Design – Look and Feel and So Much More

You may notice that one of the areas I’ve avoided here on Ask Leo! On Business is that of visual design.

There are two reasons for that, one strategic and one practical.

The strategic reason is that it’s simply not as much of a priority as people think when starting out. The search engines don’t care what your site looks like1; they care what your site contains. Search engines process the words on your web site, not how pretty they look. So in order to bootstrap your online presence, it’s your content that matters most – how pretty things are comes later. Too many people prioritize the appearance of their site over the content of their site at too early a stage.

The practical reason is that I design like an engineer. I don’t feel qualified to talk about design at any reasonably specific level.

However, as your site matures, its appearance takes on a more and more important role. It’s something we definitely need to talk about.

WordPress and themes

One of the reasons I recommend WordPress is its theme-based design. You can completely change the look and feel of a site simply by applying a different theme. With a little customization, that appearance can be tailored to your own needs and desires.

Now, let’s be clear here – it’s not just “click, click, and you’re done”. Almost all themes have some amount of customization that take time to tweak. Also, if you switch from one theme to another, your customizations may not be preserved.

However, simply using themes removes most of the burden of needing to come up with a complete website design. A good theme gives you a place to start that typically looks good and works well.

Themes can be swapped out completely without needing to redesign the entire concept of your site, even if it does mean you need to reapply your customizations.

Free themes

Another reason I recommend WordPress so often is that there is so much available for it.

Spend some time on and you’ll see literally hundreds of different themes, most of them free.

The “feature filter” there is a good way to start narrowing your choices, based on some of your own requirements. Similarly, look at “Popular” for themes many others feel are worthwhile.

The “catch” with free themes is that they are, well, free. Quality varies greatly, as well as flexibility. One of the ways to distinguish your site even if you use a very popular free theme is to customize it with your own layout choices, colors, and images. If the theme doesn’t allow for that kind of flexibility, you’re kinda stuck.

And, of course, free themes come with little to no official support.

Premium themes

Another approach is to consider purchasing one of the premium or commercial themes available from many, many vendors.

These themes are often more fully featured, flexible, and powerful, and of course better supported than their free counterparts.

If this is an option for you, make sure the theme meets your needs before you dive in. In particular, quite often that additional power and flexibility comes at the cost of a more complex configuration interface. No, you (probably) won’t have to dive into the PHP code that WordPress and its themes are written in, but the configuration options provided by the theme itself can sometimes be confusing.

Custom themes

You can always have someone create a WordPress theme for you. This is more costly, of course. But once again, the popularity of WordPress means that there are many, many resources out there able to do this for you. From full-on professional design and development firms to freelancers, there are lots and lots of designers out there who are WordPress-savvy.

One of the reasons I keep coming back to WordPress is that if your business is a rousing success and you decide to upgrade the look and feel of whatever you’ve done so far with WordPress, “design me a theme for my site” is often a significantly more manageable growth path than building a new website from scratch.

Custom design

Maybe you don’t like WordPress. While many other content management systems use the concept of a “theme” to customise their look as well, perhaps you don’t want to use any general purpose content management system.

You want a completely custom-built web site.

Unless you have exceptionally unique needs, or a lot of money to throw into this, I strongly recommend against this. It’s too easy to have something custom built for you that, when the developer disappears, is just a mess to whomever you hire to fix or change it.

If you hire someone to build your site, I strongly recommend they work within existing tools like WordPress.

What I do

Ask Leo! has been around for 13 years as I write this, so as you can imagine it’s been through a few iterations of both implementation and design.

Ask Leo! was originally implemented using one of WordPress’s earlier competitors that’s now fallen out of favor: MovableType. In fact, if you look at any article on the domain (note the dash), that’s still the final iteration of the older MovableType site. Here’s an example.

When I decided to make the transition to WordPress, I contracted a custom Ask Leo! theme. That served me well for quite some time, but as I continued to grow the site, I grew frustrated with it, mostly by things only I would see: bloated code, and an interface that was difficult for me to further customise myself.

I ended up purchasing the Genesis Framework – essentially a toolkit and platform on which to build themes – along with a number of themes. All my non-Ask Leo! sites are now implemented using various “child themes” from StudioPress, built on Genesis.

As I write this, Ask Leo! On Business uses the “Author Pro” theme using Genesis.

Since I found myself getting more and more comfortable with Genesis, I decided to have the Ask Leo! theme re-implemented as a Genesis-based child theme. I used a freelancer to, essentially, replicate the look and feel of the site as a new child theme. I use that theme on all the other Ask Leo! related sites, (with the exception of the store, which uses a theme that’s specific to, and more compatible with, my shopping cart, which is also a WordPress plugin).

One of the reasons I moved away from my original custom theme is that it was too difficult to tweak. Now that I’m all-in on Genesis, I’ve definitely made a few further customizations of my own. I am an engineer, after all, and we love to “fix” things. 🙂

What matters most

One of the very first things I tweaked about the Ask Leo! theme is an example of what really matters most.

I changed the text color from dark gray to pure black.

Why? Because I heard reports from individuals who were having difficulty reading the text. What appeared to be dark gray on some screens would actually wash out and become difficult to distinguish on others.

What matters most is your visitors’ experience.

If they can’t navigate the site, find what they’re looking for, are given an unpleasant reading experience, or can’t even read the text … that’s a problem.

I won’t go so far as to say “all problems must be fixed”, but each problem requires a thoughtful decision. Popups, for example, can be a contentious issue, and yet I elect to keep them on Ask Leo!, because they’re critical to my site’s health. A decision, not an accident.

Font color, similarly, was a decision I made based on reader feedback.

Whatever the design, however pretty, and however much you think your site is a wonder to behold, if it’s a problem for your visitors, ultimately, it’s a problem for you.

Just as you write content to add value to your visitors, make sure your site design values your visitors’ experience as much as it can.


1: It’s not that look-and-feel doesn’t matter to the search engines; it does, but indirectly. If  people stay a while because the site is clean, engaging, and easy to navigate, the search engines may notice. Conversely, if your site is ugly and scares people away, the search engines are likely to notice that too.