You’ve heard the rumors, and they’re true. Having a great looking blog is important if you want to attract a big audience.
Your design is your “first impression.” People typically spend just 10 to 20 seconds on a web page. A great design can buy you time because it stands out and puts your visitors in a comfortable frame of mind long enough for them to get hooked on your incredible content.
To create a great looking and functional design, you have a couple of choices.
First, you can hire a designer to do it for you. If you have the money, this is a pretty good place to spend it. A designer can create a completely unique site that no one else has, and they can use the design itself to better convey your message and meet your goals.
Since you’re still reading this “non-designer’s guide,” I’ll assume you either don’t want to spend the money on a good designer (which can cost from $2k to much, much more), or you’re wondering if you can really do it yourself. Or, maybe you’re just up for a challenge.
When I started blogging back in 2009, I decided to create my own design. It wasn’t anything special, but I focused on keeping things simple. That simple design served it’s purpose and I was able to grow decent sized audience around it. That’s what I recommend you do as well. Don’t try to compete with the fantastic designs from top designers when you’re just starting out.
Instead, keep things simple using these rules I’m about to share with you.
We’ll also cover some of the technical aspects of making your theme and WordPress do what you want it to do, so keep reading.
Expert Enough as a Case Study
If you’ve been following along with the Million Dollar Blog Project, you know that we launched our new blog Expert Enough this week. We’ll update you on the launch results next week, but let’s talk about the design today (if you’re dying to know, we attracted around 7,000 visitors during our first two days and have shot up to page one on the MDBP leaderboard already).
Instead of developing a completely custom design for Expert Enough (like I did for Think Traffic), we decided to go with something much simpler. We wanted to use a pro theme with limited customization to show you that you don’t need a huge budget to build a popular site.
Take a look at the design:
This design is based on nothing more than a $70 theme from WooThemes out-of-the-box plus about a day’s work in tweaking it to our liking.
Starting with a professional theme is a great way to go because it gives you a little personality and doesn’t look like every other blog in the world using the default theme or a popular free theme.
Using the tips in our video below, you can customize a pro theme and make it different enough from the basic version to stand out.
I highly recommend WooThemes if you’re looking for a solid, good looking theme that will be easy for you to change. It’s great for beginners.
You’ll notice that I use WooThemes on several sites (like Expert Enough and CorbettBarr.com). I also like to use the Thesis Theme (like we do here at Think Traffic). Either is a solid choice, and I regularly use both of them. WooThemes has a slight edge for beginners, and they have many more choices of pre-designed themes (over 100 of them).
I’m going to show you exactly how to install and customize a theme later on in this post, but let’s talk about some design ground rules first.
What Makes a Blog Design Good?
As they say, good design is like pornography. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
One person’s ideal design might be another person’s worst nightmare. Part of design is about personal preference. But there are also a whole lot of simple rules you can use to make your design generally more appealing.
Design takes years to master, but you can learn the basics pretty quickly. By learning the basics of colors, grid layouts, fonts, spacing, graphics and a few other things, you’ll end up with far better results than if you just jump into things and start tweaking your site.
Five Easy Design Enhancements to Make Your Site More Magnetic
To help you navigate the basics of design, Pamela Wilson from Big Brand System put together a mini-guide just for Think Traffic readers called Five Easy Design Enhancements to Make Your Site More Magnetic.
To get this guide, just enter your email below. It’s part of our subscriber traffic toolbox. If you’re already an email subscriber, you’ll get instant access to the guide. If you’re not a subscriber, just enter your email address below and you’ll also get blog updates from us. You can always unsubscribe at any time.
Enter your email to get instant access to Five Easy Design Enhancements to Make Your Site More Magnetic:
Looking for Inspiration and Planning
One of the best ways to develop your own great blog design is by looking for inspiration elsewhere online. Think about your favorite sites and what you like about them. Think about why those features, colors, layouts, etc. are attractive.
Don’t just copy one site you like, that would defeat the purpose of customizing your design to make it unique. Instead, just keep track of the things you like from different sites. Make notes, and try to mashup certain aspects from several different sites you like to create something special.
Design blogs are another great place to look. Start with Smashing Magazine. Then, hang out where designers hang out and see what they’re working on. Dribbble is a great place to see the cutting edge of web design.
If you’ve been taking notes, so far you should have an idea of the basics of your design (colors, layout, fonts) and you should have some sources of inspiration. Next we’ll talk about how to actually customize your blog, and then we’ll cover the essential elements your blog needs to function well.
How to Choose and Customize a WordPress Theme
I mentioned above that I recommend WooThemes to non-designers who want a great looking blog. In this video below, I’ll show you why, and I’ll also show you how to choose and customize your theme, including how to customize aspects of your blog that don’t have built-in settings (using CSS – don’t worry, it’s not all that complicated once you learn).
There’s really no magic to customizing a WordPress theme. It’s just about learning some basic HTML and CSS, and about knowing where to place your code. If you plan to customize your own site instead of using a designer, invest a little time into learning CSS.
Before you start tweaking your site, try jotting down a list of what you want to include on your site, and how you want it to look. If you’re brave, you can sketch your ideas out, or use PhotoShop to mock things up.
I didn’t mention it in the video, but WordPress plugins can be a godsend for customizing your blog, especially for functionality (less so for design). For example, there are all kinds of plugins to add social media buttons to your posts (I like Social Sharing Toolkit, which we used at Expert Enough).
To choose good plugins, I typically look for a good rating (4+ stars) and a healthy amount of downloads (say 20,000 or more). That usually ensures there aren’t any major bugs.
There’s a plugin for almost anything, so look around before you try to code something up yourself. Also, if the plugin you found doesn’t do the trick, try another one that offers similar functionality.
Just be careful about using too many plugins because they will impact performance if you have too many. I try to do without unless they’re absolutely essential. Try to keep your total plugin count as low as possible (most of my sites use just between 5 and 15 or so).
Blog Design: Essential Components
Alright, once you know how the basics of design, have some sites in mind for inspiration, and know how to customize your theme, it’s time to think about the essential elements your blog needs.
Aside from being visually pleasing, there are three main goals your design should achieve:
- Present your impressive content in an easy-to-digest way
- Lead your visitors to connect with you so they’ll come back, either via social media, or by subscribing for email or RSS updates
- Make it easy for visitors to share your content
Keep in mind, there are no “right” answers when it comes to blog design.
You can achieve these goals in lots of different ways, so don’t feel you have to do exactly what everyone else is doing.
Here are some guidelines for things you should probably include somehow and answers to a few questions you might have.
Home Page: Full posts or excerpts?
You can go a couple of ways with your home page. You can include full posts (like Julien Smith does at In Over Your Head), or you can include one featured post and some excerpts (like Chris Ducker does at Virtual Business Lifestyle).
Or, you can include just one post on the home page, either in full or as an excerpt (like Zen Habits does).
For Expert Enough, we chose to use just excerpts on the home page, along with a big featured section.
Like I said, there is no right way. Any of these approaches can obviously work, since each of these sites are successful.
Just think about what you prefer and what your readers might prefer, and choose one style you like.
Email Sign-up Forms and RSS Buttons
One of your biggest goals should be to get your readers to subscribe, so it will be more likely they’ll return. It’s very difficult to grow a big audience unless you convert your hard-earned traffic into return visitors.
For blogs, you should focus on email subscriptions as your first priority, with RSS as a second option. Email has by far the biggest return rate of any connection method, including social media.
There are four key places where I recommend you place your email sign-up forms:
- in your sidebar
- at the end of each post
- in your footer
- on your about page
These are typically the highest converting places for a new blog. Once you’re up and running, you can also use sign-up forms on special resources pages and on other pages. Occasionally you can use them within a post, as I did earlier here.
You’ll also want to make your RSS feed link easy to find. Over at Expert Enough, we included an RSS link in the header, sidebar and footer.
Social Media Connect Buttons
In addition to email/RSS, you should also make it easy for people to connect using Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or whatever other social networks you use.
Like your sign-up forms, you can put these in your header, sidebar, footer and on your about page. You can also put “follow me on Twitter” links or similar within your post byline, or at the end of posts, depending on your goals.
Again, there is no “right” answer, but make sure you have these somewhere easy to find. The more important a particular social network is to you, the more prominent you should place the connection option.
I like to use both simple links/images, as well as the automated one-click sign-up scripts, like this:
Keep in mind, if you don’t have many followers yet, you may want to disable the follower count on these widgets for now. A low follower number can serve as negative social proof. Anything above 500 or so should be impressive enough to work in your favor.
Social Share Buttons
Within each blog post, either at the beginning or end, or both, you should include social sharing buttons so your readers can easily share your stuff.
Which networks you use really depends on what kind of content you offer. Some audiences are more suited to Facebook (more general and older audiences) and some are more suited to Twitter (tech/media savvy and younger), while for some (business types) would be better served by LinkedIn.
You’ll also need a logo (tagline optional) and navigation bar on your site. Where you place these is up to you, but keep in mind where people expect things to be. Deviating from standard layouts can sometimes confuse people.
You’ll probably want a sidebar on your site as well. Whether you place it on the right or left is a matter of personal opinion. One sidebar is probably plenty, but you can go with two like we did here at Think Traffic if you want to be fancy
Need More Help? Join Our Class on Blog Design Today
This article should get you started. If you’d like to spend an hour with me as I show you step-by-step how to customize a site and dive much deeper into good design principles, we have a live class today at Noon Pacific / 3pm Eastern.
You’ll also get a full recording if you can’t attend the class. We’ll do live Q&A on the call so get your design questions ready.
Questions? We’re happy to help, just ask below. What did I leave out of this guide? What would you add to it?
Also, if you’re participating in the MDBP, I’d love to hear how you developed your own design. Please share in the comments below.