Reinventing lorem ipsum as a meal planner

Filler text that made it into a published newspaper

The rundown

I’ve invented an alternative to “lorem ipsum.” Instead of random words, Recipe uses measurements to help designers and content people alike make sense of designs before content exists.

I also stopped using the word “content” so much.

Placeholders are problems

On web projects, design and development typically starts before content planning, let alone content. The answer is too test with temporary placeholder text, sometimes called “lorem ipsum.” This lets designers fill space with nonsensical words to give their peers and clients an idea of what visual design will look like. But lorem ipsum is nonsense in other ways.

  • Filler is arbitrary. Designers can fill out as much or as little as they need for visuals’ sake. Content doesn’t always fit the same mold.
  • Placeholders disregard architecture. Designers are asked to craft navigation links’ style before they know what the links navigate to, or how many links the navigation bar will have.
  • Copy/paste discourages flexible templates. As starting points, templates are fine. But they rarely cover the diverse needs that websites — and their content — have. Duplicating lorem ipsum is worse than “one size fits all.” It’s “one size, period.”
  • Components set requirements. I’ve rarely worked with a client expects every component in a mockup to be filled out with precisely that much text, even if the page doesn’t need it.
  • Disorder will never . Design reviews don’t catch inevitable disorder because perfect amounts of filler text and images don’t challenge stakeholders to address “what if?” scenarios.

Examples I’ve run into:

  • Testimonials set with twenty-word-long bits of text on a “new product” page. Only later did we ask where testimonials would come from before customers tried new products.
  • Biography templates held three sections: highlights, career, and personal. There was no process to remove bios from the “about us” section when someone was asked to leave the company.
  • Product cards and teasers are ridiculously short. The same space for “Product Name” did not hold “Premium Soda Straw Holder” (for a plastics company) or “YVAA Air-cooled Variable Speed Drive Screw Chiller” (for a HVAC company).
  • Multiple authors contributed to an article whose template only allows for one byline.
  • A site went live with “lorem ipsum” still in place for the world to see.

“Content” is an ugly word

As a content guy whose worked in design, I saw both sides of the problem. I wanted to invent a solution. And that meant seeing content in a new way.

Content.

Content sucks.

Not content itself, but the word “content.”

I started by reframing text, images, and media as stuff that need to fill containers or be contained within visuals. Instead of “content,” let’s call it brain food.

Ideas and information as tasty nourishment changes how we think of text, images, and media. Your brain might prefer something sweet, salty, or sour. Articles like “12 Reasons You Need to Cut Carbs” is empty calories, even if #9 will shock you. Brain food gives new meaning to “Twitter feed.”

Suddenly design is not a container to be filled. No one thinks, “I’m tired of plastic cups. Tonight I’ll eat something from a ceramic jar instead.” No. Design exists to support brain food, even as different types of brain food are better suited to different designs. Soup on a plate, frozen peas straight from the freezer, shish-kabob ice cream, … form follows food and food accounts for form.

Brain food isn’t a perfect analogy. Day-old bread doesn’t mean stale hyperlinks. But stepping away from “content” raises questions about information’s lifecycle.

  • Is a week’s worth of meal prep the best use of your time?
  • Are you fine dining, fast food, a chain restaurant, or that obscure hole in the wall?
  • What ingredients do you use, and where do they come from?
  • Do your patrons prefer healthy food?
  • Who cooks, and who cleans up?
  • Are readers hungry for your brain food, or do you have to entice them?
  • What if we treated email newsletters like coupons?

Recipe

Recipe is based on two types of measurements. The first is words — specifically, written-out numbers. Instead of “lorem ipsum dolor sit amet,” Recipe uses “one two three four five.”

  • Designers can give chefs (archaically, “writers”) reasonable estimates: “this layout will hold 140–160 words.”
  • Chefs can give designers reasonable estimates: “I can describe services with about 200–250 words.”

The second measurement uses characters.

Instead of “Nav link”, Recipe gives us “^04 008”. Both of those examples are eight characters long. Only one makes that easy to see.

And that’s the point. Instead of slapping in whatever, Recipe’s measures … measure.

  • one two three four five (five words)
  • one two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven (eleven words)
  • ^004 008 012 016 020 (twenty characters)
  • ^004 008 012 016 (sixteen characters)
Examples of character and word measures
Word measures (left) and character measures (right). Each set comes on its own line.

As of this writing, Recipe’s two measures range up to 640 characters and 3200 words. You can build your own by copy/pasting the parts you need, such as getting 6400 words by using two sets of 3200.

The first part of a 3200-word set
Need to test a template with 3200 words? Here they are, all in one easy-to-copy line that wraps depending on your text editor.

More cooking up

I have a few more ideas for this. But here’s the gist: Let’s identify problems, reframe them, and explore solutions. Lorem ipsum is worse than empty calories. It’s time for a healthier tool.