The cake is a lie

By Published On: May 25, 20231.8 min read

When I was just a wide-eyed student attending design school, I had an instructor who used to hammer into us that if our design wasn’t centred around the content, then we were just “cake decorating”. In other words—just making something look pretty without regard to the structure as a whole. “Lipstick on a pig” would be the other, less flattering way to describe it (also a favourite phrase of one of my former creative directors).

This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of what designers contribute, and it’s often exacerbated by the way we talk about ourselves. How many times have you heard graphic designers call themselves “pixel pushers” or  even just “creatives” (I hate this term because everyone is inherently creative—it’s not like having red hair or perfect pitch). We aren’t just in the business of making things pretty, and what we do isn’t magic. It’s a learned, skilled trade, like any other. It’s communication using visual language. We take the content given to us and make it digestible through a toolbox of techniques. Sure, we make it look good too but that’s a byproduct of successful design. Everything we design is (or should be), catering 100% to the content.

This is not to say we are completely agnostic when it comes to shaping content. I’ll often recommend trimming a long block of copy or an unruly headline to make it feel more comfortable in the space, or to better draw the eye. Or I’ll recommend paring a complex chart down to a few highlighted statistics. There is often a back-and-forth between design and content creation to yield the eventual result, but ultimately content comes first and design is informed by the content.

This is all to say that if you are working with a designer and expecting them to come up with a design without content (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to create a mockup without any content—which begs the question: “a mockup of what, exactly??”), then you’re trying to build a house without blueprints.

P.S. If you recognize “the cake is a lie” reference, then very cool. If not, here’s where it comes from.