I’ve been a graphic designer since high school and more recently a marketer and brand strategist. I am all over design and certainly all over designing for the web. I don’t always get it right, but I think I know what good blog design looks like, and let me tell you…
50 per cent of all WordPress themes are CRAP!
For the love of blog, if you can’t tell a good theme from a toilet paper pattern, then listen up: hire a designer just to select you a WordPress theme! I’m not joking! I can’t believe what obscenities some people are calling themes, or the people using them on their sites… ugh!
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
On the Web First Impressions are Measured in Milliseconds
A recent study found that people who spend a lot of time online have attention spans of (wait for it) 9 seconds… the same as a goldfish. So if that’s their attention span, how long is their first impression?
That’s the findings of a study conducted last year by Gitte Lindgaard of Carleton University in Ottawa, published in the journal Behaviour and Information Technology, and reported some time back in the well-respected Nature. Here’s part of what Nature reported:
Lindgaard and her team presented volunteers with the briefest glimpses of web pages previously rated as being either easy on the eye or particularly jarring, and asked them to rate the websites on a sliding scale of visual appeal. Even though the images flashed up for just 50 milliseconds, roughly the duration of a single frame of standard television footage, their verdicts tallied well with judgements made after a longer period of scrutiny.
The article continues, emphasizing the importance of a good first impression:
The lasting effect of first impressions is known to psychologists as the ‘halo effect': if you can snare people with an attractive design, they are more likely to overlook other minor faults with the site, and may rate its actual content (such as this article, for example) more favourably.
So hang on there a minute? Are they saying that if you can hook someone in, in that initial moment of “first impression”, then you stand a great chance of having their attention for a lot longer (maybe even longer than a goldfish!)?
This is because of ‘cognitive bias’, Lindgaard explains. People enjoy being right, so continuing to use a website that gave a good first impression helps to ‘prove’ to themselves that they made a good initial decision.
Wow! It’s a fact of human nature that people are remarkably faithful in following their intial hunches. So, if someone has a strong and positive first impression of your site, they’re likely to hang around, even to the degree that they will forgive imperfections here and there. See, they’re now programmed with the determination to continue on your site in order to prove to themselves that their favourable hunch was right!
This psychology stuff is cool
The Anatomy of a First Impression
I’m not going to labour this point because I think it’s pretty obvious: people’s first impressions happen on the right side of their brain: it’s about aesthetics, feelings and… (d’oh!) impressions. Seth Godin understands:
The thing you must remember about just about every corporate or organizational brochure is this: People won’t read it.
Seth’s making the point about brochures that they do serve a purpose, but it’s about the looks, not the content (*gasp*):
At its best, a brochure is begging for someone to judge you. It says, “assume that because we could hire really good printers and photographers and designers and writers, we are talented [surgeons, real estate developers, whatever]” And more often than not, people do just that.
Get it?! People judge a brochure on the looks, not on the content. Or stated another way, they base their first impressions on anything but the text. So what does Seth suggest companies do with their next brochure? Here’s his first point:
Overinvest in paper and design. Spend twice or even ten times more than you planned. If you can’t afford to do that, don’t have a brochure. Especially if your competition does.
Thank you Seth! If you don’t listen to me, please listen to Seth. Put money into the design of your blog! It has to look good.
To be fair, I think the critical difference between blogs and brochures is that people (mostly) treat blogs like newspapers… they’re there to read. But please let the point fully sink in that bad design will probably stop them ever getting to the content. The little goldfish will have swum away long before their goggley eyes have so much as focussed on the text!
Get a Designer or a Designer’s Theme
So to cut to the chase… you need a good looking blog and you need to accept that if you’re not a designer you’re going to need to beg, borrow or steal a design from someone who is a designer, because you only get one (50 millisecond) chance at a first impression. However, the good news is you’ll be amazed how many good designers are out there. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
A few word of advice:
- Not all blog themes are created equal. I meant what I said at the start: most WordPress themes are dreadful. They can suck the lichen off a dead squid’s ear-lobe at 1,000 feet. So be careful. If you don’t trust your judgement start with a theme that a designer has told you is good.
What’s above the fold matters most, so put your money there. What a person sees when they first arrive at your site (before scrolling) is what we call the “above the fold” content. (It typically contains your header images, latest blog post headline, a bit of text, a menu, etc.) You can go a long way just by getting a designer to focus on a customized header image. That’s most of what I did for Steve Addison. You decide what kind of a first impression that makes.
- Design around the name of your blog. Hey, this is my blog post… I’m allowed to state the bleeding obvious if I want to! Anyway, this point was really just an excuse to link to www.undertheiceberg.com which (I humbly suggest) is a pretty good example both of designing a look that matches the name/theme of your blog, and also of a blog that leaves a very strong first impression.
- Customize with care. We designers get upset when we do all this cool design work then you come along and screw it all up within minutes. So, if you’ve got a new well-designed theme installed on your blog, be careful how you customize it. You never know… your designer may carry a gun.
- Easy on the colours! Finally, I’d suggest you work around one or two colours only. (The site above is an example of that.) See, it’s a branding thing. People will quickly learn to associate the colour with your blog. I mean, can you even imagine copyblogger not being red?!
The Exception That Proves the Rule
Yeah yeah. I know what you’re thinking. You can’t wait to remind me that one of the most popular bloggers this side of Ursa Minor has one of the most boringly un-designed blogs ever… Robert Scoble. I agree it’s boring. Heck, it looks like a blog where the CSS has been turned off. But here’s why it still works… just:
- It’s consistent. It’s designed to a grid, and never breaks that grid. It faithfully sticks to just one (boring) font.
- Nothing’s “garish”. Better no design at all, than bad design.
- He’s a guru. He has fame leaking out of his every orifice, man! He can get away with it (ergo, you can’t!).
A Trick for Finding a Good Designer
It’s time for me to go to bed now. We creatives need our sleep or it shows in our work. But I’ll conclude with a simple and effective trick for finding the best (often not expensive) designers out there: find them via their best work, submitted to online design galleries.
If you can’t work out who designed the site from either the promo page on the gallery site or the website itself, as a last resort you can do a domain search on Google, with the hope that the designer’s site links to it. That usually works for me.
Do you have other tips for making a lasting first impression? We’d all love to hear it