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Boost Your Blog #6: Optimize Menus and Sidebars

Continuing our discussion of things you should be doing right now to improve your blog, today’s tip is:

6. Optimize your menus, navigation, and sidebars

One task that I think many of us could benefit from on a periodic basis is a critical review of menus and navigation areas on our blogs.

I include myself in this—recently it hit me that on my photography blog I wasn’t promoting my ebooks in my menus. I just had one menu item pointing to a very dated page that was no longer relevant. I swapped the photography ebook sales page link in and again saw an increase of traffic to that landing page.

Ultimately, it’s about working out what actions you want readers to take when they visit your blog and then making sure that you’re calling your readers to those actions in prominent places on your blog.

Are you doing this? Can you optimize your menus and sidebars further?

5 Simple Font Changes to Boost Readers, Comments, and Shares on Your Blog

This guest post is by Bnonn of Attentionthievery.info.

You may not realize it, but the font settings on your blog can have a huge effect on how many people read your content.

And how many people read your content has a huge effect on whether a post goes viral.

How huge? Well, by some accounts I’ve read, just one common mistake with colors could reduce readership by a factor of five. And if you’re not making that mistake, you’re probably making at least one of four others. So in this article, I’ll give you the five most important best practices for presenting text to keep readers glued to your content, and away from the old back button.

Font size—16px minimum

At the very top of the the pile of legibility problems is font size. Back in 2005, Jakob Nielsen reported that in a survey of web design problems, bad fonts got nearly twice as many votes as the next contender—with two-thirds of voters complaining about small font sizes.

Sadly, nothing has changed since then. A random sampling of new blog designs at SiteInspire (a web design gallery showcasing the best of the best designs) shows that the average font size for body copy is 12 pixels. Some as low as ten pixels. None over 14 pixels. Similarly, if you randomly sample offerings from the popular Elegant Themes or ThemeForest, you’ll find that every single theme sets post content at 12 or 13 pixels.

And of course, other theme creators tend to follow the lead of the bigwigs.

But as usability and typography expert Oliver Reichenstein of Information Architects points out, 16 pixels is the font size that browsers were intended to display by default—and it is not big. 16px text on an average screen looks about the same size as 12-point text in print. That’s the default size for most magazines, as well as all word processors, because it’s the size people find most comfortable to read. Many people—especially those over 40—find it very difficult to read smaller text. As Reichenstein observes:

There is no reason for squeezing so much information onto the screen. It’s just a stupid collective mistake that dates back to a time when screens were really, really small … At first, you’ll be shocked how big the default text is. But after a day, you won’t want to see anything smaller than 100% font-size for the main text. It looks big at first, but once you use it you quickly realize why all browser makers chose this as the default text size.

Use dark on light text—reversed is no good

Fortunately we’ve pretty much moved past the days when content authors thought that fuchsia on blue text was cool. But white on black text, known as reversed type, is still pretty common. As are variants like white on some other dark color.

Reversed type reduces not only the number of people who’ll bother to read your content, but also their comprehension of it. This is because it strains the eyes. Staring at reversed text for an extended period tends to create a kind of “glare” effect, where you feel like the letters are too bright to look at. Depending on what research you consult, studies show that light on dark text reduces your readership between 50% and 400%.

Why risk losing so many readers? Black or very dark gray on white looks clean, and there are plenty of great themes that use those colors.

Line width—45 to 75 characters

Here’s another little-known rule that a lot of blogs break. In order for your eye to easily follow one line to the next, you want no more than 75 characters in each line. This is called the line measure. Beyond a measure of 75 characters, it’s hard to track the end of one line to the beginning of the next without getting lost.

On the other hand, if you have a measure of less than 45 characters your eye will get fatigued quickly, because you’ve barely started to read one line when you have to jump to the next. You feel like you never get a chance to rest.

For this reason, your ideal post content area will have lines of text about 60 characters long. Of course, you do also have to take aesthetics into account. On many blogs, the “ideal” measure leaves a huge gap on the right margin, or makes the text seem squished into a tiny area. I use a measure of around 70 characters on my own website for exactly that reason. But if you’re pushing past 80 characters, you’re reducing your readership—guaranteed.

Line height—130% or more

Fortunately this is a less common mistake. If you’re using a professional theme, you probably don’t need to worry.

To give you an example, I’ve set this paragraph at the default line height (also called leading, after the strips of lead used to separate lines of text on old printing presses). It feels cramped and uninviting to read, and it’s hard to follow the lines from one to the next because they blend into each other.

On the other hand, this paragraph is set with a line height of 200%—equivalent to double spacing in a word processor. I’m sure you’ll agree that the lines here feel way too disconnected from each other, and unless you’re submitting a research paper this is not the way to go.

Finally, this paragraph is set with a line height of 150%. That means that for every pixel of font size, there’s one and a half pixels of distance between the lines. This turns out to be pretty reliable sweet spot for most fonts you’re likely to use on a blog—but feel free to experiment between about 130% and 160% to see what works best for your own content.

The left margin—don’t break it

This last tip isn’t exactly a font issue. But it fits into the same general category. Bloggers routinely include images in their posts. Whether or not that’s really a good idea is a topic for another time—but for now, let me just give you one piece of advice.

The left margin is sacred. It’s how we track text down a page in the Western world. It’s the “ground” out of which the lines grow (often to quite different lengths), and it’s the foundation for our eyepath as we read down the page.

But if you break the left margin, that all goes to hell. Your eye has to scan around to try to pick up the new margin, so you can keep on reading.

In other words, every time you left-align an image, you put a speed-bump in your reader’s path. And you’re compounding the problem by dragging his attention away from the text with your visually dominant image. Needless to say, readers who keep being distracted and having to relocate the left margin often don’t read to the end of a post—so they often don’re share it or comment on it.

Bonus tip: drop caps increase readership

By “drop caps” I mean initial capitals, where the first letter of the first word of your post stands out much bigger than the rest. According to research conducted by Ogilvy & Mather, this increases readership of a piece by an average of 13%.

Drop caps aren’t built into most blog themes, and they can be tricky to do on the web, but if you’re up to a little coding, check out this tutorial on how to create them.

Five mistakes: which ones are you making?

Now is the time to head on back to your own blog and see which of these five important best practices you’re not practicing. Then, fixum! But don’t forget to share the changes you’ve made in the comments below!

Bnonn is the author of 25 free video lessons on how to turn visitors into customers—part of his conversion-optimization course ‘Attention-Thievery 101’. Known in the boroughs as the Information Highwayman, he helps small businesses sell more online by improving both their copy and design. When he’s not knee-deep in the guts of someone’s homepage, he is teaching his kids about steampunk, Nathan Fillion, and how to grapple a zombie without getting bit.

Blogosphere Trends + Improving Readability

Hello again, fellow bloggers! Last month, we talked about how to find and interpret your blog’s readability score. If you weren’t happy with what you found, don’t worry: there are plenty of ways to improve readability and we’ll look at a few today.

Some, such as using shorter sentences, may actually improve your readability score. Others, like font choice and adequate white space, won’t impact your score but are every bit as important. As I said last month, it’s not the score that matters, it’s whether readers find your blog useful and engaging. This month’s tips will help you connect with readers … even if you have no interest in your numerical score.

To give you some examples of these principles at work, we’ll use blog posts about the past month’s most-blogged-about stories (rankings provided, as always, by Regator. (They are, in order: Bin Laden, Memorial Day, Donald Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, Cannes Film Festival, Rapture, Tornado, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.) Here’s how you can start improving your readability right away:

1. Use fewer links

Some studies have shown that links in text reduce comprehension, even if they’re not clicked. The theory is that each time you are presented with a link, your brain pauses, ever so briefly, to assess the situation—to click or not to click? Those little decisions break your concentration and decrease comprehension.

The problem with eliminating all links is that linking can provide additional information, promote your old posts, support your opinion, and build community, among other things. So what to do?

Nicholas Carr suggests putting relevant links at the bottom of your posts rather than within it, which is a valid option. My advice would be to continue to use links but to do so sparingly, with the awareness that they do impact readability. Make sure each link you choose to use serves a purpose.

Examples:
Compare CPJ’s “After bin Laden, a warning to foreign journalists,” which is less distracting because of its lack of links with the ACLU Blog of Rights post “The CIA Weighs In: Torture Did Not Help Find Bin Laden,” which features links that provide context and additional information.

2. Use clear language and avoid jargon

Avoiding jargon and using language that is as simple as possible will increase your potential audience. Even if your blog focuses on a niche that uses a lot of jargon or technical terms, such as business or the scientific community, consider whether saying the same thing in another way could help you expand your reach and readership.

Example:
Storage Bits’s “Memorial Day 2011: defending the 9th” breaks down the U.S. Constitution’s ninth amendment into simple language and, in doing so, increases readability.

3. Proofread carefully before you publish

Nothing decreases readability like typos or grammatical errors. Everyone makes mistakes (mentioning typos in a post always scares me because that’s inevitably when something sneaks past you), but endeavor to make as few as possible because once you hit publish, your errors stick around on the internet.

Example:
Bossip, which, it should be said, is a good blog that makes very few errors of this type, had a typo in its headline “Wait A Damn Mintue: Palin and Trump ‘Palling Around’ In NYC … Are They Joining Forces?“ and though they corrected the error, dozens of sites had linked to the incorrect version before it could be fixed and those links live on in Google.

4. Put thought into your font choice

The serif vs. sans-serif debate has been raging for as long as typography has been studied. (Alex Poole wrote a brilliant post based on his review of more than fifty studies.) Historically, serif fonts have been considered more readable in print but many argue that sans-serif fonts work best online.

Given the lack of a truly conclusive answer, I’m not going to advise you to definitively go with one over the other, but I will advise you to give it some thought. It not only impacts readability but also the general feel and aesthetic of your site. Consider not only serif vs. sans-serif but also line spacing, font size, and the aesthetics of specific fonts. Try timing yourself reading the same text in several different fonts with various spacing options and sizes to see which is fastest and easiest to read.

Example:
There are countless font size/spacing/type combinations but start by comparing Gawker’s “Schwarzenegger Son Didn’t Know the Truth Until This Week,“ which uses larger, airier serif fonts, with LAist’s “Oops, He Did it Again: Schwarzenegger Not Being Investigated by Attorney General,” which uses smaller, more tightly spaced sans serif fonts.

5. Use active rather than passive voice

To remind the non grammar nerds among us: In sentences written in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing the action. For example: “Wombats write gardening blogs.” In the passive version, “Gardening blogs are written by wombats” (please note that the accuracy of these sentences cannot be guaranteed), the target of the action becomes the subject. So why should you avoid passive voice? Because in most cases, it will tighten your writing and make your sentences clearer, thus improving readability.

A recent Northumbria University study found that less educated readers may struggle to understand passive sentences when compared to active sentences. That’s not to say there isn’t a time and a place for passive voice. It’s useful when you either don’t know or are trying to avoid stating who performed an action (e.g., “The bank was robbed”).

Example:
PSFK’s “Lady Gaga And The Future Of Music Albums“ uses active voice throughout the first paragraph but switches to passive for the second paragraph’s first sentence because it would be difficult to accurately list all of the individuals involved in arranging Lady Gaga’s products, events, deals, and appearances.

6. Write to communicate, not to impress

I’m not advocating for the dumbing down of language, but I am encouraging you to use the words that do the best job of communicating your message, regardless of whether you know a longer, fancier way of saying something. Don’t say “utilize” instead of “use” just to try to sound impressive. A writer’s goal is to communicate effectively. We’d all do well to remind ourselves of that every so often.

Example:
PopWatch’s “Oprah gives her email out to everyone in the free world!“ uses straightforward language without sounding as though they’ve attempted to dumb it down.

7. Don’t justify text

Text with a ragged right margin is generally considered to be more readable than fully justified text. It provides more consistent spacing between letters and words, increases white space, and allows the eye to keep its place more easily. Unless you have a strong opinion about using justified text for its aesthetic appeal, go with flush-left text with a ragged right margin for readability.

Example:
Compare Film School Rejects’s justified “Who Should Have Won Cannes 2011: The (Unbelievably Prestigious) FSR Awards with 24 Frames’s flush left “Cannes 2011: A spell of conflict, and then (some) resolution” to see how justification impacts readability.

8. Use colors that are easily readable

For visual appeal, you may choose another palette, but for contrast and readability, black text on a white background is your best bet. If you’re going to use colored backgrounds and text, be cautious. Color combinations from opposite ends of the color spectrum quickly fatigue the eyes causing color “vibrations”, as do colors that don’t provide enough contrast.

Keep in mind that certain combinations also make your site less accessible to your colorblind readers. There are a number of sites that show you how your site would look to colorblind visitors—it is estimated that as many as 10% of men are colorblind so it’s not an insignificant concern.

Example:
Though opposite, Good’s black on white “’I Don’t Understand’: How Rapture Believers Are Taking It” and Geekologie’s white on black “That Nutjob: Rapture Happened ‘Spiritually’, Apocalypse Still Slated For October 21st are both high-contrast and accessible.

9. Use as many words as you need, and not one more

Example: Need to Know’s “Twisted logic: What tornadoes don’t have to do with global warming” is a good example of concise writing.

10. Keep sentences and paragraphs short

Reading from an illuminated screen is more taxing on the eyes than reading from a printed page and slows reading by as much as 30%. So avoid large blocks of text whenever possible, keep text scannable by using short sentences and subheadings, and allow for ample white space.

Example:
The Two-Way’s post “In Goodbye Note, Strauss-Kahn Denies Accusations” illustrates a number of the points we’ve talked about here by featuring high-contrast text with a ragged right margin, short paragraphs, ample white space, and a large serif font.

Will you be making any changes to improve readability based on these tips? Tell us about it in the comments!

Kimberly Turner is a cofounder of Regator.com, Regator for iPhone and the brand-new Regator Breaking News service for journalists and bloggers. She is also an award-winning print journalist. You can find her on Twitter @kimber_regator.

8 Strategic Blog Home Pages that Draw Readers Deeper

This guest post is by The Blog Tyrant.

One of the hardest tasks a blogger can face is getting readers to stick around. In actual fact, its one of the most important things you’ll ever learn to do. Why? Because unless those visitors delve deeper into your site you are essentially wasting your time with all that amazing content, social media effort, and SEO work.

Bloggers often forget that we need to use things like design, layout, colors, format, and so on to help visitors delve further in to our sites.

In this post I’m going to show you eight blog home pages that make readers click deeper. Hopefully it will give you some ideas for your own.

8 Home pages that draw readers deeper

I wanted to start off by letting you know that each of these pages was chosen for a different reason. Now, I’m not saying that these are the best blog home pages in the world. What I am saying is that each one does something extremely well that encourages new visitors to become more loyal readers.

1. Mashable

Mashable is one of the world’s biggest blogs and has a massively high page views. The main reason they are able to do this is through social proofed elements of their layout. Let me explain.

Social proof is where you provide some kind of assurance that other people have used your service. Testimonials, for example, are a common form of social proof. These things reduce anxiety in the reader but also serve to encourage a group mentality whereby people want to be involved in what other people are doing. It’s just human nature.

Mashable is all about social media and you see items like the “most shared this week” and the number of Facebook “likes” featuring prominently. The “buzz” this creates gets people to go deeper in to the site—people want to read articles that hundreds of others found interesting.

2. Digital Photography School

Digital Photography School is Old Man Rowse’s biggest blog. It has hundreds of thousands of subscribers and is one of the most heavily community-based blogs you’ll ever read. The activity in the comments and the forums is really quite wonderful.

I remember when Darren first released the new DPS design; I was blown away by how efficient and enticing it was. The old site was a straight up one column blog but this is a multi-level blog that divides the areas up by different sections of interest. Want to read about photography? Just go to that section. Want to read about equipment? Go over there.

This is a fantastic way to ensure photographers find areas of interest at the home page. It gives very little room for people to get bored and move on.

3. Huffington Post

Huffington Post. The blog turned worldwide news source. Sigh. Whatever you might say about the quality of the news that comes out of the site, the layout is extremely captivating. And it’s not because it’s pretty. Here is an example of a site on which the visuals aren’t necessarily pleasing, but they are very effective.

The area of the home page above the fold is dedicated to the most shocking current story as well as a pop up bar that asks you to get involved. It also uses a series of highly placed headers to show you what news is trending at the moment. Again, this is done to capitalize on people’s need to know what other people are interested in.

Scroll further down the home page and you see more engaging items like author profile photos to build loyalty, huge comment counts on featured articles and a mix of featured articles from different topics.

4. Zen Habits

Leo from Zen Habits is one of the nicest guys in the world. A few years ago he gave me some free advertising space and helped me launch a new blog. His new design is totally minimal and fits in extremely well with the branding of the site. Lots of space.

This type of strategy works extremely well for a blog with amazing content. Why? Because it is entirely focused on that content. You read that first amazing article and you feel compelled to delve deeper.

This is a brave design that takes a lot of courage because if each and every post that appears on the homepage is not amazing, you will see a lot of people drop off.

5. Smart Passive Income

Speaking of nice guys, Pat from Smart Passive Income is one of the nicest. Recently when I was setting up my podcasts he gave me a lot of time-saving tips. And that is a big theme in Pat’s design: help.

See the top level of menu items? Each one has a sub heading that gives you more information about what to expect inside. I remember the first time I visited Pat’s site, I spent ages clicking through each menu item to browse the contents. That is something I don’t normally do. The navigation is extremely “sticky”.

Similarly, there is a little space below the menu where Pat gives little random messages or tips. This takes the “tutorial” vibe of his site even further and definitely makes the experience feel more personal and intimate.

6. Tumblr

The guys at Tumblr are extremely good at design. In my article on the 12 Best About Us Pages I confessed that I thought theirs was the best one of the lot. And while the blog homepage isn’t right up to that standard, it is still worth a look.

The reason I included Tumblr in this list is because they use simple graphical elements to draw the eye down. Each post is very simple and usually only includes a picture or a bit of text. And each alternating post has a different background. Mixed with the fact that the emphasis is on showing which staff member wrote each post and you have an extremely addictive blog home page.

7. Fail Blog

Fail Blog, in case you have been living under a rock, is part of the LOL Cat empire. These guys build sites with funny pictures of cats and dogs and people getting hurt and make a small (read: large) fortune out of it.

Again, the homepage design is not beautiful, but it is extremely addictive. You can navigate through all their sites from the top as well as getting in on the action by voting for the best fails. They also have a little “random fail” generator, which is the kind of gimmick people on this site love to use to waste more of their day.

One of the cleverest ideas here is the fact that every can have a go at re-captioning the fails. This builds on the community in a massive way by getting everyone interacting with each fail multiple times. People write new captions and then come back to see what other people are saying about it.

8. The Onion

The Onion is quite literally one of the funniest websites on the Internet. And aside from hilarious content, great titles, and a home page that lets you see a plethora of content all at once, one thing they do really well is have an interactive and changing header that gives you access to new information.

Normally blogs just have a static header but this one moves and changes based on what’s going on at the blog. Sure, they still have the same logo and colors to keep the branding recognizable but they also use the variation to get people involved in new areas. Very clever.

Lessons to apply to your own blog

So what are the take-aways from these eight blogs home pages? What are some concrete things you can apply to your own blog today to increase the amount of pages people view?

  • Focus on social proof.
    Make sure your homepage always has elements that relate to social proof. Use testimonials, popular articles, high comment counts, and social media followers to show that your blog is busy. This is something that you should never underestimate.
  • Know your audience.
    It is really important to know who is coming to your home page and why. Are they coming for this topic or that topic? Do they want to read articles or listen to podcasts? Make sure your navigation allows them to find what they want instantly.
  • Let your story show.
    Make sure you use photos or text to tell your story. Let people become loyal to you and your message. Tumblr does this with staff profiles, Pat does this by showing himself with his baby, etc. You want to make sure people feel like you are different from everyone else they’ve seen today.

As I mentioned in the post about the best about us pages, it is a really good idea to occasionally take a look at what the big guys in the industry are doing. Quite often they are doing it for a reason. The most important thing, however, is to make sure you don’t leave it as an idea but apply it to your own blog right away.

What draws you in?

I’d like to open up the floor now and find out what parts of a website’s home page draw you in deeper? Is it something to do with the layout, the content, the colors—or something totally different? Please leave a comment and let me know.

The Blog Tyrant hasn’t revealed his name yet but we know that he is a 25-year-old guy from Australia who works from home and has sold several blogs for around the $20,000 mark. Now he’s teaching you how to dominate your blog. Subscribe by email to get his free eBook on capturing 120% more email subscribers overnight or follow him on Facebook.

The Ultimate Guide to Creating Your Blog Logo

This guest post is by Liane of the Blog Design Team.

After almost three years of blogging, and about the same time spent discovering my addiction to graphic design, I’ve come to realize that both of my passion go hand in hand. Blogging and design is a match made in heaven. And my favorite project to work on? Logos, of course.

Sure, I’ve made designs for both online and offline business, but when a blogger knocks at my mail box, I give them special priority. That’s because, in truth, designing a blog logo is one of the trickiest things to do. Of course there would always be clients who’re easy to deal with and just give me free reign in creating the design (not recommended!), but more often than not, bloggers are particularly nitpicky (as you should be) at every step in the process. And I don’t blame them. I’ve been there, done that—I actually used my previous blog as a guinea pig for countless logo experiments.

In this post, I want to cover all the bases with regards to designing a blog logo—from its importance to a blog, to the process of creating your own. Even if you’re already happy with the logo you have right now, who knows? Within the next few months or years, you might revamp your blog or create a new blog altogether—and then, this guide ought to be useful.

What’s the big deal with a blog logo?

I know a lot of non-believers out there. These bloggers do away with logos and rely on other branding techniques such as their name as a brand (e.g. the blogs of Seth Godin and Matt Cutts). These cases are exceptions to the rule. If you are Matt Cutts or Seth Godin, would you even need a logo to begin with? In reality, the blogosphere is split on this issue. While some bloggers consider their own logo a requirement for branding, for others, it doesn’t really add any value.

At the end of the day, I think it’s a matter of personal choice whether or not you think a logo is something you want on your blog. But eventually, most bloggers realize they need to have one to help build their blogs and their reputations, for a number of reasons:

Branding

Among the sea of blogs out there, being noticed can be a challenge—especially for new blogs. And it won’t make it any easier if you just leave your blog’s name in plain text as your header. A logo is also useful once you start developing products and services, as using a logo in your ebook or videos, for example, looks much more credible than just using your domain name.

Recognition

Blogs gain popularity the moment they’re recognized and remembered by an audience. This is where logos play an important role—they represent you, and make it easier for readers to connect to your blog.

Authority

Okay, maybe logo isn’t much of a factor to your authority. Though that doesn’t mean it should be completely set aside. In terms of authority, I think a good logo should act as an important symbol of your authority and credibility.

The makings of a great blog logo

There’s no concrete formula for creating a great blog logo.

Most of the time, it’s just the blogger’s and/or the designer’s discretion that comes into play. Being both a blogger and a designer gave me a good perspective on this issue, and based on the clients I’ve handled, these criteria have proven to be standard for every blog logo design.

A color scheme that works

Don’t just randomly use any color you believe is nice. Aside from the aesthetic value, remember that your logo has to be coordinated with your blog theme. Make sure you use not only the right color, but the right shade as well. Otherwise, it may seem a bit out of place or, as I said, uncoordinated.

There are some bloggers who do it the other way around: they start with a logo, then build their blog. I guess that makes you freer to conceptualize the logo. But of course, if this is the case, you have to consider the theme you plan on using for the blog anyway.

By the way, if you’re not good at making color schemes, try Adobe Kuler.

Good typography

Blog logos usually follow the symbol-and-text design style, since they’re also used as the header image. This is why you’ll need one good, stand-out, typographical font. Of course, the type of font that’ll be suitable will vary with your blog niche (personal blogs tend to have more artsy fonts, while professional blogs tend to go for bolder, simpler typefaces) and your personal preferences. I suggest that you steer away from complicated fonts like grunge or macabre options unless that’s really the image you want to portray.

An original concept

This might sound obvious, but you have no idea how often bloggers want to replicate a logo of an A-list blogger. Some of the bloggers who want to emulate a popular blog’s logo seem to think that, as a prerequisite to being great, you have to look like someone who’s already great. But really, when did someone ever achieve greatness through imitation?

Good resolution

Always ask for your logo to be created at high resolution. That you if you want to make it smaller, you can just resize the original logo. The trouble arises when the resolution is poor, the logo’s too small, and it gets pixelized every time you make it bigger. Not a good thing!

Conveys your blog’s or your personality

It’s easy to get carried away by designing for the sake of an awesome design. But never forget that your logo is not a painting: it’s there to serve a purpose, and that is to be a symbol of your blog.

On creating your blog logo

Okay, so now that we’re done with the reasons and essentials of logo-making, it’s now time to get into the meat of the story—making the logo itself. You have two ways to make this happen. You can either do it yourself and take full control over what happens to your logo, or hire a designer to do it for you.

Whichever way you choose, I have prepared a set of guidelines that’ll make the process a bit easier—or at the very least, familiar—so you’ll know what to do and what not to.

The do-it-yourself (DIY) logo guide

A cold, hard truth first: you’ll need, at the very least, basic design and editing skills to do this. In my experience, bloggers who goes this route either have no spare funds to pay for the design service, or they’re confident that they can create the logo without professional help.

If you have only the most basic design skills, don’t worry. Who says logos should be complicated, or loaded with effects? they don’t! Simplicity is your best asset. If you have average-to-above average design skills, lucky you! However, if you don’t have any knowledge at all in the field of design, don’t lose hope yet. There are many fool-proof design software products out there: just search for a few basic tutorials, and you’ll get the hang of it.

Here are the steps you’ll need to follow to design your own logo:

Step 1. Get hold of a Photoshop or a similar product

If you don’t have one, be resourceful and look for free online alternatives. Just Google for “free online alternatives for Photoshop” and you’ll soon find a ton of them.

Step 2. Conceptualize

What do you want your logo to look and feel like? If you’re stuck for ideas (like most clients I’ve met), it helps to check out competitor sites. Not that you should copy them, but this can help to get your creative juices flowing. Consider the elements of your design, the font you want to use, the colors you want to use, and even the logo’s dimensions—especially if you’ll use it as your header.

Step 3. Check for originality

This is the step even designers often forget. While this step is a no-brainer, it’s very important. You wouldn’t want to be accused of being a copy-cat, would you?

Step 4. Execute the design

This could be the hardest part, especially if you have no or little knowledge of design. Here’s a little tip though: create the logo one section at a time. Execute your symbol first, before you start thinking about the text, or vice versa. Make sure you use a good font. If you desire certain effects or elements, you can always Google for tutorials (it never fails to amaze me how people frustrate themselves with software when they could so easily just Google for a tutorial!).

Be sure to save the file every now and then. There’s nothing more frustrating about creating a design than losing unsaved changes, or worse: losing the whole file. Back-ups help too. Once you’re done, convert the logo to .png or .gif image files. These are the files that are best for use on the Web.

In creating your own design, you are obviously in full control of everything. The down-side is that your blog logo design is limited to your own designing ability (or lack thereof). Back when I ran a blogging tips blog, I never paid a cent to designers. I did everything on my own, and that’s how I acquired the skills of logo design. Who knows, you might end up on the same path too!

The hire-a-designer logo guide

If you don’t trust yourself with anything that has to do with art and design, I guess it’s best to leave these things in the hands of good designers. Of course, you’ll need to have some funds to take this route.

It’s a common misconception that hiring a designer means that you need to shell out hundreds of bucks. In reality, the competition in the design industry makes the pricing competitive. In fact, you can have your own professional logo designed for under $100. So really, if you believe a great logo is a great investment (which is true), then justifying the fee isn’t really an issue.

If you plan on hiring a designer, or using the services of a design company, here are a few pointers that you should consider:

Always check the designer’s portfolio samples

Designers often use a set of styles that can be seen in action through their portfolio. It’s best if you check their previous work to ensure that you can trust them to make your logo to a standard that you’ll be happy with.

Ask to see client testimonials

From a designer’s perspective, I’d say trust the portfolio more than the testimonial. We all know stories on how testimonials can sometimes be manipulated, though there are of course designers that have genuinely good feedback for their excellent service. Nevertheless, it’s at least a good thing to make sure that clients speak highly of the designer. If you can, see if you can find any familiar names (or research them) to make sure that the testimonials are authentic.

Read the design policy, and terms and conditions

How will the designer create your design? How fast will they design it? What are the packages or offerings involved? What are the terms for revisions? Before you order, make sure that you know how the designer operates and how much the finished product will cost you (watch out for hidden fees!). If it’s a good design service then you don’t need to dig around their pages to figure out how the process will work. It should be transparent.

When you order, be specific about details and/or instructions

There are still a number of clients out there who provide one or two sentences of “instructions” and then expect the designer to come up with a design that’ll blow their minds. Let’s face it: designers are not psychics! They only do what they’re told to do (because it’s all about what the client wants) and would hesitate to venture beyond those instructions. Of course, you can always say to your designer, “I’ll let you do whatever you want,” but that’s the most frustrating instruction ever! It’s always better if you have a clear vision for your logo. It makes our job easier, it speeds up the process, and it so much lessens the need for revisions.

If you can’t tell the designer what to do, at the very least tell them what not to do

Okay, so maybe you’re really out of ideas. There’s one thing a designer will at least be grateful for—if you remind him or her of the things you don’t want to see in your logo. Then at least they’ll be aware of the major no-no’s of the design and can avoid obvious mistakes.

For revisions, make up your mind, and be nitpicky

It’s stressful if a client keeps on changing his or her mind about the design. First, it’s counter-productive. But you’ll also be very lucky if the design service offers unlimited revisions—if not, ongoing revisions will likely cost you extra. Be detail-specific if you ask for revisions. Trust me: your designer will want to get the job done to your satsifaction as soon as possible.

Happy with your design?

Thank your designer, and give them a testimonial. Not happy with your design? Perhaps you’ve chosen a design service that offer a second concept re-design, or a 100% refund policy. Again, this explains why it’s better to pick design services that are credible, reachable, and accountable.

Put your logo first

Whether you design it yourself or hire someone to help, a good blog logo can deliver a lot of benefits in the long run. It doesn’t really have to be expensive—all that matters is that you get to build a symbol of what your blog is all about.

Last but not least, remember that logos do not posses any magical abilities, so don’t expect that having one will immediately catapult you to success. You need to work hard for your logo and brand to become known, not the other way around.

If you have any logo-making stories, insights, of nightmares, I’d love to here about them in the comments.

Liane (blogger of 3 years) is now the Founder and Team Head of the Blog Design Team, the design service behind every blog and blog businesses. And btw, she’s just 18 :) Follow her in Twitter @HeyLiane.

Prepare for a Custom Blog Redesign in 5 Simple Steps

This guest post is by Josh Mullineaux, co-founder of Highlighter.com and Unique Blog Designs.

Over the past four years, my business has completed over 500 custom blog projects and through that experience, we’ve learned the ins and outs of a what contributes to a successful blog design.

Today, I wanted to share the five key factors I believe you should consider before hiring a blog designer. Thinking about these five factors in advance will help you make the most of your experience.

1. What are your goals for the project?

This sounds like an obvious question, but being able to communicate clearly your reasons for wanting a blog design will be extremely helpful for your designer, and will contribute to a more successful project.

I recommend having one or two main goals or objectives. Then, if necessary, create a subset of several more. For example, when I ask potential clients what their goals are for their projects, it isn’t usual for the blogger to respond with a really abstract answer: “I want my blog to look better,” or “I want my blog to be more visible.” Neither of these goals are specific enough to help us create a great blog design, so it’s my job to ask more specific questions at that point.

Get a head start by really thinking about what your goals are for the blog design. If it’s a new blog, you may have specific goals around branding either yourself or your blog business. If you’re redesigning an existing blog, you may have goals such as increasing the number of daily opt-ins to your email list, or changing the layout so your visitors are able to read the content they want more easily.

Again, the more specific you can be with your goals, the more successful your project is going to be.

2. Which sites do you like? What do you like about them?

Having a list of sites and blogs that you like and can reference is a huge help to your designer. This doesn’t mean that you have to have examples of sites that you want to copy, or sites that you like everything about—actually, the contrary is true. The best thing to do is gather sites that you like specific elements of. For example, you could really like the header of one site, the color scheme of another site, and the footer of yet another site.

I recommend having a list of at least three to five sites that you like. As with my first point, the more specific you are with what you like about the sites, the better. If you like the header of a site, think about what it is that you like about the header. There are usually multiple elements within the header of the site; you may like the position of the logo, or the way the navigation looks, or where the RSS icon is located, or that it’s tilted sideways, and so on.

3. What’s your budget?

Have a budget in mind for your project—this may determine who you hire. There are many possibilities for designing a blog interface, and a wide range of pricing options.

The least expensive option is to go with a premium WordPress theme that closely suits your needs. Expect to pay in the range of $50-$150 USD. For improved branding, you can also have a custom logo designed, which will usually cost you around $300 USD.

There are other options, such as 99designs.com, that can be less expensive than engaging a design agency or even a well-known freelance designer. The upside is that you’ll get good value for your money, but you will also have to put a lot more effort into preparing a great design brief, creating a layout description, and giving feedback on designs. A reasonable price to pay on 99designs for a custom blog design is around $1100 USD.

Going with a custom design firm or a well-known freelancer is going to be more expensive, but you will have the experience of working with a professional, and can expect customer service to be top notch. I would recommend speaking with at least three different agencies or designers before you select one. This way, you’ll get to know the process, get an idea of what they charge, and have a feel for who understands your needs and who doesn’t. For a professional custom blog design, I’d expect to pay a minimum of $3,500—more likely, closer to $5,000 USD.

4. What’s your timeline?

The timeline for the creation of a custom blog design comes down the schedule of the person or company doing the creative work. Designers usually have lead times of at least a couple weeks for starting new projects. For example, we estimate that a custom WordPress blog will usually take eight to 12 weeks from start to finish. If you need it quicker than that, you can expect to pay extra for rush delivery.

Some individual freelancers may be able to complete a project faster, and options like 99designs.com can also be quicker. The best advice here is to plan as far in advance as possible, get multiple quotes, and choose the one that works for your timeline.

5. Which sites has the designer created that you like?

There is no doubt that you have selected several possible designers for your project, and that you’ve selected them at least in part because of their past work. It’s important that you can identify which sites they’ve done that you like, and what you like about them, for referencing purposes when you are speaking with the designer.

Conclusion

Whichever route you choose to go through—agency, freelancer, 99designs.com—just remember that the more thought and work you put into the project before approaching designers, the more successful your project is going to be. Getting a custom blog designed can be a headache or a great experience, but fortunately you can do a lot to influence which way the project goes.

Josh Mullineaux is a co-founder of Highlighter.com and Unique Blog Designs.

Thesis Theme for WordPress Upgrades to Version 1.6

One of my favorite WordPress themes – Thesis – has in the last week released an update with some pretty cool features.

My strategy with blog design is like this. I generally aim towards a completely customized blog design that will give my blog a distinct look and brand – but before I work towards that I almost always start with a more affordable option because I like to test to see whether the blog is going to work or not.

As a result I’ve always been on the look out for great themes and when Chris Pearson and Brian Clark started DIYthemes and released the Thesis theme I was keen to test it.

I used Thesis as the first theme on TwiTip and have been very happy with it.

I’m actually about to release a complete overhaul of the design of that blog (completely custom) but in the year or so since TwiTip’s release I’ve been more than satisfied with Thesis. It’s been easy to use, it’s set up really well by default for Search Engine Optimization and it’s been easy to add extra things in (like advertising spots etc).

I never did much with changing much of the default design on TwiTip but many bloggers use Thesis as the basis for quite impressive customizations. You wouldn’t know it to look at but blogs like Chris Brogan, CopyBlogger, Laughing Squid and Rae Hoffman all use Thesis as the basis for their blog design.

The new update for Thesis (you get all these updates for free if you’ve already got it) takes the version up to 1.6. It includes new navigation menus with drop down menus and the ability to change colors throughout the themes without having to get into the code.

I’m told also that Thesis 2.0 is also being worked on and promises to be a fantastic update.

PS: here’s a cool video that shows just some of what Thesis is like to use – in it Chris Pearson plays around with changing the default layout in a number of ways to shot you how you can begin to customize it.

Run a Competition to Find Your Next WordPress Blog Design

Picture 2.pngOne of the most common questions I’m asked by readers starting out with blogging is around blog design and how they can get an affordable but unique blog design.

The irony of this is that I’m a self confessed dud when it comes to blog design. These days I hire others to do custom designs for my blog – but of course this doesn’t come cheap.

A recent survey here on ProBlogger showed that 79% of readers here use free themes or design their blogs themselves – but what if you want something more unique and/or don’t have the ability to design a blog or tweak a free theme?

I had all these questions buzzing around in my head recently when I paid a visit to local design marketplace site 99designs. I didn’t expect anything to come out of the conversation but what did come out of it excited me because it could meet a need that I see many of our readers having.

What 99designs have put together is a way to run a competition to have a new WordPress blog design created for your blog for as little as $369.

Now before I go any further – $369 is out of many bloggers leagues – but it is certainly a cheaper option than hiring a designer for $2000-$3000 to do a custom job for you. It’s not going to be for everyone but is sure to be an attractive option for those looking for a mid priced design.

The process to run a competition is simple. Here’s how 99designs describe it:

1. Set your budget and requirements

Tell us your budget and what you want designed, and we will post it on 99designs.com

2. Designers will create designs just for you

Designers from around the world will compete to create the best looking design just for you. Most projects get over 20 different design concepts to choose from. Rate the designers you like, eliminate the ones you don’t like.

3. Choose your favorite design

Pick your favorite design as the winner. Show it off to your friends! The winning design is yours to keep forever.

4. We code and install your theme (optional extra)

Through our partner, Thinktank Media, we’ll have your new WordPress theme up and running on your blog in 5 working days. Our themes are coded on the Sandbox theme, so they’re compatible with both WordPress.org and WordPress.com blogs!

They also have a 100% money back guarantee if you run a competition and don’t find a design that you like.

Keep in mind that what you’re running the competition for is the ‘design’ – to have it coded and/or installed you either need to choose to pay extra for these options or do that part yourself.

I hope those of you looking to find a new design for your WordPress blog find this useful! Check it out here.

79% of Bloggers Pay Nothing for their Blog Design

Over the last few weeks the poll I’ve been running here on ProBlogger has asked people about who designed their blog. The results are in and it looks like that the vast majority of bloggers are not paying for themes.

61% of our readers are using free themes in some way – either using a default theme that the blog came with (11%), downloading a free template (21%) or taking a free theme and tweaking it (29%).

18% of our readers are designing their blogs completely on their own and while the market for premium themes does seem to be growing only 13% of you have paid for a theme.

The lowest response of all was for people to pay for someone else to design a blog for them (8%). That brings the total of those paying for their design in some way to 21%.

blog-design.png

Total Votes at the time of publishing these results: 2513