“Joe, this blog is so ugly! I thought you were a designer, but it’s so plain, has almost no photos, no sidebars, no real colours, and the font is Times (or some system equivalent). I was hoping this was going to look like something about design!”
You may well have said that if you’re reading this post and the visual presentation is the same as it was on the publish date. If not, you can check that out on the Wayback Machine from early 2019.
Here’s the full teardown on why we’re going ugly and why an ugly blog with posts beats a beautiful blog with no posts, every time.
Writing is awesome
Having been a design professional pretty much forever now, I’ve seen too many businesses sabotage their new website, social or blog effort by stalling on creating content. (OK, I might be guilty of that too. Just a bit.) Those blog posts, social pieces and folio items seem to never happen, even for businesses with impressive creative talent. It’s true for authors working solo or in teams -- it’s not about personal motivation or roles.
The underlying purpose for a blog is to make posts which people read, understand and appreciate. Yet, a lot of blog efforts fizzle, commonly because the authors don’t place enough emphasis on actually writing.
Think about the act of writing: putting thoughts into words which are recorded. You articulate what’s going on and you make a specific record of it. Using this simple, powerful process clarifies purpose and personal style, while forcing you to choose and arrange words with care. Broader tactics and strategies can be built on top of this, and will influence the writing as time goes by, but initially, you need to write posts.
When I started on this little blogging adventure, I decided the most important thing in starting a blog is, well, starting a blog. I switched off my instinct to start by making things look good, and put writing first. Topics, search engine strategies, social promotion, visual presentation and audience would only be useful if I was writing posts.
Presentation is a distraction
Like many designers, I am abnormally preoccupied with visual presentation. I don’t like to even send an email without attention to formatting, line breaks and well-turned signature. As a brand strategist and business owner, I like to have a clear idea of where a venture is going and how it will get there in detail before even thinking about a brief. It would be easy for these characteristics to work against me when starting a blog.
Professionals in all fields of design suffer the same problem: you want it to look perfect and be right, and you can’t do anything else until then. Which means you never start writing.
To alleviate this problem, I’ve created this blog based heavily on a super-simple, off-the-rack theme, that I’ve modified to remove all the formatting which gave it visual style. What’s left is a neutral or even ugly, but totally functional, blog. Visual design is firmly off the table, freeing up my valuable brainspace to write. I’m finding that simply writing is a great way to focus my ideas on each post topic, and has me constantly asking who I’m writing for. That parallels my professional work, which is all about audience and message.
No design style is still a design style
In a curious way, my approach has put this blog’s design in line with a visual design style which is usually called “Brutalism”. Although it shares a name with an architectural style popular in the 1960s to 1980s, Brutalism has only been a thing in website design since the early 2010s. Perhaps the launch of the Brutalist Websites collection site in 2014 marked the start.
Loosely, Brutalist websites are designed to disregard commonly accepted visual and user experience rules and norms. They might have jarring combinations of colours, fonts, images and animations; demand that users navigate them in unusual or difficult ways; or use retro-tech imagery such as scrolling text, stretched letters and low res images. So yeah, pretty much the opposite to what you’d expect from a website in 2019.
The effect is energetic and surprising, though sometimes incomprehensible and shouty. It’s great fun if you’ve already seen 100 boring websites today. I love it, though the application of Brutalist web design might be limited for many clients.
But there I go talking about design again!
8 Steps to actually starting a blog
My advice on starting a blog is to start simple:
Write by hand in a notebook. Try it out, it really works for me.
Type each post in a word processor like Word or Google Docs. Don’t write in email, it’s too distracting.
It’s not totally necessary to publish posts to the internet when you start. But you should plan to post when you have say 5 posts.
Don’t be too critical of your first 10+ posts. You are learning.
When you’re ready to publish, do so on your own domain. Using Medium, WordPress.com or Blogger will cause issues later when you want to own all that content on your own domain.
Initially publish the blog on link that’s not in your main site’s navigation. This will reduce perceived pressure to make it super good, because you’re not announcing it widely.
Don’t worry at all about the design.
When you have a set of posts you’re happy with, do worry about the design, but still keep posting!
In the future, when there’s a healthy set of articles in this blog, I might think about giving it more visual style to represent visually the tone of the Univers brand. Until then, I’m just happy writing.