With few exceptions, visitors come to a website not to admire the design but to read the content. That doesn't mean that design is unimportant - it is. But not in the way it is often used.
Design should showcase the content and serve it, not overshadow it. Yet most people focus on the design and create their content as an afterthought.
Think about it: if you take away the content and leave the pretty design, what happens when a visitor looks at your website? Probably nothing. Take away the design and leave the words and your visitor has something to work with and respond to. Consider Craigslist.com. No design yet it's an extremely popular and heavily used site. Now Craigslist is an extreme example and I'm not advocating that you use it as your model. I just want to illustrate my point that in the end it's the words that make or break a website. It's the verbal content that keeps a serious visitor on your site.
Sure there are exceptions such as sites that are promoting a service that's purely visual e.g. graphic designers, or photographers. Even then, the overall design of the site needs to fade into the background so that the content of that person's work stands out.
But no matter what you're offering, you still need words that let people know who you are, how you work, what makes you different from every other artist or photographer. Have you ever seen a catalog without product descriptions that are meant to get you enthused about the product? Even the large e-commerce sites have words to augment the pictures of their products.
Professionally written content is not a luxury. When you're planning your website, make sure to budget enough to include a content writer so that your beautiful design really has full value to you. Without compelling words, its decorative and nothing more.
The answer to the question in the headline is: neither! They are equally important. Design and words have to work together. A good designer understands this and will refer you to a professional content writer: if not, find one who wants you not just to have a pretty site, but to succeed.
Copyright 2009 Maggie Dennison