Branding Emotionally

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

As I began to talk with Ryan about pursuing a new design for SilverPen Publishing, I lamented the fact that I have never really been satisfied with my website. This has resulted in changing its appearance and sometimes overall organization once or twice a year since I first set it up in 2004. I never quite knew what I wanted, and I’m not capable of designing it anyways, so I just found some pre-fabricated theme, slapped it on, and convinced myself that it’s good enough to use.

Of course, it never was good enough, and because my site’s design has never been how I truly wanted it to be, I have never been satisfied for long. This results in my changing the design after a few short months and, as Ryan pointed out, that prevents my readers from ever establishing a true connection with my site.

This connection, or at least what creates this connection, is referred to as “branding,” and the consideration of the subject is relatively new to me. As a writer, I continually hope that people will read what I write and continue visiting because they liked what they read. That might be the case eventually, but it takes a lot of work to get there.

Everyone knows you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we also know that when we’re strolling down an aisle at Barnes & Noble, it’s the covers and the titles that catch our eyes more than anything. Unless we went in looking for a specific author, and even if we did, we’re often going to browse around and pick something up that is pretty and visually interesting.

The same goes for a website. Something that is visually appealing, well designed, and easy to use is going to attract repeat visitors far more than a plain black and white page. This is even more important when the primary content is text-based; webcomic artists can have a spartan page because their primary content is visually appealing, but writers have no recourse to ocular stimulation beyond the design of their site or the inclusion of a photograph with their article.

Branding is more than having a good design, though. Continuity is important to maintain that connection with your readers. If your site changes on a regular basis, repeat visitors may think they’ve stumbled upon a different site entirely, not realizing that you’re just spastic and can’t settle on something. Especially if they don’t visit often, or are returning months later to find a particular article, maintaining a consistent site design can make all the difference between frustrating and exciting them.

By way of example, I have trouble remembering exactly where something is when I’m reading, so when I return to look for a particular quote or page, my search is a contextual one. I try to locate what I’m looking for based on its relation to other things. This might include how far down a page I recall the quote being, or the series of steps I took to reach a particular article. But if everything looks different visually or has been moved around, there’s a decent chance I’ll never find it. And if I can’t find something the first time, I’ll likely never go back and look again.

As readers become more familiar with a look, they begin to recognize it as indicative of a site. It becomes comfortable and evocative, and the easy recognition of particular elements will allow you to communicate more clearly with your readers. Using the same logo on your site and business cards will help people relate the two and, in turn, relate them to you as a person. Connections are formed in the mind that will help people remember your work more clearly and with greater longevity.

The key is to find a design you really like, that really suits you, and with which you are really comfortable. All three of those are crucial because the second step is to hold onto it. You’ve got to remain steady for a while if you’re going to establish any sort of emotional connection with your readers. Otherwise, the next time they return and you’ve changed everything up on them yet again, there’s a decent chance they’ll surf away, never to return.

Design Speaks Directly to the Soul

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

As Ryan observed, design is more than making something look pretty. It is the first line of assault against your senses, charging in to make room for a deeper truth–for the greater message being communicated through the whole of a piece. Design is the underlying foundation of everything, and much like our own skeletons, it is likewise hidden and sometimes forgotten.

There are two things I understand decently well amongst all the things in the world, and so it is those two upon which I will focus in the context of this series. The first is architecture, with which I will begin because (of the two) I understand it least. The second is writing in general and poetry in specific.

Architectural design is not something with which many Americans (by which I am referring to the residents of the United States of America) are preoccupied. We might admire a fine building and snap a picture while on tour, but it isn’t something we study, stare at, and marvel. Yet architecture is one of the great fascinations of my life, and when I am in a distant city, I spend the vast majority of my time wandering the streets, eyes fixed to the walls, roofs, and doors of all the buildings I can see. I have spent hours lying on the lawn of Westminster Abbey so that I could look upon its vast facade and out across the square at its neighbours. Days beside the river Thames marveling at the wall that skirts the river, or wandering the streets and hills of San Francisco, or the wide sidewalks of Chicago. I derived a great deal of enjoyment from comparing German Switzerland to German Germany and the similarities and differences in how the walls meet the roofs, the materials used, and the arrangement of their towns. Architecture fascinates me in a way similar to the hypnotic stare of a dragon preparing to pounce on a meal.

The USA is very utilitarian in its construction, but once upon a time architecture was not just a pragmatic means of getting a building upright. Rather, it was an art designed to communicate something to the passerby. A non-Christian friend admitted to me once that she began to cry as she entered a cathedral in Europe simply due to its beauty. This is a design done right. This assails our senses, demanding entry to our heart because of its power and majesty.

And it is not unique to architecture. Though you may not admire buildings as I do, I imagine that you can sympathize with and understand what I have written above, because it is a very obvious example of the purpose, power, and presence of design. Less obvious is the placement and depth of a thumb scoop on a MacBook, the resistance and length of a switch on a coffee pot, or the arrangement of words in a poem.

I can communicate an idea to you with a straight-forward statement of fact in a simple, well organized sentence, and in so doing you will understand the words and potentially their implications. Yet such a statement will not touch your heart, nor will it influence your soul, for that is the purview of poetry. There are many who malign the ambiguity and obtuseness of poetry, wishing instead that the writers would be more direct with their intentions, but that directness is not of the greatest design.

There are times when communicating with your head is sufficient, such as at work or when figuring out where to go for lunch. But there are other times when that will not do, when I will need to build a bridge from my heart to yours if you are ever to truly understand what I mean. A simple sentence will not suffice. And it is in these instances that the power of design is made manifest in writing.

A good design not only joins our hearts and souls, but it satisfies something deep within our selves. No, the switch on a coffee pot is not a cathedral or a poem, but you will know it is right. You will flip that switch to turn the coffee pot on and think, “Ah, there we have it. This is good.” A good design is more than just functional, it is beautiful. It was created with love and an attention to detail that surpasses a mere statement and that goes beyond simple pragmatism.

Good design, like our skeletons, holds us up and drives us forward. It is a powerful charge we can only refuse by closing our eyes and ignoring the world.

When ZDNet Grasps For Legitimacy

I subscribe to the ZDNet newsletter, which is essentially an email I receive twice a day during the work week that has a bunch of headlines and excerpts from their various blogs. In general, I appreciate both the newsletter and their articles, and even though their discussion system sucks, they usually have some helpful or insightful blog entries.

But sometimes I wonder where they find these people. When you write for a tech site but have no connection to the real world, it becomes painfully obvious that you’re something of a hack. When reading The Allure of the Text by Christopher Dawson, I was stunned by both his shortsightedness and his ignorance.

Dawson essentially states that he has never texted before and, though he’s yelled at the kids on his lawn to go text somewhere else, he has trouble understanding why they’d bother typing into the tiny keyboards built into cell phones. Sure, maybe it’s more private than talking out loud, but it’s a pain and, besides, how can you see the screen without your bifocals on?

But then he has a revelation. Texting is similar to email! I can have multiple conversations going at once!

Dawson then laments the stupidity of kids, who are clearly just wasting time with texting when they could be using it for more glorious pursuits like collaboration.

I was stunned, because I don’t think I’ve ever read such a stupid piece of rubbish. The assumptions of this guy were mind-boggling, not just because they were derogatory but due to how ill-informed they were.

Texting is more prevalent with people younger than myself; I missed the cell-phone-boom by a couple of years. Yes, most of us had cell phones in high school, but not everyone did, and they were really intended only for emergencies. Now the devices are ubiquitous and a lot of people use them as their primary communication device. Students aren’t using texting to plan the next kegger, they’re using it to schedule tutoring sessions, get directions, and generally as a primary means of communication. It is replacing both email and instant messaging, powerfully influencing the way this generation will do business in the future.

If you want to connect with a younger person, you need to be texting. I can’t get my niece to even reply to messages within a week on MySpace, and forget about email, but she’ll get back with a text message in minutes. April tutors high school students, several of whom can only be reached through texting. And universities are beginning to realize the necessity for texting as prospective students request text communication over snail- or even e-mail.

Here’s a hint, Chris: the kids are way ahead of you, already doing ten times the communicating and collaborating you can imagine. And if you’re not careful, they’re going to overtake and replace you.

Blogging about Communication

As some of you may be aware, SilverPen Pub has been around for a while. Despite its ostentatious name, it isn’t really anything more than my personal website where I throw whatever I want for posterity’s sake; a place to backup documents, share writing, and ramble about whatever I please. But as I continue to grow and change, this site continues to evolve, and in regards to content, I think I’m ready to take another baby step.

In the past, my blogging was simply a means of communication. It kept me in touch with a group of friends, and by interacting through LiveJournal and Xanga, we were able to keep up with each other more easily. Then my blog transformed into a collection of theological essays, where for the better part of a year I wrote something about religion, the Bible, or answered theological questions nearly every day. Once I got burnt out on that, I began to put all of my writing on the web: poetry, short stories, class essays, etc.

Transitioning from simply posting my writing on the web, I had the crazy idea of doing 100% of my writing through WordPress. I would publish items as I wrote them, with the goal of garnering feedback from readers to see what should be improved or changed. The problem with this is that it required too much linearity, and since I was working on uncompleted ideas without even an outline, it made that kind of rough. I recently decided to stop posting everything like that.

I’ve always wanted a theme for my site: some over-arching concept that pulls everything together. But finding such a theme was difficult, because I want to write about half a dozen different topics and the only unifying factor between them is that I’m doing the writing. As I climbed the stairs to our student union on campus, though, a surprising thought occurred to me.

Blogging has changed my life, just as it affects so many others, but it’s more than blogging. Simple communication is the key. Me talking to you, you responding, and the two of us sharing our thoughts and ideas with others. It will come as no surprise that a lot of people are uncomfortable with intimate communication, even if the subjects aren’t all that intimate, because they’re afraid to let people close or to show who they really are.

I’m fascinated by communication between people, particularly on the Web, and it is this fascination that influences most of my work anymore. In a year or two, I’ll be pursuing a Masters of Science in Administrative Studies with an emphasis in Communication, and I’ll probably try to write my thesis about the economics of social networking. Not how Facebook and MySpace are doing financially, but how the exchange of ideas brings value, and how people simply talking with others, forming relationships across the Internet, is directly contributing to those same people’s income.

So if I’m looking for a theme, and I love studying and writing about communication so much, maybe that should be my focus. At least for a while, so I can see how it goes. My core topics won’t really change, but I’m going to be doing a bit more research and come at things from that angle of communication.

Everyone uses their site, their clothes, their interests, and whatever else to communicate something about them. I want to look into this more deeply and talk about how we talk, why we say the things we do, and where we go from here.

I don’t know where it’ll lead me, but my curiosity will lead me along.