars — the designer must account for all of these things despite that the content that will eventually be posted is up to the site's readers.

Banning the wrong things

It's not Lorem Ipsum we should ban, it's absolutes.

Lorem Ipsum is a tool, and like every tool, it's up to the craftsman to know when and why to use it. There are quite a few reasons to use Lorem Ipsum, it's just that timing and intent matter to each one, so it's important to wrap some constraints around it. Use it to communicate concepts. Use it as a placeholder for user-generated copy. Use it early in the process, not late. Know the real copy by the time you launch, and design for it along the way.

Perhaps most importantly, maintain a healthy scepticism for web designers who shout rooftop demands without presenting the other side of the debate.