by Joel Friedlander
Starting a blog is pretty easy. You just need to learn the basic elements (see “Blog Infrastructure,” February), set up an account with blogger.com or WordPress.com or a hosting account of your own, and acquire a snazzy domain name with at least one of your keywords in it.
But wait. If you have a WordPress site straight out of the box, it probably doesn’t look very impressive. In fact, it looks exactly like thousands of other brand new WordPress blogs.
Of course most people don’t come to blogs to marvel at the lovely design. They come to read the content. But that doesn’t mean that you can ignore design and just publish all your posts in 10 point Arial.
The design of your blog is, in a sense, the packaging. It’s similar in a way to magazine design, which arranges lots of elements to make the reading experience more engaging for the reader and help the publisher get best results from investments of time and money.
Still, there’s a line that separates the design you really need to pay attention to from the design that involves endless tweaking, fine-tuning, experimenting, and playing with little bits and pieces when you’re setting up your blog. It’s a line many new bloggers have crossed, to their sorrow.
What do I mean by bits and pieces?
• social media counters (so many designs to choose from)
• links to lots of other blogs
• awards from blogging groups
• sidebar badges for groups you belong to or your company does business with
• links to trading partners’ and friends’ blogs and Web sites
• tag clouds
• header designs
• column layouts
• AdSense placements
Should I stop now?
You get the idea. There is almost no end to the fussing you can do with a blog, and it can be great fun.
When I decided to start my blog, tweak-itis was particularly dangerous for me because I had been a graphic designer for many years and tweaking design is what graphic designers do. All designers know that’s how you get something that’s good.
But here’s my message: You don’t need much in design to make a blog effective.
Content Comes First
To launch my blog, I bought Thesis, a premium WordPress theme, because it was supposed to be good for making a blog reflect well in search engines, and there is a big community of users and developers I could turn to for help.
And I used that community a lot in the first couple of months as I got everything in shape. But the only design work I did was creating a header JPG that I added to the blog to give it a distinctive look.
And then I started writing. It wasn’t until late in the first year of blogging, when I realized the blog would probably survive my initial incompetence, that I hired a blog designer (mattchevy.com) to put in the design that I have now.
Here’s one of my early blog headers:
And here’s the current header:
But here’s the point: Once I had a header up and made sure the basic font size and spacing used for posts made them easy to read, I pretty much ignored the design of the blog for months, concentrating instead on learning to write content people would value and learning to market that content in my niche.
Basic Design in Six Steps
Now, sure, there are some people whose professions demand that they have a more highly designed or custom blog or Web site. But these people are a tiny minority of bloggers.
So here’s my advice for all the rest of us:
• Get your blog platform installed (WordPress 1-button install is available from many blog hosts
• Find out how to get a header image onto the blog.
• Create a header image, or hire someone to create one for you. Freelancers on sites like ODesk.com
can do it quickly for $25 or less.
• Make sure the header communicates some kind of branding, whether through the type treatment for
the blog title, a picture of you, or a distinctive color scheme.
• Figure out the mechanics of using bulleted lists, numbered lists, blockquotes, and h3 and h4 heads.
• Work on a content plan; start writing and keep writing.
That’s it. If you’re successful, after six months or a year you will feel quite justified in doing—or commissioning—a proper design of the site, because you’ll know a lot more about who your readers are and what your content focus is. These two things alone will get you a long way.
Joel Friedlander, who blogs about book design and the indie publishing life at TheBookDesigner.com, is an award-winning book designer; the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, a publishing services company in San Rafael, CA; and the author of A Self-Publisher’s Companion.
Functional Without Frills
Although innovations keep coming and more fonts are available for bloggers now than when I was setting up TheBookDesigner two years ago, l find that it remains one of the easiest-to-read blogs.
Here are the settings I use for this blog’s main text column:
Font size: 13 point
Text column width: 530 pixels