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Using Templates To Design Killer Blogs

Posted on December 16, 2011 and read 5,420 times

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“Pythagoras said that nature is number and if you apply that to data, at the end of the day, WordPress is just a load of data that you can manipulate and twist into wondrous things. I think what’s killing web design is lack of imagination, quite frankly.”

— Brendan Dawes, Creative Director at Magnetic North.

You know an online trend has gone too far when your grandmother jumps on the bandwagon. “I started a blog about my cats,” she says placing extra roast beef on your plate at Sunday dinner while looking fondly at Chester and Willoughby sleeping on the sofa. This kind of announcement triggers at least two thoughts. First, you have to admit, it’s impressive that grandma started a blog. Second, you’re disappointed that yet another person is crowding the intertubes with another dull, template-style, rant-filled blog (especially about two bald cats).

Blogs don’t have to be boring or look like all the rest. If you’re a designer, it’s just another chance to show the world what you’re capable of. That’s why now, more than ever, is a fantastic time to create an incredibly creative blog even if you start with a template from outfits like Blogger, Joomla, Squarespace, Tumblr or WordPress. iStockphoto recently teamed up with Google’s Blogger Template Designer to offer hundreds of beautiful background images for its bloggers.

At the SXSW interactive conference (2010), some leading creatives hosted a panel called “Is WordPress killing web design?” They discussed the good, the bad and the ugly options with blog templates. Many of the panelists argued that blog templates or content management systems (CMS) are just the beginning for designers looking to shock and awe their audiences.

Here to talk about making killer blogs from templates are:

Jina Bolton, Designer at Crush + Lovely
Dan Mall, Interactive Art Director for Big Spaceship
Brendan Dawes, Creative Director at Magnetic North

When setting up a blog for clients or yourself, it’s challenging to make a lasting impression with a unique blog. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using blog templates or CMS tools to help design blogs?

Brendan: CMS systems, for me and the team at magneticNorth, offer a lot of scope in terms of the presentation layer because the content is abstracted away to be simply data, which you can then twist and manipulate in a never-ending number of ways. With just a flick of a switch, or more accurately a switch of a theme in WordPress, for instance, you can have a completely different look and feel, yet still retain the same content. It means you can experiment a lot more, throw ideas around, treating the content as if it’s modeling clay that you can then mould into different shapes at a whim, and see what surprises come out of that process. It also means you can make a blog your own — after all, we’re talking about communication here. Whether it’s you as a person of a large multinational. And that means it’s not simply what you say but how you say it is just as important. The problem with themes that become ubiquitous is that your message gets lost in a sea of aesthetic mediocrity, with no differentiation and doesn’t communicate in it’s style your personality.

If you look at my own site, that’s a WordPress-driven site, but it doesn’t look like your typical blog site. I’m using the WordPress backend but then hacking it up a bit to show what I’m about as a person. And, of course, I can change it very easily with just the flick of a button, which means I can constantly play with this stuff. I’d love to see way more radical designs when it comes to blogs. Sure there are ones that won’t work, but nobody ever died switching a theme. What’s the worst that can happen?

Daniel: Blog templates and CMS tools are great because a lot of the work is already done for you. Especially for people that want easy ways to express their thoughts online or for visual designers that are a bit hesitant on the coding end, themes are a great way to quickly get started. Also, reverse-engineering them is a fantastic way to eventually learn how to do it yourself. That’s how I started out.

Jina: The advantage of using blog templates or CMS tools to help design blogs is that a system is already in place so you can jump right into posting content without spending too much time in the set-up and build of it. The disadvantage is that you’re working with someone else’s system. You basically have to decide, then, which is more important – being able to quickly publish what you need to publish, or having full control of every single aspect of the system. In most cases, the latter is a very rare need.

Are blog templates and CMS tools making designers lazy?

Brendan: I think it can lead to complacency, which is not really the same as laziness. But it’s not all black and white. It depends what you’re trying to achieve and who you’re audience is.

Daniel: I think some designers rely too heavily on themes and the “standard” functionality of a CMS. There are solutions that require a certain amount of work, but a lot of designers would rather play it safe and stick with a theme.

Jina: No. It’s not possible for a tool to make a designer lazy. It’s the designer who may choose to be lazy or not. And that lazy designer may choose to use tools that help them be more lazy. But you can’t blame the tools for that.

If you start with a blog design template, how can you customize it?

Brendan: Well, I only really know WordPress, but I would say start with a basic template, then gradually start to hack it up. Take things away, add new bits and see what works. One of the things I love about WordPress is the flexibility of the key-value pair custom fields. On my blog I’ve used these to specify custom header images for posts as well as cool stuff such as the ability to add a Flickr Set ID, which triggers an embedded Flickr gallery. I’ve also done this to trigger a Twitter search, specifying keywords which fire a Twitter search on those keywords to show real-time reaction to the ideas in the post. I love doing stuff like that; bending WordPress so it starts to act more like a CMS than simply a blog platform.

Daniel: For me, it’s important to see those platforms as tools to accomplish certain goals. When designing a site, I try to keep in mind what problem I’m solving. Is the site intended to make money? Build awareness? Sell products? Be a playground? I try to design without care for the typical constraints of the tool I’m using. I rarely let thoughts like, “Can WordPress do this?” enter my mind. The tools should bend to my will, not the other way around.

Jina: With whatever tool you decide to use, my biggest advice to you is to read up on what all you can do with the technology that is available to you. In many cases, particularly with the more popular tools that have been around for a while, there is a lot of documentation and support threads that will tell you how to do almost anything you want to do. Once you realize what you can do with it, then you can get really experimental and push the tools to be what you want them to be.

What do you think are some of the best looking blogs out there?

Daniel: I’m loving the Panic blog. They’ve taken the idea of a custom-designed blog post and combined it with a long-established convention of an aggregated posts page for a well-designed user experience that’s beautiful and easy to browse. I also love Questionable Characters. Using a blogging format, the authors take a single question and each answer it in their own individual ways.

istock generic 122953 Using Templates To Design Killer Blogs

Jina: I really like,, They’re all very stylish, and they all have a lot of fine detail to them.

istock generic 122954 Using Templates To Design Killer Blogs

Brendan: I don’t really read that many blogs to be honest but some that spring to mind are the wonderful especially its sideways scrolling layout — it just makes me smile. Then theirs the beautiful typography of and the fab Why do I like them? All I can tell you is that they trigger something in me that resonates, but I can’t really tell you why that is.

istock generic 122955 Using Templates To Design Killer Blogs

What are the most common problems designing with a CMS?

Brendan: Being dictated to by the “plumbing.” Users don’t care what’s going on at the backend as long as it works, but they care about the bits they see and use. That’s who you’re designing for, not some techno geeks who think their CMS rocks but put too many constraints on the design. Down with the plumbers of the world. Or at least don’t let them dictate when it comes to design.

Daniel: If you approach a site thinking, “I’m going to design a site,” that’s a particular mindset. But if you come at a site thinking I’m going to design a WordPress site or a Moveable Type site or an Expression Engine site, or whatever kind of site it is, you’re already locked into the constraints of that tool. I don’t think that fosters creativity. Having that open mindset lets you create rather than being a slave of the tool that you’re working with.”

Jina: Usually problems that arise have to do with letting yourself be restricted by the perceived constraints of the CMS’s templating system. And, if you’re new to the platform and don’t have the time to really find out how to customize things, then this can be a pretty big problem indeed.

How can designers improve the caliber of customization on a blog?

Daniel: To customize templates, it’s important to hold high the sacred tenets of graphic design: typography, white space, grids, movement and hierarchy. Most blog templates are also created with HTML and CSS, so a firm understanding of them is crucial. To improve things though, it’s more than just making pages look beautiful. I think it’s about thinking of design as the medium that helps you communicate an idea. How do visuals better help a person understand a concept versus only hearing the text? Is it the interaction model? Is it the way that audio affects the appearance? What do different colors say about your message? These things will not only make your pages beautiful but also reinforce and support the story you’re trying to tell.

Jina: Other than the previously mentioned advice of reading up on as much as you can about how to customize the templates, the only other advice I think I can give is to a) learn CSS as much as you can — because in this you have a ton of power. And b) keep practicing and trying things out. Maybe on personal stuff. When you get used to using things you’ll get better at it.

Brendan: Don’t try to replicate what’s gone before. Look out the window and away from the screen. And stop thinking the web is paper behind glass.

What do you think is the next blog design trend and why?

Brendan: Wouldn’t know. Don’t follow trends. Never have.

Daniel: I’ve never been good at predictions, but I’ll attempt one anyway. Since the democratization of blogging, people have explored many ways to improve or modify the process, from quick publishing methods like Tumblr (or Posterous to microblogging platforms like Twitter to podcasts and videocasts and most recently the Blogazine described in Smashing Magazine’s The death of the boring blog post.. Though I have no idea what shape the next version will take, I think we’ll see many more attempts for design and content to remain applicable and appealing.

Jina: It seems to me that people are actually backing away from using blogs and going more toward lifestreams and microblogging. Perhaps there will be a lot of personal sites simply showcasing these services (like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc). And if that’s the case, it would appear that blog customization could get a little trickier, as you’re implementing each service’s embedded codes.

What do you think are blog design trends that should die a swift, brutal death and why?

Brendan: Right now? Huge fonts and sites that look like printed posters. Time to move on.

Daniel: Oh boy… I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me this. Strap yourselves in:

• Uncurated lists. I’m tired of seeing the “50 best websites with a flower logo” kinds of posts. While I’m all for gallery sites, I’d much rather see a post about one site you love and why than 50 websites you give me no context on.

• Unbalanced illustration. There are tons of blogs out there that have amazing header and footer illustrations and horrible typography for the actual content of the post. It shows an unbalanced attention to detail and serves merely as decoration rather than design.

• Threaded comments. I think threaded comments dilute the focus of the discussion at hand. If another topic is worth discussing, please preserve the integrity and context of the original discussion and move the new conversation to another place (another blog post, email, etc.)

Jina: I don’t really have any trends I hate that much, to be honest. I guess I don’t like the “magazine” blogs that have a billion square ads on the right sidebar. It makes that whole side of the site completely useless to me. Other than that, I’m fine with stuff as long as they are contextually relevant to the needs of the blog.




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