There is a point where every blogger opens their blog, looks at it and thinks “I hate this.” It is probably fine, but maybe something about it isn’t working the way you want it to or, maybe it looks dated, or maybe it doesn’t translate well to mobile platforms. The thing is Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a good blog. Starting a blog is easy, all you have to do is sign up. Making your blog really good, well that takes a little more effort.
That was definitely the case for my blog, Four Letter was easy enough to launch but it continues to be a work in progress. Although I was excited to start, there was a three and a half year learning curve for me to get Four Letter Word letter word to where it is now, and has changed a lot since those early days in terms of both content and layout.
One of the biggest challenges I faced launching Four Letter Word, aside for deciding what it was going to be about, was getting it to look the way I wanted it to. Despite my background in visual art, and my supernatural ability to unhealthily obsess about anything design related, initially I was pretty ambivalent about how Four Letter Word looked. Frankly, I didn’t think I would be working on it for longer than the required semester and I had a lot of other school related things on my plate, so I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it.
In its earliest iterations my blog was very minimal. When I started I really only had two requirements for the layout, I had to be able to customize the banner image and the social media embedded into the site had to be very easy for people to find. I went with “Blogum,” a WordPress template that features a basic layout with minimal accouterments. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I liked it enough to stick with it until May of 2012.
As my content continued to evolve and my reader base expanded “Blogum” started to feel like it was too basic and I decided to shop for a new template. What I was hoping to find was a template that would reflect the growing diversity of topics I wanted to cover, and at the same time give people an enhanced interaction with the individual posts on the site.
Changing the templates was as much a symbolic action as it was practical one. Looking to move forward and grow with a new template, I realized that my list of “must have” features had also grown to reflect this evolution. My new “look” needed to have a landing page as well as separate pages for “Posts” “About” “Contact” etc… I also wanted it to have nice looking and easy to use menus that featured categories and stood out on their own. Finally I wanted to feature higher resolution images on the main page, or maybe have a rotating banner, to give the site a more interactive and magazine like feel.
In the summer of 2012 I switched to the “Oxygen” theme. It had a lot more layout options such as a rotating front page image, a small thumbnail gallery beneath it, and it had multiple sidebar menu options that used different design flourishes to break up the front page in a way that I really responded to and made it feel less “bloggy.” I also really liked the way posts were presented with the pages listed along the top in blue, but retaining a category menu along the left hand column in black. After a little less than a year however, I started to feel like, even though Four Letter Word really was close to how I wanted it to look on my desktop the viewing experience on my iPhone and iPad, where I read most things online, was seriously lacking. Part of that was due to the design flourishes I had previously enjoyed but which were clearly not optimized for mobile devices.
“Arcade,” the template I’m using now, is probably the closest I’ve been able to get to exactly what I want without having to build the site myself. Inevitably, at some point I’m sure that will happen, but hopefully not right now. When I first used “Arcade” Four Letter Word had turned a new page and had a huge jump, with readership tripling in about a year. I used the template almost straight out of the box, and made minor tweaks as time went on. I knew that a lot of my content is read on smartphones and tablets so I became more concerned with how people were experiencing the site on their mobile devices, and the adaptability of the site in general. I went through and checked each post on multiple devices and realized that I wanted the pages to be more adaptable and feature content with fewer distractions along the side. In order to really improve the experience people were having when they visited the site, using a mobile device, I had to alter the post formatting to optimize features for mobile platforms and move additional features, like social media to the footer. It took some time and tweaking, but eventually I got it to where I wanted it to be. I have been using Arcade for more than a year now and while there are always a few things I wish I could have that are missing, I really like how it presents itself, how people interact with the site in general and how they experience each individual post.
This is where it gets kind of meta because despite how much I work on it there is always room for improvement and always something else that can be done. In many ways Four Letter Word is a work in progress, at the very least we both continue to evolve and I continue to refine my understanding of how user experience and user interface translates qualitatively to the personal experience people have on a website or blog. So, sitting here right now, typing this and thinking about where I hope to take Four Letter Word in the months and year(s?) to come, I can’t help but think about how I envision this continuing to evolve.
I understand that it may seem odd to some, to put this much thought into a blog layout. But try to imagine a blog or website with no designed layout at all. Things would be helter skelter, there would be buttons in random places, unstructured content, randomly sized images and unformatted text that is difficult to decipher, as well as content that is hard to find. If a store or restaurant was simarly disorganized, would that experience make you want to shop, or eat, there again? No, probably not.
How a blog (or website) is designed directly correlates to how we, as consumers of content and media, enjoy the experience we have while visiting the site. That in turn impacts how much we enjoy the story we are reading, watching or listening to which of course impacts the likelyhood of us returning. So, I think it is very important for those of us who communicate using an online medium to put some some real thought into not just what we are saying and how we say it, but how we present it to the world.
With all that said I want to offer some simple suggestions based on what I’ve learned over the past few years, to help you get started.
- Your blog is a multimedia content delivery platform. Keyword: Multimedia
- There is no shame in using a template, it does not make you any less legit, if anything it will just alleviate some of the pressure of creating a decent design to start out with.
- The content (writing/images/video/photo/audio) you create is always the most important element of your blog. If you’re worried about your layout to the point where you haven’t generated any content, you should stop worrying about it and start producing something for people to see.
- Despite what I just said, your blog layout is incredibly important. You need to consider it part of the conversation you’re creating with your audience and part of structure of the story you’re trying to tell. So you need to spend some time thinking about what your blog should look like.
- If you need to make a list of “must have” features, or draw a simple diagram of what you want your blog to look like, do it. It can only help you if you pre-visualize what it is you’re trying to do.
- If you are going to use a template, take time to learn about the template before you choose it. This is especially true if you are buying the template. Read all the information they give you before you buy a template. Check the details, number of columns, layouts options, does it support video? audio? is it adaptive? how does it display images? What resolution is required for images? what kind of customization can you do?
- Learn the terminology. What are “categories”? What are “pages”? What are “Menu’s”? “What are “tags”? What are “Widgets”? If you don’t know ask someone, or google it and find out, because you are going to need to know.
- Remember you are not designing a blog for your use, you are designing a blog to be used by the people who visit it. If it is obvious to you, it might not be obvious to a stranger. So, you need to take a step back and ask yourself, “would this make sense to someone who has never seen it before?”
- In a similar vein, be consistent with your design and layout. People like consistency in a website and get frustrated (and will leave the site) if they have to guess.
- Learn about the different blogging platforms. Wordpress, Blogspot, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube those are blogging platforms. There is a tool for every job, right!? Ok. So maybe what you’re looking for is something more like an Instagram feed or a YouTube channel rather than a traditional blog. Whatever you choose is fine, if it’s what you are interested in.
- You DO NOT have to know code or be a web designer to own and operate a blog. It does help and I do use it. Lately, I find myself continuing to learn about coding and trying to improve my skills so that I feel comfortable and capable of building my own site from the ground up, but it is absolutely not necessary. However, If you want to learn to code, or are interested in learning how to code you should go ahead and give it a shot, it can only help.
- Don’t worry if your blog is not perfect the first time, you can go back and tweak… nobody will hold it against you.
- Expect to always be trying to improve both your layout and your content. This is just the way it is.
- Don’t be afraid to solicit feedback. I constantly pester family and friends to check stuff for me. I ask them what they like and don’t like, and occasionally they help me proof read. It’s a learning process, and they all still talk to me, so it’s all good.
- Allow yourself the freedom to change things, rework stuff, reedit posts, change colours, change fonts, change categories etc… there is absolutely no reason why you can’t.
- When you inevitably get mad and start swearing at your computer, because you can’t get something to work, take a walk and relax, it will all make more sense when you’ve calmed down.