Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Bad Blog Design: 7 Tips to Beat the Status Quo

Most blogs are terrible. They’re ugly and kitschy, distracting the reader from what really matters: the content.

Of course, sometimes, the writing is bad, too. But there is no easy fix to that. If you’re a poor writer, you have to write poorly (and publicly) until you get better.

But bad blog design? That’s easy to overcome. And an important part of keeping people coming back to your blog.

Bad Blog Design

Photo credit: Sean McEntee (Creative Commons)

Making Bad Blog Design Better

Here are seven simple tips to beat the status quo of blogging and make your design sing (or at least not suck):

1. Use a good theme

Don’t build it yourself (unless you’re an awesome designer). If you have the money, you can hire someone to do a custom design, or you can just get a professionally-designed theme.

Most themes range from $0 to several hundred — a small price to pay for a high-quality design. A few sites I recommend for you to find the right theme are:

Note: all of the above are for WordPress blogs.

There are also some nice, out-of-the-box themes on Blogger and Tumblr; however, I recommend doing a self-hosted WordPress blog, if you are able.

2. Don’t get funky with fonts

Keep it simple. Nothing cursive or script-y. No “edgy” fonts, either.

Preferably, use just one to two types for the sake of consistency. This is not where you want to be too creative. Go with what’s standard and tasteful. For a list, check out these web safe fonts.

3. No reverse type

Reverse type is when you reverse what would normally be the background color with the color of the font.

That is, don’t do white text on a black background. It makes for a cool a poster, but it’s hard to read on a screen.

The best is to do just black text on a white background. It’s classic and timeless for a reason. It works.

4. Go easy on the ads

If you’re just starting out, you probably shouldn’t have any advertising on your blog.

You need to get some visitors to your site before monetizing. However, even once you do, make sure that the ads don’t distract from the content.

If you’re scaring readers away, you’ll eventually stop making money, anyway.

So serve your readers first; the money will come.

5. No clip art

I am serious. This is the the worst sin you can commit in web design (well, that and using Comic Sans).

No cheesy photos, either. If you can’t find an image, go without. Having nothing is better than having something that belongs in an old trade magazine.

6. No underlining

When people see underlines on the web, they want to click it. (See what I mean?)

If you want to emphasize a point, try bold or italics. And save the underlines for the hyperlinks.

Otherwise, you’re just confusing your reader and when it comes time to share a link, they won’t know what to click.

7. Make it scannable

Make sure that your blog posts are written in scannable chunks, so that the reader can get a general sense of what your article is about at first glance.

Essentially, this means the following:

  • Use bulleted lists when you have a series of short points to make.
  • Utilize bold and italics to emphasize important words and phrases.
  • Use subheads (usually designated as “h2” and “h3” in the HTML section of your blog editor).
  • Break up paragraphs into smaller chunks (no more than three to four lines per paragraph).

This is an important, but often-overlooked factor in crafting a blog post.

Summary

Well, that’s it. At least, that’s enough to keep a lot of bad blogs busy for awhile.

In summary, there is a lot you can do to make your bad blog design better. First, remove as many distractions as possible from what makes your blog worth reading: the content. Then, focus on making the text readable and enjoyable.

Notice that I didn’t say anything about custom headers or any number of other nice design elements that can take your blog to the next level.

That’s because, while those are nice, they aren’t essential. You can do a lot with a blog that follows these basic guidelines.

A few honorable mentions

  • Don’t overuse social media share buttons.
  • Turn of all autoplay audio and video clips.
  • Kill the pop-ups.

What did I miss? Share your blog design frustrations in the comments below.

*Photo credit: Sean McEntee (Creative Commons)

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Anonymous

    Great thoughts, Jeff! I can’t say that my blog design is the greatest, but I have really tried to keep it simple and classic and have not been able to spend any money on it yet. I’m in the “content has to be king” stage!

    I have seen some terrible blogs, though, and want to make mine as pleasant as possible while focusing on killer content (still practicing that!).

    Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks, Matt. They definitely work together — content and presentation. One can hinder the other.

      • BlackHillsJohn

        Not sure if I am too late here to comment.
        I cringe when bloggers center their prose. Centering is for titles, headings, and the like. It reminds me of how high school English students center a long list of fragments to make the shape of a poem as though centering makes a poem.

  • Great post as usual.  Couldn’t agree more.  Sometimes a bad design hinders my ability to take in good content.  I think good photos on a blog can have just as much impact as the words written.  Makes all the difference.

    • I’ve experienced the same thing, Shelly. Bad design keeps me from reading the good content. They work together.

  • Anonymous

    Lovely post jeff. Whats wrong with clipart? Its functional and sometimes downright cute. I’ve attached an example. 

  • judi

    A descriptive tagline is a must. I really dislike arriving at a blog and I can’t tell what it is about right away.

  • Brilliant tips. You can have amazing content, but without the right design you’re going to scare a lot of readers away. You owe it to yourself to make sure your design doesn’t get in the way of your message. It’s definitely worth the extra effort. 

    • I like that, Ava. We do this instinctively in a lot of other areas in life. For example, you don’t show up to a job interview in shorts and a T-shirt, do you?

      • Exactly! People don’t often think of it that way, but it’s the exact same thing. First impressions make all the difference. 

  • Clipart is evil.

    So is all caps.

    And long paragraphs.

    I also hate it when people bold or italicize too much.  As if every other line is emphasized in some way.

    • Good stuff, Jesse. I was tempted to do all of that in reply to your comment, but I restrained myself.

  • Great post, Jeff.  I really think you should put in some good time and effort into designing your blog BEFORE you introduce it to the world.  If you aren’t able to do that or just super challenged in that area, just go with clean and simple.  I don’t usually run from a blog just because it’s plain.  But, if it’s cluttered and full of clip art and Comic Sans {LOL!}, I will avoid it.   

    I really, really, really don’t like it when the ad space is in the middle of the blog post.  It’s really distracting and comes across as obnoxious and kinda cheap.

    • Agreed, Keri. It disrupts the reader’s flow. That said, this is a work-in-progress, and I would hate bad design to be an excuse to not ship. We get better by showing up. Thanks for sharing!

  • I can’t stand a cluttered sidebar. And if I get an automatic email opt-in popup window, I’m usually out quickly.  

    • Agreed, Don. Apparently, those popups work for a lot of bloggers, though. What makes for a cluttered sidebar?

      • Yeah, Chris Guillebeau has it on his site, but his popup opt-in looks better than most I’ve seen. And it doesn’t pop up immediately. I’m cool with that.
        A cluttered sidebar is one that has one too many widgets. Of course this is just a personal preference, but I think most bloggers would serve their readers better by adopting a more minimalist, focused sidebar. Ads and product widgets can be tastefully done, or just make things look messy and cluttered. 

  • Great points Jeff! I would add a few things:

    – Stay away from overly graphic backgrounds. All they do is make it hard to read and distract people from the writing.
    – Don’t use the floating Social Media links (the kind that come standard on the Standard Theme). While they are nice to use on the actual site, seeing as they follow your cursor down the screen, they are horrible if you are reading the post in an RSS reader (like I do). It makes sharing much harder (I actually have to go to the blog page) which in turn results in less shares.

    • Interesting thought, Jason — regarding sharing from RSS. What, then, do you recommend?

      • I think I use Social Media Counters (name of the plugin), but it seems any of the sharers that are at the top or bottom of the posts work the best. Sometimes the floating ones will show up in the RSS reader, if you click on the post and it shows the site within the reader, but most times, for my reader anyway, it doesn’t.

  • This perhaps isn’t “design”… but I hate when I can’t find an “about” page. If I was sent to one of your blog pages, I want to be able to click and read more about who you are if I’m interested.

  • My favorite blog designs are often minimalistic in “extra” content and trendy and hip in design.  Usually when I stumble upon a blog it’s for the specific purpose of reading that one post.  If the post is good I’ll maybe look at other recent posts.  I’m finding that the deployment of extra social media plugins can be a distraction and often cause blogs to feel cluttered. 

    I work full-time as a web designer and developer for a marketing & design firm and often find myself sitting in meetings of ongoing debate;  marketing at the expense of design.  Social media is often a necessary evil that must somehow find it’s place in the overall scheme of a website, blog, etc.

    Some people do it well.
    Some people don’t.

    • yowza. convicting!

      • Actually Jeff, I failed to give you props. 

        I appreciate that fact that you list only your most recent twitter update.  Your design integrates social media well.

    • Hey Brian, would you mind taking a look at my blog and telling me what you think? (http://willfjohnston.com)  I feel like I could use a banner refresh, but otherwise I feel pretty good about the minimalist look I’ve worked out.  Thanks!

  • I hate it when I click a link to a specific post (and want to read more), but there’s no Home tab. Let me get back to ya, okay?

  • love these thoughts and suggestions!

  • Melanie

    THANK YOU! I work on the side as a blog designer, and these are wonderful tips anyone can do to improve their blog (for free!). It seems obvious, but some things just need to be explicitly pointed out… like the bright red font on a black background really is hard to read… *really*.
    🙂
    have a great day!Melanie

  • Nathan Salley

    this is good. mental note made

  • The photo on this post, alone, made me laugh.

    Sometimes, I have non-bloggers visit my blog and ask why I don’t use a ton more color or “jazz it up” a bit because my blog is about “creativity” like it should look super crafty, but regardless of what my blog is about… it’s still a blog that people should READ and I don’t want to distract them. 

    I love all of your points.  Clip art makes me ill as well.

    I’m currently looking for another theme, though, so I’ll check out the ones you mentioned.
    Thanks 🙂

    • me too, denise. sadly, i was worried that some may not “get” it — that i should’ve stuck with something a little more traditional. appreciate the encouragement.

  • Anonymous

    Comic Sans is regarded as bad because it’s so badly misused. The font’s “voice” is inappropriate for warning signs, for example.

    • Anonymous

      I agree. There’s too much of a knee-jerk reaction against Comic Sans. It’s appropriate for Children’s books, and has actually been shown to help dyslexics read better. As a typeface design, it’s not pretty (don’t look at the weird hook on the “s” too long) but it does what it is supposed to. That doesn’t stop people from misusing it though.

    • it’s a matter of taste. i also don’t think that the color hot pink should ever be used. that’s just me, though. 😉

  • Andrea Cumbo

    I really, really loath blogs that have some sort of animation that I either have to wait to load or have to ignore while I try to read.  And pop-ups. . . yep, hate them. 

    Thanks for the post.  Good stuff.  

  • A great list of tips for people starting out blogging or who got off on the wrong foot. I would, however, like to plug Standard Theme (no affiliate link) as an excellent tool to go with (also for the WordPress platform).

    I have a to-do list of design/layout changes I want to make on my blog (black text on white background for starters). Thank you for the reminder.

    • Surprised that you’re the first one to mention Standard, KC. Thanks for sharing.

      • Me too. Appreciate you letting me give props to Pagelines competition. I’ll convert you yet. 🙂

        • No issues with Standard. Just not willing to commit time to a redesign. Pagelines was very slick out of the box and for a non-coder like myself, it required little tweaking. I appreciate elegant design.

  • Thanks for the tips! I’m off to check out the theme sites now.

  • Pretty much agree with everything that you’ve noted here. 

    Personally, when it comes to design, less is more. I see too many folks cluttering their sidebars with content that isn’t all that relevant. Also, to add to Judi’s point in the comment below, I agree… I should be able to easily identify what the blog is about when I land there – so a good tagline is important (or at least helpful in most cases). 

  • Karl L Hughes

    Great advice. Minimal is definitely the way to go. I’ll also say that offering a responsive layout that works for mobile and traditional browsers is a great feature. There are quite a few free responsive WordPress layouts out there.

  • This is a technical question that may have a place elsewhere — I posted a video within a blog post that automatically started playing whenever you opened my blog page. Now, THANK GOODNESS, it is no longer on the front page of my blog! But, is there a way to mess with the HTML code of a video to say “Shhhhh!” when it does that?

    • maybe. what kind of player are you using? probably a way to turn off continuous play.

  • Hey, I have cursive in my header (and I love it!). Also, Ann Voskamp breaks all the rules and does so brilliantly. 😉

    • The header is one thing. Body font is another. And Ann does NOT use clip art. 😉 (But yes, I do hate the autoplay song on her blog… sorry, Ann.)

      • I’m telling you, women can get away with way more! 🙂

  • Matt

    Hey Jeff,

    I really like your social media sharing buttons – I like how they stay on the screen as you scroll down.

    • thanks, matt. it’s just a plugin for WP called “sharebar.”

  • Crazy fonts drive me crazy.   It just throws my brain off when I try to read anything other than standard type.

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  • The best way to retain your readers is to provide links at the end of each post…something that you do, n i must say it did work on me. I stuck around for a while, honestly because all ur posts are a great source of info for bloggers like me.

  • I was scanning this post; got to the part about making things scannable- then laughed. It amazes me how often bloggers will not learn from their own experiences. Take any article about how to write content readers will return for and all the advice is common sense advice. We can learn a lot about writing for the web by studying our own habits.

  • Great useful tips, i got huge of idea from your post. Thanks a lot for sharing with us. I’ll visit your blog again.

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  • Flintstone

    Well, well put article. It’s really frustrating when you see bloggers with great content but terrible designs and seemingly helpless about it. I work for an agency, @belvadigital, and we have come up with a campaign, dubbed #WhyNotBlogAboutIt, to help bloggers achieve great designs and user experiences for their blogs at really affordable prices. http://www.belva.co.ke/affordable-blog-design/

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