I see a lot of bloggers very worried about their blogs design. Most of them should be far more worried about content.
Before the web designers out there get crazy, let me say that sure, a good design adds to the value of a site and a bad design detracts. There's no argument there. The issue is how important design really is.
Before we go too far, let's agree that design is more than a pretty face. It also includes functionality, navigation, even features like comments and how easy it is to find things. "Design" covers a lot of ground and not all web site "designers" are really prepared to deal with all of that.
Maybe no one is really prepared to deal with it:
.. although the study found that the traditional "well-designed" sites were difficult and confusing for the testers to use, the same testers often reported that they "liked" those very sites! The authors also note that there may be a conflict in that sites that attract attention while surfing seem to have elements that detract from usability, and that sites that do better for usability aren't "interesting" to surfers. (Book review "Web Site Usability")
Uggh. That's not good. However, that study is a few years old, and it may very well be that it was too early: people were not used to using websites because it wasn't an ordinary part of their lives then. Today's surfers may be more accustomed to the way most websites work because certain attributes have become very standard: almost all sites have an easy to find "About" page, a "Contact" link and more and more are promoting RSS in a standard manner by using the orange RSS logo (such as you see in the upper right corner here).
Blogs and websites are mostly two and three column layouts now, with the side columns used for advertising and navigation links, and usually not more than 160 pixels wide. There are few sites that use top bar menus like you see here, but those aren't as common as sidebars - especially for blogs. The "standardization" of blogs and websites may make them easier to use and understand.
Design also includes things you do not or cannot see from just looking at a web page. Good design today separates content from presentation - if you change your mind about how your pages should look, you should be able to instantly apply that change to all your pages.
Finally, good design should include observation of HTML and CSS rules and standards: what looks good and works well in Internet Explorer might be horrible broken and ugly in Firefox or some far more obscure browser. We used to see "Best if viewed with" disclaimers on some sites, but those have become much more rare: readers don't like to be told what browser they should use and rightfully expect you to make the effort to accommodate their needs. That's not always easy, but it's a necessary part of good design today.
So, web site design covers a lot of ground: it's far more than choosing attractive colors and having a good looking logo. But as I asked at the beginning, how important is it?
Let's draw an analogy here. I'm a "consultant" - usually more of a troubleshooter than anything else. A customer calls me with a problem within my area of expertise and it's something where I have to go to them to fix.
How shall I dress?
The "designers" will say I need to wear a suit and tie and in fact many people in similar professions do. After all, I'm not coming with a screwdriver and I am going to be charging a lot of money. By the way, my wife says the same thing.. "Dress for success!"
Now no, I can't very well show up wearing a Spandex bathing suit with my hair died orange. That would probably be upsetting for most customers. In web site design terms, that would be having a site with flashing giant headlines, garish colors and probably an obnoxious sound clip playing too.
But I can show up in jeans and a clean shirt, because what's important is what I know, not what I'm wearing. For a website, "casual clothes" is something like this site or millions of other fairly plain, "vanilla" sites. They may not have "great" design, but they aren't obviously "awful" either.
And it does not matter.
A really garish blog can distract from good content, so you do need to avoid the Spandex bathing suit.. but you do NOT need a professional design to be non-distracting, and a plain jane look will not adversely affect your performance.
Content is one thousand times more important than presentation.
If you have junk content, doing everything right with your design is not going to attract readers. Conversely, if you have compelling content, readers will forgive or even completely ignore truly horrid design.
A classic example in the tech field is Ars Technica. They have a good looking, well designed site today, but it used to be truly awful: white text on a black background - it could literally give you a headache. And yet, because of their incredibly valuable content, they became an immensely popular site in spite of that.
I think ProBlogger is another example - not as bad as Ars Technica was, but a bit ugly, full of mechanical problems, css offenses and so on. In spite of that, it's immensely popular - because of the content.
Yes, Ars Technica did redo their site, and it wouldn't hurt if ProBlogger cleaned up a few things. It wouldn't hurt you or me or anyone else to spruce up our sites, put on a nice new suit and dot every "i" and cross every "t".. but our content, the stuff that good design surrounds and supports, is where we need to focus most of our attention.
So sure, if you have the time, the money and the desire to polish up every detail, go for it. It's not a bad thing to do. Just don't expect miracles or even any observable difference: there probably won't be any. And if you are going to hire someone to help you with that, make sure they cover all the bases: as noted above, good website design covers a lot of territory. An ideal designer is going to understand graphics and layout, typography, HTML and CSS standards, content management systems, search engine optimization and more.. frankly, it probably takes a team because one person is unlikely to have all the necessary skills.
So, are you ready to "buy a new suit"? Do you want to spiff up your blog, repaint the walls, redo the wiring, upgrade the plumbing, all that? What do you think is the most important thing you should look for in a designer?
Got something to add? Send me email.
More Articles by Anthony Lawrence © 2009-11-07 Anthony Lawrence
The primary duty of an exception handler is to get the error out of the lap of the programmer and into the surprised face of the user. (Verity Stob)