Web Design Tips for the Cheap, Lazy, or HTML-Challenged

Everyone says you need a professional-looking website, but a professional setup and design can cost hundreds of dollars and a monthly hosting fee. If your website is making you money (for example, by selling books), that can be worth it. Otherwise, you want something that's both Free and Good Enough.

Whenever I tweak things on this site, I have four goals, many of them conflicting: (1) Make my blog nice to read/look at, (2) Differentiate it from every other blog out there, (3) Rarely mess with the template (HTML, CSS, and other scary acronyms), and (4) Spend little or no money. If that sounds good to you, read on.

Blogger is my favorite. It's relatively reliable and gives me a decent amount of control (though those qualifiers are important). You could also go with Wordpress.com, LiveJournal, or many others.

None of them give you total control, of course. For that, you'd have to buy your own webhost and deal with your own technical setup and issues, which defies goals (3) and (4).

As far as free templates go, Blogger has only 27 (at the moment). Wordpress.com is better with 148. But since there are a few more than 175 blogs out there, your blog will very likely look exactly like someone else's. That's why you customize the crap out of it:
  1. Get a custom background. Especially if you're good with a camera/live somewhere pretty.
  2. Make a custom header. Free fonts and your local Paint program can surprise you. Photoshop and a little design sense is even better.
  3. Tweak the heck out of it. Blogger, for example, lets you change the format, fonts, sizes, and colors of almost every little thing. Take advantage of it.
Fancy fonts and wacky colors will definitely make your blog unique, but don't go crazy. Everyone's screen and color resolution is different (some folks are even reading you on their phones!). The text needs to be big enough and plain enough to be readable. And the text color should contrast as strongly as possible with the background.

Here's where I tell you to use dark text on a light background. I know people disagree with this, but white-on-black burns my retinas like those creepy Jesus illusions. I won't say don't do it, but at least think twice before you do.

People come to your blog for two reasons: (1) to read your latest update or (2) to find specific information about you/your blog. Every blog makes the former easy -- it's right there in the middle. It's your job to make the latter easy to find.

Static pages are a good place to put professional stuff. The kind of stuff agents come looking for. Pages put that info right at the top (usually), give you space to write as much info as you need/want, and keep that stuff (which is usually old news to your regular readers) from cluttering your sidebar.

The sidebar is the second place for it. People like to throw everything they can think of in their sidebars, and that's okay, but know this: Visitors will not scroll down past the first screen unless they are looking for something specific. (I will entertain arguments on this only if you've read my blog footer or clicked on the Carpe Editio flag down there. I'll bet money none of you have (until now, of course -- now you're curious...).)

Think about what you want readers to see, and put that on top.

Free hosts insert their brand everywhere. Search bars on the top, mandatory attributions in the footer, and of course the domain name. You can usually get rid of this stuff, but it requires either messing with the template or paying money.

But often, it's not hard either. Removing the Blogger search bar is a single line of CSS, for example, and a custom domain name costs only $10-15 per year. It's up to you whether that's worth it.

Many of you already have beautiful blogs (I know, I've seen them). So tell me what decisions have gone into your blog? What other tips would you offer?


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I keep fiddling with it, lately, coming up with better buttons or sleeker layout, or trying to reduce the number of clicks to get to purchases or key information. I think I'm getting there... :)

I recently visited a blog that has black background and white letters...I could barely get through the post. Thankfully most people (or maybe just the ones I visit) have figured that part out!

Thanks for the great and timely post!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

p.s. I like the WiP tab! Was that there for a while and I just missed it?

linda said...

Great tips! One of the reasons I switched from Wordpress to Blogger was for the custumizability of the template. And I totally agree with you about light font on dark backgrounds. So hard to read! But that doesn't really stop me from subscribing to a blog since when I read posts in Google Reader it shows up as black on white.

It's been a while since I've played around with my blog template. Now I'm tempted to! Since I started blogging, I've picked up some random CSS/HTML (mostly through Googling stuff I wanted to do) and it's a lot of fun. :)

jjdebenedictis said...

Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. #4 for the win. I SO believe in doing these things on the cheap! (Of course, it probably shows, but at least I had fun doing it.)

Matthew MacNish said...

I don't care that much about pretending I'm not on blogger. I do the favicon (figured it out before blogger made it easy). I do customize all my colors. But my template is quite simple, and I've never seen anyone with my background, even though it's one of the built in ones.

Adam Heine said...

@Linda: I studied Computer Science for 4 years and programmed for another 6. And your method is exactly how I picked up CSS/HTML too.

@JJ: I occasionally envy professional authors' websites, but when I think what they had to pay for them (and wonder how much control they still have over them), my envy quickly dies.