December 28, 2003

Style vs Substance

What follows are some personal thoughts about blog design. My opinions carry no weight except what you give them, and it doesn't mean anything if you agree or disagree.

If I mention someone by name, no personal insult is intended, neither is any perceived sucking up.

I've been working with computers for a long time. I've sat down and punched many a deck of the old IBM cards (do not fold, spindle, or mutilate). Most of my experience has been on the big monstrous mainframe computers, which are no longer all that big or monstrous. They just seem that way compared to the PC's of today.

People today are spoiled by PC's. They are incredibly flexible and powerful. My users can't understand why I can't change fonts in the middle of printed output from our mainframe. They can't grasp the complete and total control you've gained thanks to Apple and Microsoft. And they don't understand how little of that flexibility has migrated upwards to the big boys.

I remember the days when monitors were green letters on a black background, or amber letters on black. It was a huge day when we got monitors and software that allowed us eight whole colors! Geeks doing the happy dance, not a pretty thing to see.

But that giant leap for pocket-protector-kind also hammered home a lesson we'd all learned without realizing it. We instantly became color-crazed, highlighting and underscoring and color coding, and our screens looked like something out of an acid-trip flashback. They were so loud and garish that the information on them was lost in the background. It took us a while to figure that out.

I used to train new programmers, and one of the things I would do is give them the specs to a new screen and function to do - their first ever using color. This was actual work that would be incorporated into our systems, but never anything that we needed in a hurry. Inevitably, what came back would sear your brain and make you want to claw out your eyeballs. And I would go over the nightmare with them, showing them where color worked, and where it didn't, and what to do and what not to do.

The most important thing is the information, not the way it's presented.

That sentence above is the point I've been meandering towards. Take a look at the blogs by Rachel Lucas or Bill Whittle or Instapundit, and what you might not immediately notice is their crisp clean style. Their blog designs manage to be distinctive and attractive without getting in the way of the content. And that is what we should all be striving for.

That doesn't mean your blog design has to be sterile. Check out Candy Universe for an outstanding example of balancing an eye-catching design with easy readability. Remember, these are personal opinions, I know some folks don't like light text on a dark background. I'm talking about the whole here, not details.

On the other end of the spectrum (opinion alert!) are Madfish Willie's Cyber Saloon and Snooze Button Dreams and Tiger: Raggin' and Rantin', to name three I'm most familiar with. Each has different things that make their designs less than successful to me.

Madfish Willie takes every toy, gimcrack and script trick he can find and incorporates it into his blog design. He's a fountain of good information, but I find that the content of his site gets lost in the bells and whistles. I can't even load his blog from work (at lunchtime) because the firewall times out waiting for all the doodads to load. To me, it's too much.

Snooze Button Dreams is approaching that point as well, but seems to be more low-key about it. He knows way more about this stuff than I do, but it seems like he's constantly trying to tweak his latest script so that it works for everyone regardless of browser or version. His blog is rapidly approaching the point where it won't load in a reasonable time either.

Tiger's design is... just... too much of everything. I can't really pin down any one or two things, but there's just so much happening text-wise that it's difficult to read. Once I'd learned his format it became easier to focus on his posts, but someone visiting your blog shouldn't have to learn how to work around the design to get to the good stuff.

I still read these blogs every day, but when you're trying to entice folks to plan a return visit it just makes sense to make it as easy as possible for the visitor. Don't let the content get lost in the design of your blog.

Update: To clarify my thoughts about Snooze Button Dreams, Jim has stayed very close to a standard template with a simple design. The problems I'm having with his site (and I admit I don't understand the 'why' of it) is in the numerous scripts that he runs in the background (Java?). Check out his blogroll for instance, you click on one category to expand it. Very nifty, but it has to reload each time I access his site, and the firewall is fussing about it. My solution is to wait until I get home to check out his site, I do the same for Madfish Willie's. I really like his proposed designs, especially this one.

Posted by Ted at December 28, 2003 12:56 PM
Category: Munuvian Daily Tattler

So (slightly afraid to ask)... where does my site fall on the spectrum?

Posted by: Daniel at December 28, 2003 08:04 PM

:) It doesn't matter what I think Daniel - I meant that! But I find your blog to be very readable.

Posted by: Ted at December 28, 2003 08:39 PM

I loved amber. I just did some Googling and found my first computer:

My trick for keeping pages simple is to not learn new technology. I keyed in my first html code using DOS text editor on a 286 laptop, and I haven't progressed much from there.

Posted by: Nic at December 28, 2003 08:41 PM

I'm a little hesitant about asking because I know you'll probably get a lot of these, but how about a quick review of my site?

I'm a little surprised by your comments about Snooze Button Dreams. It looks like a nice clean design. Almost everything loads slowly with my primitive connection though, so it's hard for me to tell.

One problem I have with Tiger's blog is there's something weird about the way it scrolls (hard to describe) and I occasionally find other sites like that. It's a little annoying.

Posted by: Lynn S at December 28, 2003 08:43 PM

Lynn S., you didn't ask me, but yer blogs looks good to me. I wonder if it's a good idea to have the title banner written in calygraphy....

Oh, and ditto on the Snooze Button Dreams note. It looks like a pretty crisp set-up to me. Are there a lot of bells and whistles that I'm not seeing in IE 6.0???

Posted by: Tuning Spork at December 28, 2003 09:08 PM

I agree with most of your opinion. Except Candy Universe. to dismiss the objection light text on a dark background (readable only in small doses) as a mere detail, invalidates your statement that you're taling about the whole. A detail that for many makes a site difficult to read has to be considered as having a significant impact on the whole.

Posted by: StMack at December 28, 2003 09:35 PM

Also little details like typing and proof reading count too. Sorry for the lack of both in the comment above!

Posted by: StMack at December 28, 2003 09:37 PM

Calligraphy? The title on my page is in Times New Roman Italic. I used TNR because almost everyone has it and italics because I wanted something more elegant than a plain font.

Anyway, thanks for the comment. It is appreciated.

Posted by: Lynn S at December 28, 2003 10:08 PM

Mack, I know a lot of people don't like light text on black, but I also know it's perfectly acceptable to many. Some folks don't like blue, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't ever use blue in your blog design. You've got me wondering though, I'm sure somewhere someone has done a study about it. Google is my friend. :)

Posted by: Ted at December 28, 2003 10:21 PM

Lynn, I love your design because it's almost minimalistic. That's just a personal preference of mine. The programmer in me would nitpick about the spacing between your individual posts, because you have a gap between the end of one post and your 'posted by' line, followed immediately by the previous title. Put that space between the 'posted by' and the title to gain that little bit of separation.

Like I said, it's a minor nitpick that only an old mainframe programmer would notice. :)

Posted by: Ted at December 28, 2003 10:35 PM

Who doesn't like blue?!

Posted by: Jennifer at December 28, 2003 10:41 PM

Lynn S.; Weird Misunderstang Alert: I wasn't accusing you of using calligraphy, I was suggesting that you might want to! mheh.
Strange how language can be a uniter and a divider...

Posted by: Tuning Spork at December 29, 2003 12:30 AM

...and how the word Mustang could end up being so misspelled...

Posted by: Tuning Spork at December 29, 2003 01:12 AM

Thanks for the feedback, Ted. I had no idea my scripts were causing problems. Something for me to contemplate now.

Posted by: Jim at December 29, 2003 04:18 AM

Jim - your scripts don't work in Mozilla (some, anyway), but as I've said, they at least do the right thing when they break. :) Otherwise it's a nice clean design. (I love the new black&white design too.)

I agree with Ted on most of this; if I'm reading your blog, I don't want anything that distracts me from reading. Hence my rant a while back on the evils of the thingy tag. Scrolly thing. You know.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at December 29, 2003 04:52 AM

Shouldn't we all just read Tufte and be done with it?

Posted by: Daniel at December 29, 2003 07:55 AM

If you can find a copy of it, get Web Pages that Suck and Son of Web Pages that Suck (or just go to the website itself. Lots of good ideas on what not to do in there.

Posted by: Victor at December 29, 2003 08:05 AM

Oops. Funny how the same sentence can be read to have two different meanings. I've actually thought about some kind of graphic for the header but just haven't come up with anything.

Ted, thanks. My design is minimalist because I have a minimum of knowledge about how to do stuff. :-) I've actually thought about the spacing problem but just never bothered to do anything about it.

Posted by: Lynn S at December 29, 2003 08:58 AM

Damn. I need to quit using the word "actually" so much.

Posted by: Lynn S at December 29, 2003 09:00 AM

I make my living as a designer mostly of stuff that gets printed on paper. One bit of advice I gave to a young designer whose portfolio I was reviewing was, "Just because you can do something in PhotoShop, doesn't mean you should." I think this advice would probably apply to web site design as well. Since the purpose of a weblog is to convey information, judge every design question and every bit of technological candy by the standard of "Does this help or hinder the communication?"

Posted by: StMack at December 29, 2003 09:08 AM

YES!!! StMack put it much better than I did. My wife did a brochure once for her business, and then a professional helped her refine the design. His suggestions were subtle but incredibly effective.

I think I also need to say that a busy design isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it works, but I don't know enough to say exactly why. Kinda that 'I know what I like' thing.

Posted by: Ted at December 29, 2003 09:33 AM

Lynn, actually, women who say 'damn' are kinda sexy. ;) (sorry, I couldn't resist!)

Posted by: Ted at December 29, 2003 09:35 AM

I probably should have read this before I redecorated, huh?
I think Candy Universe is gorgeous. I'm partial to those sites with a nice retro pic up at the top, cheesecakey or whatever. ScorpioGirl ( is one such.

Posted by: LeeAnn at December 29, 2003 02:34 PM

Ted, could your proxy at work be forbidding script pages? That would explain why you're getting a hang for my sidebar. I could get around that by putting the script in line but I wanted it centrally located so it could be referred from wherever it's needed.

Also, i just removed some scripts yesterday (for the random tagline). Could you check and see if this makes a difference for you?

Posted by: Jim at December 30, 2003 11:02 AM

Jim, I'm sure it's my work server because I can load you fine from home (cable modem). It's odd but there is a pattern at work, because *almost* all 'radio weblogs' are blocked too.

Posted by: Ted at December 30, 2003 12:37 PM

I doubt that it's forbidding script pages, or it would block the MuNu blogrolls.

It's probably just poo.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at December 31, 2003 01:00 AM

I must say, I was more than a little "miffed" when first reading your post. First, I'll be just a little sarcastic, then I have some serious discussion.

If my site is so "unsuccessful", what are doing coming back to it? To me that pretty much says it all to me... you came back a second time and many times after that, so something I did was "successful". If it's based only on my "content", then you are as sick as I am and in need of immediate mental health care.

Is it my general site layout that makes my site design unsuccessful or is it the load times? My site hasn't always loaded as slow as it's loading right now. My doodads are internal calls that have nothing to do with the load times. For the most part, they are an enhancement of the functionality of the site eg. the expanding comments and extended entry scripts. One exception is the random toasts which load last after everything else on the page. That one I could live without, but it's not the culprit in slow loading. The main factor is the banner graphic at 75kb, but I'm not taking that out. I have added and subtracted different graphics over the last several weeks but nothing that has a huge overhead. I may cut down on them or I may not, I haven't decided.

I find that the external call for the blogrolling script slows it down to a crawl. The external call for the MuNu script slows down the load time too. Those two scripts ALWAYS hang the site load.

Let's see what else would cause slow loading... the actual number of posts on, or total length of, the page. I have seven days set up in my config file. Sometimes that runs into 30+ posts. I ran across a post over at Wizbang tonight that I am going to use to change the number of posts to a more managable number, say... 15-20. Then I will use my "Recent Posts" to give access to the 15-20 posts that just scrolled off the page. A wonderfully brilliant solution and use of a totally useless piece of coding heretofore not utilized very effectively... even if I do say so myself.

I could debate this with you for hours [BTW: I've seen Tufte's site and it sucks IMHO] and would like to hear your theories on colors, because I know that have a subcontious effect on people. I have no garish color schemes or background images or textures (except during a holiday period) and my color scheme compliments the actual layout of the site. If you have a difference of opinion on that point, I would certainly debate you on it.

In my opinion, part of the blogging "experience" is to enjoy the personalization of each particular site design. I have sites I go to just because I think they are "pretty" [for lack of a better term], not because they have great content. I have trouble going back to a site that is a template, out of the box, white screen with gray dotted lines. I go to some sites that suck and load so slow that even I have a problem with it, but I like their content. So, to me, it's all a trade off.

If it was all about the content, we would be typeing black letters on a white background. My first personal computer was a Tandy 1000HX with one 720 3.5 drive. I learned DOS from the command line. I built a couple of two and three page sites back when the designs were really atrocious (95ish), so I understand what you say about design implmentation. I just have a different opinion of what makes a site successful. Is load time the determining factor? It certainly is a big factor, but a smaller factor everyday with high bandwidth becoming more available.

Mostly, this is a personal web site, something I use for MY enjoyment and entertainment, not anything people are paying to see or that I am trying to derive any income from. So, the first thing I satify is my own personal idiosyncracies (sp?). If that happens to coincide with someone's idea of entertainment, great! If not, so what?

What would YOU do to make my site design more "successful"? You tell me. Really.

Posted by: The Bartender at January 3, 2004 03:50 AM

i've been online for like an hour trying to find out what a hoya really is. if you could

email me back and pretty please tell me what a hoya is, that would be wonderful. thanks!

Posted by: Bali at January 8, 2004 12:14 AM
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