If you’re old and/or hip enough to remember the days when books were printed on paper and sold on shelves,…
If you’re old and/or hip enough to remember the days when books were printed on paper and sold on shelves, you probably have a handful of favorite book covers. The visual design of a book not only grabs the attention of would-be readers, but also sets a tone for the content sandwiched between its covers. Covers and spines that all look alike make for wonderful soft furnishings, but in a world in which ideas have to compete for attention, they often don’t cut it.
Cookie cutter blogs with the same look and feel as countless others have the same impact. Which is to say, not very much. So in this three part series on visually branding your blog, we take a look at some tips and tactics for thinking through and putting into action some simple ways you can set your blog apart, whether you’re an artistic maestro itching to make a masterpiece of your magnum opus, or simply a concerned party worried that your blog is an unbearable aesthetic train wreck.
On the Menu
- Intro: You’re reading it. Today we’ll do some essential groundwork for the visual makeover of wonders we have ahead of us.
- 101: In the next post, we’ll look at how you can customize the look and feel of your blog’s headers and sidebars to set it apart from the pack.
- 201: Next up we’ll be taking a look at tweaking typography and backgrounds.
- 301: In our third and final post we’ll take a look at taking visual branding to the next level with CSS.
Identity, Meet Visual Identity
Your writing, and by extension your blog, very likely has an identity all of its own. Whether that’s in the stylistic details of how you write, in the persistent themes and ideas you write about, or a combination of the two, when people read something you’ve written, they’re going to get an impression of you through your use of words.
Creating a visual identity, however simple, for your blog, only reinforces that idea. And if your visual identity is going to make sense in the context of your writing, it should spring from that writing. If you write about crafts, how could you translate the mood, feeling and act of crafting into the look of your blog? If your blog is a personal journal about your travels, how could you make it feel more personal with a few visual flourishes, and how could you emphasise that it’s about travel to the casual reader? Today we’ll look at these problems and how to solve them.
The Why Behind the What
Before you get your marker pens and watercolors down from the attic, start thinking about why people would want to read your blog, what they’re likely to find there if they do, and what makes your blog unique. In other words, before putting pen to paper when it comes to visual design, it’s a good idea to think through why you’re doing what you’re doing. What are you hoping to achieve?
In the case of a book or movie poster, there are a few elements that make up the “why” of what it’s trying to achieve:
- Stand out from the thousands of other brilliant ideas and offerings competing for peoples stretched attention.
- Contextualize the book or movie so that passers-by can get a very quick idea if it’s the “sort of thing they like”. Is it literary fiction? Is it horror? Is it a heartwarming tale of a dog and cat on a one way mission to Mars?
- Set the tone within that broader context you’ve settled on. A comedy-horror film will have a different look and feel to one played straight. A Tim Burton animation will visually position itself in a different way to a classic Disney film. A 1000-page academic treatise on the mating cycle of lesser spotted herons will likely present itself in a different way than an Idiot’s Guide to Heron Mating.
Let’s put this into action:
Action Time: Now to nail down some of the ideas that might inspire the look and feel of your blog:
- Figure out your blog’s unique proposition, the thing that sets it apart from everything else. Get the ball rolling with “It’s the only blog that…” and take it from there.
- Think about the broader context of your blog. Are there any other blogs like it? If your blog were turned into a book, where would it be filed in a library or bookstore?
- Do some spontaneous mood setting. What kind of atmosphere would your blog have if it were a cafe, restaurant, or bar? Loud and exciting? Relaxed and peaceful? Jazz music and beard stroking by dim light? Think about the lighting, decor, furnishings, soundtrack, aromas, people you might find in there.
Toying With Taglines
Okay, okay, we’re nearly at the visual part. Before we get there though, let’s try and boil everything down into an elevator pitch of the mood, feel, intentions, and hopefully audience for your blog. We’ll do that by working on a one-liner. The conversational way you’d describe what your blog is and who it’s for if you had thirty seconds passing a friend in the street. Think of the blurb on the front or back of a book, or the one-liner on a movie poster, only less formal. The idea is that you’re going to let the would-be, fly-by reader know exactly what’s going on with this here blog before they commit to reading a post.
Action Time: Boiling down your whole blog into a useful sentence is tough. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you get stuck:
- The old journalistic W’s: run your blog through the trusty old journalistic W’s of Who (who is this blog for); What (what’s it about); When (what’s the average speed of posting? Is this a quick fire bulletin or a slow burn meditation?); Where (where is it being written/where are the audience located in geographic or psychological space), How (Ok, not a W, but don’t shoot the messenger – how are you/will you appeal to the casual or would-be reader? What kind of posts are you putting out?)
- Jaws Meets Heat, On Mars: when scriptwriters pitch their ideas in Hollywood, they often use shorthand to get the gist across about their idea by mashing two existing, well-known examples together. Is your blog “Gawker, by way of Sartre”, “LOLCats meets political analysis”, or “A blog about pince-nez, in the style of popular 1970s tobacco advertising”? Possibly none of the above, but you get the idea.
- At gunpoint: if you’re still sweating it and can’t commit to what the heck your blog is about, just imagine a maniacal clown with a 60-second egg-timer in one hand, a revolver, pointed at you, in the other, and a vacant, somewhat unpleasant stare. Set your own timer if you have to. Don’t anger the clown.
Hopefully that’s given you a tagline. A tagline you can use as your own secret inspiration for the visual funfair awaiting us, or a tagline you can use as, you know, your tagline.
So by now you know what your blog’s about. You’ve boiled it’s essence down to a killer tagline. You’re ready to start playing with visuals. Right?
Action Time: Put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, or voice to… voice recorder. Answer the following quick questions as instinctively and spontaneously as you can:
- What was the last book (magazine or movie) you paid for? How did the cover (or poster) convey that it wasn’t a book from a different genre? If it appealed to you when you picked it up, how so? If not, why not?
- If your blog had a book cover (or movie poster) what would it look like? Describe it in simple terms, or make a quick doodle. Why did you make the decisions you did?
- Does the subject of your blog have its own existing, popular “iconography” attached? Think knitting needles (crafts/knitting), typewriters (writing), dog leashes (dogs), ribbons (crafts, pretty things), blood spatters (crime/horror). If there aren’t any, how could you best represent the topic of your blog visually? If there are, how could you put a fresh twist on the familiar imagery?
Back of a Napkin
In the next post in the series, we’re going to be looking at how you can creatively use headers and image widgets in your sidebar to visually brand your blog. Until then, why not pitch your taglines, thoughts, and if you’re brave enough, your wild scribble-scratched napkin sketches of some of the ideas you’ve had about how you could visually brand your blog? And if you’re feeling especially nice, why not throw out some feedback to your fellow blog branders?