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.

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.

Carrington 1.3 has been released

If you pay attention to your WordPress Dashboard (I notice mine every 2-3 days), you might have seen that version 1.3 of Carrington has been released. Carrington is the theme I use for SilverPen Publishing, but it’s more than a theme: Carrington is a unique shift in theme framework development and finds itself in a significantly more advanced category than your standard WordPress theme.

Simply put, it’s all kinds of wonderful, and I’ve really enjoyed having its style represent SilverPen Publishing. However, I have had to make a few tweaks to the theme, and when faced with an upgrade, I was hesitant to recommit myself to that task. All of those changes would have to be made once again, and I didn’t take notes on what I had edited because I didn’t think I’d have to do it again any time soon, let alone with this theme.

Most theme publishers write a theme, put it out for public consumption, and leave it. I never expect upgrades of a theme unless a major change in WordPress outright breaks the theme, and even then it doesn’t get upgraded most of the time. Alex King‘s a champ, though, and stands by his work. If I could laud him any more highly I would, but for now my praise and recommendation will have to be sufficient. Such dedication caught me by surprise though, hence the lack of notes.

Because there were some important security upgrades in this version, I went ahead and upgraded after backing up my current theme, and then spent some time going through and changing what I needed to. In addition, I actually took notes this time as I went, and I’m going to go ahead and post them here. As I read in someone else’s blog recently, notes for me, notes for you.

Reasons to upgrade:

From Alex King’s blog:

Version 1.3 of Carrington Blog is now available for download.

Upgrading is strongly recommended due to a security patch in this release.

This version has a couple of changes – both bug fixes and new features:

  • Added an image.php file for displaying media. This is not yet abstracted into the framework, but will be in the future.
  • Added a field to the settings page for adding in analytics code.
  • Fixed a problem with IE7 and the dropdown menus.
  • Explicitly send headers with AJAX responses, hopefully fixes some issues reported by Safari users.
  • Added a Log In link to the header.
  • Added code to load in translations.
  • Updated documentation.

Continue reading

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.