Step 2: Visual Design

I am, to be perfectly, honest, an incredibly non-artistic person. I appreciate art, and I know what I like looking at, but I sometimes lack the vocabulary to discuss art and I am completely incapable of producing it. The written word is my forté, so when I began to design a new website, I was stymied.

The idea of creating a theme from scratch and of having complete visual control over one’s website is certainly appealing, but I lack the capacity for such design work. Therefore, I chose a few designs and showed them to Ryan, with whom I collaborated while creating SilverPen Pub revision 3.0. I would have a theme that I didn’t really like, but wasn’t sure why, and he would supply terms describing how its flatness and lack of depth failed to catch the eye or guide the reader to where you want them to spend their time. The current theme, however, worked really well, and after I bludgeoned one of my own photographs into the banner using The GIMP, I’m happy with it.

There are several things to consider when visually designing your website:

  1. Sidebars: How many do you want, and what do you want them to contain? Personally, I feel that sidebar length and composition is determined by logical order. That is to say, it should be organized logically, with clear reasoning why one item has been placed above another item. If your sidebar has reached a length where you are sticking things in with no justification for its placement–if you don’t care where something goes–then you are adding things to the sidebar that probably don’t need to be there. As much as I enjoy Lorelle’s blog, the sidebar annoys the hell out of me because I can’t find anything useful in it. It’s a mash of random things, with subscription buttons and book article advertisements littered throughout. After reading her article Who the hell are you? I began looking for her “About” section. Because it was hidden in the ridiculously long sidebar, I had to use Firefox to search for it to even find the oh-so-important statement she was talking about in her article.
  2. Mood, pathos, etc.: Colour is a tricky one, because it can affect how a reader perceives and responds to your blog. It affects the tone in which they read your entries, and if the appearance of your blog is offensive to them, they will certainly be unreceptive to what you have to say. Nevertheless, I maintain that the most important aspect of the visual design of one’s blog is that the author like its appearance. A reader can use an RSS feed, but the author cannot avoid looking at their own page. It is important to keep this aspect of visual design in mind, but it is perhaps not the most important. The only rule regarding colour is to make text readable. Stereotypical MySpace pages are bad, m’kay?
  3. How comfortable are you with editing code?: If you don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty, you have a few more options when choosing a theme. You can pick one that’s close to what you are looking for, then edit the CSS and PHP files to make it exactly what you want. Conversely, if you just want a CMS where you can input your content and you’d rather not have to deal with anything else, WordPress has a lot of options to help. In this instance, however, you may have a harder time finding a theme that really makes you happy and gives you all of the content you want.
  4. Accessibility: I will write more about this at a later date, but accessibility is probably the most overlooked issue when it comes to personal blogs. Nevertheless, it is important to pay special attention to this aspect, if for no other reason than it is simply the right thing to do so. There are scads of guides online about how to make your site more accessible, so I won’t go into details on that, but keep in mind that you should try and make your blog as accessible as possible. This might require a little bit of coding on your part, but it’s not hard and can make a visually challenged person’s day a whole lot better.
  5. Content: Will your blog entries be short, or long? How far your readers have to scroll to read a particular blog entry might be worth considering, and can be affected by widening the content section of your design. However, keep in mind that long lines of text are awkward to the human eye, and anything beyond 80-120 characters is difficult for a person to read. Try to keep your content column at a reasonable width.
  6. Scaling: This is the first test I do to see how well a site is design. Does your site scale gracefully, or does your text go all over the place and become unreadable? This is partially an accessibility issue, but it’s also about standards; if you stay within the spec, your site will usually scale just fine. WordPress, by default, handles this pretty well, so you shouldn’t have any problems if you’re using WordPress as your CMS.

Once you strike a balance between these and have everything settled, it’s time to decide how you intend to organize your blog, which I will discuss tomorrow.

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