Author Blogging 101: Blog Design

by Joel Friedlander on November 21, 2011 · 20 comments

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Okay, you’ve decided to start writing a blog and you’ve set up an account with blogger.com or wordpress.com or, if you listened to advice earlier in this series, you’ve got a hosting account of your own, acquired a snazzy domain name with at least one of your keywords in it, and you’re ready to go.

But wait. If you’ve got a WordPress site straight out of the box, it probably doesn’t look very impressive, does it? 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 your content. But that doesn’t mean that you can ignore your blog’s design and just publish all your posts in 10 point Arial.

The design of your blog is, in a sense, your packaging. It’s similar in a way to magazine design, where lots of elements come in to make the reading experience more engaging for the reader and help you to get the most out of the work you’ve put into your content.

But there’s a line. It’s a line many new bloggers have crossed, with not such good results. That line separates the design you really need to pay attention to, and the endless “tweaking”, fine tuning, experimenting and all the other little bits and pieces you can play with for weeks when you’re setting up your blog.

What do I mean by bits and pieces?

  • sidebar badges for groups you belong to
  • social media counters, so many designs to choose from
  • links to lots of other blogs
  • awards from blogging groups
  • links to your friends’ blogs and websites
  • widgets
  • tag clouds
  • Amazon stores
  • 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.

But here’s my message: you don’t need much in design to get your author blog moving.

One Approach to Overcoming “Tweak-itis”

You have to realize that this was a particularly dangerous area for me, because I’ve been a designer for many years.

I had never designed websites or blogs, or much of anything online, just stuff that was going to be printed in one way or another.

But there’s no tweaker like a graphic designer, because tweaking design is one of the definitions of what we do, and all designers know that’s how you get something that’s good to really finished.

author blogging 101

An early blog header from TheBookDesigner.com

But when it came to my blog, I knew right away that I would much rather tweak sidebar colors than write blog posts, so I decided early on that good enough was fine with me.

I bought Thesis, a premium WordPress theme, because it was supposed to be good for making my blog reflect well in search engines, and there was a big community of users and developers you could turn to for help.

And I used those forums a lot in the first couple of months as I got eveyrhting in shape. The only design I did was create a header jpg that I added to the blog to give it a distinctive look. And then I started writing.

It was late in the first year of blogging that I realized the blog would probably survive my initial incompetence, and hired a blog designer (mattchevy.com) to put in the design that I have now.

But here’s the point: once I had that header up and made sure the basic font size and spacing was easy to read, I pretty much ignored the design of the blog for months, concentrating instead on learning to write great content and market that content in my niche.

There Are Always Exceptions

Now, sure, there are some people whose professions demand that they have a more highly-designed or custom blog or website. But these people are a tiny minority of bloggers.

So here’s my advice for all the rest of us:

  1. Get your blog platform installed (WordPress 1-button install on many blog hosts these days)
  2. Find out how to get a header image onto the blog
  3. Create a header image, or hire someone to create one for you. Freelancers on sites like ODesk.com can do this for you quickly for $25 or less.
  4. Make sure the header contains some kind of branding, whether it’s the type treatment for the blog title, a picture of you, or a distinctive color scheme.
  5. Figure out the mechanics of using bullet lists, number lists, blockquotes, h3 and h4 heads
  6. Work on a content plan and start writing.

That’s it. If you’re successful, after 6 months or a year you will feel quite justified in doing a proper design of the site.

You’ll know a lot more about who your readers are and what your content focus will be. These two things alone will help guide you on the re-design.

Data

Here are the settings I use for this blog for the main text column. Although there are many new innovations coming in the near future, and more fonts for bloggers than what we are using now, I still find after 2 years that TheBookDesigner remains one of the easiest to read blogs around.

Font: Verdana
Font size: 13 point
Text column width: 530 pixels

Photo: VFS Digital Design

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    { 16 comments… read them below or add one }

    Lawrence November 21, 2011 at 1:33 am

    Some interesting points raised. I will try out the change of font. Still the same issue always rises as to how to get more readers.

    Lawrence fisher
    Author of “Kill me now!”

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 21, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Lawrence, there will be a number of articles on getting more readers as this series continues, so keep reading.

    Reply

    Mchael N. Marcus November 21, 2011 at 2:52 am

    >>But there’s no tweaker like a graphic designer, because tweaking design is one of the definitions of what we do . . .<<

    Joel, you're in good company.

    The New Yorker magazine has an excellent article about Steve Jobs, which says that his real genius is his tweaking. You can read it for free online. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/11/14/111114fa_fact_gladwell

    I'm a tweaker, too, but being a tweaker can be dangerous because nothing is ever really finished. POD makes it too easy to keep tweaking.

    When I was an advertising copywriter I was notorious for not “releasing” an ad until the last possible moment. Someone older and wiser told me that “sometimes ‘good enough’ really is good enough.”

    That was a valuable lesson and I have the words on a card hanging over my desk, and I look at it when I consider doing version 30-something of a book interior. Since I am the boss, I usually keep tweaking — even though I know I know I am probably the only one who will notice or care if I don’t tweak.

    Yesterday I decided to delay a book by a week to correct a comma that really should be a period. I know I am a tweak addict, but I don’t want to be cured. I’m glad that Steve was also addicted. My iPad is better because of it.

    Michael N. Marcus

    – Just out: “STINKERS!: America’s Worst Self-Published Books,” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0983057257

    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    http://www.BookFur.com (information, help and book reviews for authors)
    – Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    – “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0983057249

    Reply

    Tonja November 21, 2011 at 4:28 am

    Very helpful information as always. I do find your blog design very readable.

    Reply

    adan lerma November 21, 2011 at 4:40 am

    great reminder ;-)

    made also think about my header images, which i create and put up myself, changing it with the seasons (more or less), and that i should add some sm amt of text to help id the header as my site

    thanks much!

    Reply

    Bill November 21, 2011 at 5:35 am

    Good advice, but did you really pay someone to design this site?

    Reply

    Noel Burgess November 21, 2011 at 8:19 am

    I hate to say so, but this blog (or at least this page) is a mess in Internet Explorer 9! Specifying element widths in ems doesn’t work if font-size varies, so the CSS needs a thorough going-over. This screenshot shows the chaos at the top of the page with overlapping elements and so on:
    http://public.bay.livefilestore.com/y1pt0_hghyrp3LaR3r-Qml_Dctp-TmO6bmv9GsiMhaG5rS_GaTrkvImRbW-bCpODykd051UEOeOrhsCwFYFPvJKNw/The-Book-Designer.png
    Perhaps you should look for a new designer…

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus November 21, 2011 at 8:33 am

    The yellow copy block with Joel’s photo shows up as a long narrow column in IE for Windows. The “der” is chopped off “Friedlander” and other words are truncated. It has not always been this way. I noticed it a month or two ago. It’s OK with Chrome and Firefox.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 21, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Thanks to Noel and Michael for the feedback. It’s been a long time since I used IE, but I’ll have a look and see how to address this.

    Reply

    Maggie Dana November 21, 2011 at 8:42 am

    I use Safari, and this blog is definitely one of the most readable … and for good reason. There’s nothing quite like a p-book designer when it comes to laying out text and graphics.

    The other great design feature about this blog is ragged right. Blogs and Web sites should never have justified text … at least, not until HTML is able to hyphenate with the accuracy of page layout software.

    Reply

    Grace November 21, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Looks great in chrome. I also love the design process and I can’t tell you how many hours I spent tweaking my two Blogger blogs. Made me feel like a REAL designer. :) I think the blog should reflect the type of content it hosts. My blogs are more artsy because one is for creative writing and the other for gardening. The thing I hate is when blogs take too long to load and there is Pixie dust flowing off the cursor. Cute, but no thanks. :)

    Reply

    Joey Francisco November 21, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Outstanding topic yet again Joel! Fwiw, I designed my blog site and had a professional blog designer come up with the entire concept and we worked together on bringing it to life.

    I wanted it to show who I am, what I’m about, and announce to the world, a new southern, female author has emerged. Once ms is out the door to a few agents, then I’ll change a bit more of the tone, but will tweak the entries to focus more on generating interest geared somewhat towards the aspects/ethical questions the novel poses.

    Mine has only been up a few weeks, but am enjoying the growth process. Keep up the great posts! Really enjoying reading your site.

    Reply

    J S November 22, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Less is more when it comes to the website design. Careful with the sidebar activity.

    I’m hosting some author blogs at acorn2.webhop.net

    The key to transforming an ok blog into a fantastic one is the photography in your header. Then the fonts, but really, the fonts are set up with a series of options in case the reader’s system doesn’t have that font package. Windows, Mac, Linux OSs with different browsers and fonts installed all change the layout. Think what putting a book cover on a good book can do for sales. My author weblog (linked to my name above) is a picture I took inside the tasting room of a California Winery I’m involved with (montedeoro.com). The use a program like gimp.org to overlay the text on the cropped picture.

    And you’re on your way.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 22, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    I think my blog really changed when I started using the big header images for every post. Although it adds a bit of overhead to the time it takes to create an article, it’s undeniable that the photos grab attention and make the whole experience more interesting and fun.

    Reply

    Deirdre Saoirse Moen June 4, 2014 at 1:47 am

    I’ve tried doing header images for every post, but I think I’d need a much bigger audience to justify even the minimal costs (and time!) involved. It does add a lot, though.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 4, 2014 at 10:43 am

    Deirdre, you might want to check out this post (and don’t miss the comments) if you want to get completely free images for your blog:
    4 Incredible Free Sources for Photos to Use in Your Book or Blog

    Reply

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