One blogger that I read regularly and have come to respect over the last few years is Benjamin Yoskovitz from Instigator Blog. Yesterday Ben and I were chatting on skype and he mentioned that today he was launching a new design on his blog. I liked what I saw of the new design and said he should write up a post talking readers through how he went through the redesign process. Today the following post hit my inbox – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Design matters. A great, well-polished design raises the bar of your blog instantly. “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” And it’s a shame and waste when you don’t make the right impression off-the-bat.
There are millions of blogs out there. And one way you can stand out from the crowd is through a good design. Certainly, you need to back it up with quality content, but don’t forget that first impression…
I recently launched a new design for Instigator Blog. It took quite some time to do, and although the original design was something I put together, I brought in much better designers than me to help out. That’s really the first important point: Get help. If your blog is important enough to you, then hire someone to help you.
With this redesign, I didn’t only tackle things at the surface level — this wasn’t simply about putting a new face on the blog — I decided to examine each and every element of it, and do a real overhaul. Hopefully my experience reviewing my blog with a fine tooth comb helps others.
1. What’s Your Blog’s Brand? What’s Your Brand?
The first thing I did was examine the overall brand of Instigator Blog and how I wanted that portrayed. The name lends itself to a more “aggressive” look, but I didn’t want the blog to be “in your face” or “over the top.” It was important to blend the instigator with sophistication. Describing how you want to be portrayed, or your brand, isn’t always easy. I did it by listing a bunch of words, and then sorting and ranking them. For example:
Writing the words out, and moving them around, helps you get a clearer vision of what you’re looking for. Then I looked at other websites and blogs, searching for designs that I thought matched the words (or criteria). This can be a difficult process, but I was able to pick elements out of numerous designs that I thought fit well, and start stitching them together.
Note: Try writing out colors as well, that you feel represent your brand. Picking the right colors for your blog is critical.
2. Tackle the Design Basics.
I had several design goals in mind for the new look. For example, I wanted the content to be higher up on the page. I also wanted to clean up the sidebars and really think about what belonged there and in what order. It was important to truly de-clutter the design. These are what I call “design basics” because they don’t give you a full picture or overall view of what your design should be, but they help set out some simple parameters. For example, I knew I wanted a better footer and a better Archives page.
Again, I looked around the Web at many sites that I liked and admired. ProBlogger was one, as was copyblogger. When looking at design, layout or structural basics, just go to the experts; they’ve spent way more time than any of us evaluating what works and doesn’t. I used Shoemoney’s Advertising Page as a template for my own (previously I didn’t have one.) There’s nothing wrong with using elements of someone else’s design, as long as you’re not outright copying or stealing.
With some basic design, layout and structural decisions made, I continued to evolve the overall look and feel of the site (along with the expert web designers.)
3. Go Through the Design Process.
You’ll never get a design right the first time. I probably went through 5 or 6 designs before I got one I was happy with. And then the process of smaller iterations began. Once you have a design you’re happy with, you can expect to be fine tuning for some time. Especially if you’re really going to evaluate each component of the blog.
Once I had a design that I was 80% or so pleased with, I started implementing it, filling in the spaces and seeing what it looked like.
4. Deeper Structural Issues.
As the design came to life, I was faced with several tough decisions. For example, I decided to use excerpts on the home page instead of full posts. I also decided to remove the list of categories from the sidebar. And you’ll no longer see the same prominence of social bookmarking links either.
A big part of any blog comes down to information architecture – how do you organize the content in a way that makes sense, makes it easily accessible, and helps people dig deeper? This was one of my biggest challenges, primarily because of my blog’s diversity and evolution. I’ve never been able to stick with one niche, jumping around from blog tips to marketing, small business issues and social media. Of late, my blog’s focus has really been on startups and entrepreneurship. As a result, my audience is diverse, coming to me from different sources, looking for different things. And how to organize that content better is tough. If someone visits because of a Google search on blogging tips, I want to make sure they’re presented with additional, related content, not stuff about startups or buzz marketing.
I’ve tackled this by using the sidebar more effectively. When you view a single post on Instigator Blog you’ll see two lists in the sidebar: Most Popular Posts and Recent Posts. That’s nothing new, lots of blogs do that. But my lists are related to the category of the blog post you’re viewing. So if you’re viewing a blog post on startups, the popular and recent posts will only be about startups. I also highlight six key categories in my footer, sorted in order of importance, instead of showing all my blog’s categories.
The goal of showing the most popular and recent posts by category is to give people who get to the blog via a single post (which happens often) additional, targeted content. There’s plenty of content in each category to keep people busy, and if they see enough of value in one category, they’re more likely to subscribe. Then they can discover additional categories of content later.
Of course, after coming up with the solution for targeted popular and recent posts, I realized that I’d have to go through all my categories and do two things: (1) come up with a shorter list, and (2) re-categorize all my blog posts. Many of my posts were in 2, 3 or even 4 categories. That starts to pose a real problem when trying to show targeted lists in the sidebar. So I re-categorized almost every post, and now, only a few remain in 2 categories, whereas most of them only have one.
5. Endless Fine Tuning.
A blog design is never set in stone. You know you’ll be modifying it, tweaking it and experimenting with it forever. That’s what we do. But I wanted to get as much of it done as possible up-front. And there’s always “one more issue” to handle. For example, I went through and looked at the design and formatting of:
- Numbered and bulleted lists
- H3 tags
- Advertising graphics
- Link colors
- Font sizes
The fine tuning will never end, but the best time to tackle these issues is during a redesign when you can focus on the big picture look but also the nitty-gritty details.
No blog redesign would be complete without a full evaluation of the copy. Obviously you can’t go back and re-write any posts (well, you can, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort), but you can certainly look at the supporting pages and all the supporting copy. I re-wrote my About page (which I had intended to do for many months), created an Advertising page, and generally did a sweep of the site. Writing a great About page is a must, but it’s not always the easiest thing to do.
Launching a new blog or a new design is never easy. There are many steps to go through, many things to double check. I went through and deactivated a host of plugins (and activated new ones.) I tested everything thoroughly and discovered numerous bugs that had to be dealt with. This is a tricky and often frustrating process, and it always takes longer than you think.
I’m thrilled with the way my blog turned out. Will it be the last redesign? Probably not. But for now I’m glad that most of the work is done, and I can go back to writing!