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Blog Design – When to Go for a Professional Template?

Time for a little reader discussion. This one is inspired by a question from Frederico from Tutorialstream.com who is considering starting a new blog and asks:

I was wondering if you think that starting with a standard/free/low quality template and after some time (when I have some kind of readership) upgrading to a good one would be a good idea in terms of branding, to increase traffic and to show the readers that “the blog is doing well”.

What advice would you give Frederico when it comes to the design of a new blog?

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Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Jenny Lens says:

    PROFESSIONAL IS THE ONLY WAY TO GO!! I struggled for months and months trying to find a free theme I could tweak. I finally found one, then after struggling with it for weeks, realized it wouldn’t work in 2.3.1. Something about it was choking my cpu usage, and I struggled to optimize it.

    I did yet another Google search and found Michael Pollack’s solostream.com themes. I wrote him early summer, when I was supposed to be paid for work and wanted to work with a pro. My money was embezzled, so I’ve been scrambling for months to survive.

    However, when I found Michael’s page of themes, I sent my $59 for WP-Glory (which was only about a month old, newly released for 2.3.1) and couldn’t be happier!!

    I spent one day tweaking it, still needs work, but doesn’t look like his basic theme other than three columns and a featured post on top. He also posted some videos, and I picked up a few tips.

    I learned it’s not just what the theme looks like, it’s the coding. Is the CSS set up so you can readily change type color, size, whatever? CSS optimized? Can you understand all the elements, to change the header, footer, whatever?

    I will never ever go back to free themes and I’ll make sure I’m buying from someone who makes a living designing themes/WP blogs. Not just someone who cuts and pastes some code from here and there. Been there, done that!!

    PS I’ve noticed some of the top blogs are ugly, some are beautiful. Lorelle’s tops that list. Look how elegantly simple, but she also doesn’t clutter it up with ads. I love dark turquoise blue, plus she organizes her info on sidebars and content so wonderfully.

    I love how Lorelle balances a design on the top left and her large signature on the bottom. Because she has so few graphics and ads, you can focus on the content and the few visuals make an impact. Oh, if we all could do that, survive without ads!

    The WORST offenses are bright colors clashing with each other, or as someone wrote, a dark background and white text. Keep it simple and calm. Less is more! Basic art 101!!

    I don’t want ads nor images in the middle of posts, but I’ll put up with them if the content is rich. As an artist, I am not seduced by a beautiful page if the content relies on too many outside links and there’s no personal comments. As an artist, I don’t want to see art just to fill up a blog.

    But if you have info I need to know, I’ll put up with a bad design, too many ads. But why discourage peeps? Hard enough to find readers, give them yet another incentive to stay!

  2. Mark says:

    Although content is king, currently I am in the process of strengthening my brand and will be investing in a customized theme.

    The new look will help to graphically support the launch of some really interesting posts and features I have coming up.

    I look at it as a long-term business decision.

  3. Stephanie says:

    I’ve always stuck with customizing free templates. Sometimes I’ve made some pretty serious changes, while other times I’ve just changed the header. I don’t want to look like dozens or hundreds of other blogs if I can help it.

    I do think starting out with at least some minimal customization helps. It seems to me that it could be harder to attract attention if new readers have seen the exact same template over and over.

  4. This is a question I’ve batted around in my head, too.

    Ultimately I decided that it’s more important to blog regardless of what the site looks like. In other words, you don’t want not having a professional design to stop you from publishing. Just look at Craigslist…

    But the sooner you can get around to it the better. I’m not practicing what I preach (read: haven’t got around to a custom design myself) but a Marketing degree and years of experience in the marketing field tell me consistency is king – you want a site design that reflects the look and feel of the message you’re sending through your blog posts, and rarely will you find a ready-made template that accomplishes that.

    There goes my $.02…

  5. Niamh says:

    I think political bloggers can get away with using templates. It is almost a mark of how serious they are and of course their content is king.

  6. Pieter says:

    I gotta agree with Urbanmonk as well. Getting a free template has a lot of benefits, especially as a starting blogger (which I am): It’s free, and it’s quick.

    Besides that, some free templates are of a pretty high quality, and with some minor customization, you surely can get a very nice individual look to your blog.

    I certainly plan on using my template for a while, and should I make some money, I might use it for a new template, but I’ll see to that when I get to it.

  7. I have considered purchasing a quality professional theme, such as the Revolution theme. But ultimately I decided that this would be limiting myself, in that I wouldn’t learn how to alter a free theme to my liking (which would lead to not knowing how to design a website).

    So instead, I took the incredibly flexible prosense theme and customized it to my liking, taking hints from professional themes. It was free, and I learned about web design.

  8. 66tx says:

    Read my guest post on Darren’s blog as to why it’s rather important:

  9. Jenny Lens says:

    OMG: I meant to praise Michael Pollack, of solostream.com, but I worded my first post badly. I wanted to hire Michael because I worked for someone and earned the money to work with a pro. I was tearing my hair out because I couldn’t find a free theme that I could modify per my needs. Lucky for us, Michael sells reasonably priced themes that are very easy to modify and are SEO optimized.

    Here’s the original post again with a corrected statement:

    PROFESSIONAL IS THE ONLY WAY TO GO!! I struggled for months and months trying to find a free theme I could tweak. I finally found one, then after struggling with it for weeks, realized it wouldn’t work in 2.3.1. Something about it was choking my cpu usage, and I struggled to optimize it.

    I did yet another Google search and found Michael Pollack’s solostream.com themes. I wrote him early summer, when I was supposed to be paid for work and wanted to work with a pro. My money was embezzled [by someone in the rock/art field, a "seed-y present-er" in SF, CA SO I COULD NOT HIRE MICHAEL]. I’ve been scrambling for months to survive.

    However, when I found Michael’s page of themes, I sent my $59 for WP-Glory (which was only about a month old, newly released for 2.3.1) and couldn’t be happier!!

    I spent one day tweaking it, still needs work, but doesn’t look like his basic theme other than three columns and a featured post on top. He also posted some videos, and I picked up a few tips.

    I learned it’s not just what the theme looks like, it’s the coding. Is the CSS set up so you can readily change type color, size, whatever? CSS optimized? Can you understand all the elements, to change the header, footer, whatever?

    I will never ever go back to free themes and I’ll make sure I’m buying from someone who makes a living designing themes/WP blogs. Not just someone who cuts and pastes some code from here and there. Been there, done that!!

    PS I’ve noticed some of the top blogs are ugly, some are beautiful. Lorelle’s tops that list. Look how elegantly simple, but she also doesn’t clutter it up with ads. I love dark turquoise blue, plus she organizes her info on sidebars and content so wonderfully.

    I love how Lorelle balances a design on the top left and her large signature on the bottom. Because she has so few graphics and ads, you can focus on the content and the few visuals make an impact. Oh, if we all could do that, survive without ads!

    The WORST offenses are bright colors clashing with each other, or as someone wrote, a dark background and white text. Keep it simple and calm. Less is more! Basic art 101!!

    I don’t want ads nor images in the middle of posts, but I’ll put up with them if the content is rich. As an artist, I am not seduced by a beautiful page if the content relies on too many outside links and there’s no personal comments. As an artist, I don’t want to see art just to fill up a blog.

    But if you have info I need to know, I’ll put up with a bad design, too many ads. But why discourage peeps? Hard enough to find readers, give them yet another incentive to stay!

  10. Sue says:

    Free definitely doesn’t mean low quality. You can have a professional looking blog without paying money to a designer. Oh, and buying a premade template like Revolution doesn’t really qualify as having a professionally designed template, unless you pay extra to have Brian customize it for you. Otherwise you will just be one of many with the Revolution theme.

    And with a little learning and a local copy of WordPress installed on your pc, you can do the customizations yourself on a well made, professional looking free theme that you start with. Unless of course you really think pink goes well with green and purple or that dark gray type on a black background is readable. Or that blinking headlines are the best. :)

    Of course, the key here is to start with a great theme, whether it’s free or not.

  11. greg hickman says:

    I’ve actually just gone out and found someone to redo my site. So excited to have it go live. In about a week or so it should be up running. I ultimately am trying to learn to do this myself so that in a few years I will do a custom theme. Not enough time to do that right now…

    I think having it done professionally, if you can find it for a reasonable price is definitely worth it if you see yourself blogging for years to come.

    I’m looking forward to the change so stay tuned!

    greg | http://www.toonice4tv.com

  12. Niamh says:

    @Jenny Lens
    I don’t think you need to worry. I tripped a little over your first posting and quickly got that you were praising Michael Pollock. I even went and checked out solostream.com and came away impressed.

  13. I think adding a custom header would be just enough to give your blog some additional personality w/o adding expenses. A header can be created with a nice piece of art or photo. You can create a header for FREE using several services. You can also use Irfanview. Good luck!

  14. Lejanson says:

    I have been looking for a good template on my own. For now, I am settling on a FREE one. It looks good somehow.

  15. Hi

    Well in my case i would say, that first you have to have clear what its a professional design and what its a on professional design.

    And other thing what i really think its matter its what you write, that really make you look professional, because what matter a good page a cute or awful template if you don’t have good content.

    or you here consider that its aren’t that way?

    bye, greetings from the seven color sea.

  16. Tommmmy says:

    I have only been blogging for a little over a year & started with a free Blogger template. I have learned how to customize it & it seems to work for me. Later this year I think I will alter the design with a new template that’s better though.

    Just curious about a comment I read earlier. Somebody said don’t have a black background with white letters, ha ha, mine does….and I like it.

    Could I get somebody to comment on my design or is that inappropriate? If not, here’s a link.

    http://www.bat-blog.com

  17. Chris Cagle says:

    My opinion is that if people have to ask the question as to whether a FREE template will work or not probably should use a free template.

    Those who are willing to spend the necessary money to get a custom template are serious about their endeavor and will reap the rewards sooner than those who wait by using a free template.

    With many new (read: worthless) blogs starting every minute, you need a way to stand out from the crowd. It takes two things to do that and be successful: a great writer, and a custom template. Two recent great examples: http://ittybiz.com/ and http://voxfortis.com/blog/

    Hope that helps a little…

  18. Federico says:

    well, I should correct, when I said free/low quality or professional I should have said free vs unique
    I know that a lot of free templates are really good both graphically and from a coding point of view.

    thanks everyone for the interesting opinions

  19. Lyle says:

    Where does one look for a good designer? Besides solostream.com
    Thanks

  20. china tour says:

    Besides that, some free templates are of a pretty high quality, and with some minor customization, you surely can get a very nice individual look to your blog.

  21. coldhitz says:

    I came across this today. I’m gonna read the tips and follow them , to the best of my abilities. I’ve been at it for only a short time , and I’m already wondering about the pro templates. It seems hard to scan through all the information given out about blogging. I do believe that the platform I’ve chosen ( blogger) has a high quality , smooth looking , free offering , that is pretty cool for the beginner, and has taught me the basics of building. I’m learning , and listening , with an open mind , and developing , what I believe is an important message. I wanna thank the people working so tirelessly to free the world from the chains of 9-5.

  22. lucas131 says:

    It can be a good thing to upgrade your blog template after time. But is it good for branding? Well logo of site on top make a crucial matter to branding so if you will make a big changes of your logo to something completely different few times people will not recognize your blog. People easy remember logos so its best to not change it too much and maybe one time try to make best possible blog template you can do. Focus on it a lot of time but then dont change after week or so. Maybe thats the way.

  23. BJ says:

    I have been looking at a ton of designs in the past 4 weeks. When I visit sites that list “the top 10(0) blog designs” etc. I always come away wanting.
    The best blogs (by readership) out there have GREAT content but very few have great design.
    Free or paid for, it all comes down to content.