The Perfect Number of Columns

There’s a discussion afoot about the perfect blog layout. How many columns is the perfect number? I’ve seen passionate opinions voiced in favor of 1, 2, and 3 columns. People seem to have very definite opinions about which is best. I’m here to tell them they’re all wrong.

There *is* no perfect solution. The right number of columns is determined by two things: your site’s _raison d’etre_, and your audience. Asking “what’s the right number of columns” is like asking “what’s the best colour”. The answer in both cases is *it depends*.

h2.

Those of you with any print experience are probably scratching your heads and thinking “what’s the fuss? Content and purpose should always dictate form.” The odds are that if you’re designing for print, you probably have some design training. You’ve been taught to think this way. *Many of the people building blogs have absolutely zero training in design theory and history.*

the decision about how many columns your site should have goes way beyond “oh, that site looks cool”. For one, you completely miss the opportunity to do anything new. *And new (when done right) is the new black*.

Compound this with the fact that many blogs are put together from existing templates, and the situation gets worse. This gets at the heart of my issue with blog design: it isn’t design at all. It’s decoration. Blog design as its practiced by many (including some designers) does nothing to enhance my user experience or to positively enforce the brand. “Real” design flows *from* the content. It supports and augments it through non-verbal connotations and subconscious cues. I leads the user’s eye where you want it to be led. It is not a default setting.

h2.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s take a look at some of the issues to consider before choosing your layout. Note first of all that I said *before* choosing your layout. Deciding what goes where should absolutely *not* be your first step. First you have to decide what “what” is.

h2. Identify your own needs

Start by writing down what your site is about. I find writing a tag line is a great way of summing up your intended content and your style. My first tagline for almost cool was *a wildly derivative weblog*. After my first redesign, my site looked spookily like “subtraction”:http://www.subtraction.com (drool), so I decided to change my tag to the completely boring *Blather from the 97th monkey* (note to self: try to avoid such ridiculously long run-on sentences).

Next, make a list of all the info you want to have on your front page. Look around at a couple of examples. Some sites include an author bio. Some show only content. Do you want to have your blogroll on the front page? Will you be placing ads? What kind? Do you want to list your categories? What about archives? Will you use a calendar? The list is as long as your imagination.

Following that, make an honest assessment of your posting style. Do you write quick bits a la “problogger”:http://www.problogger.com, or longer pieces like “kartooner”://www.kartooner.com (hi Erik)? I’m going to draw flack for saying this, but I believe strongly that longer pieces should have a longer measure (which in non-designer speak means the lines should be longer). How long depends on font-size. The oft-quoted “rule” is 45-66 characters per line. Note though that leading (the amount of space between lines) directly alters the “ideal” length. More space between lines equals longer lines. If anyone calls you on this, tell them to go read “The Elements of Typographic Style”:http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0881792063/qid%3D1113420343/sr%3D8-1/ref%3Dpd%5Fka%5F0/701-1392102-7142762

What about pictures? Will you posting images along with your posts? Will they be arty-type shots where bigger is better?

How many posts will you list on your front page? Will you feature one and list only titles of others? Will you list ten full length posts, or two full length and eight excerpts?

h2. Identify your audience

If you’re writing about canes, odds are your audience will be different that if you’re writing about bmx (unless, like me, your life spent throwing your bike off large immobile objects has rendered you old way before your time). If you know your audience’s demographic, you can draw certain inferences as to what kind of computers and monitors your audience will be using.

Take the example of “stylegala”:http://www.stylegala.com. They have made the assumption that the majority of their users have monitors at least 1084pix wide. View their site on a 15″ monitor, or on a 17 or 19 with resolution turned down, and you won’t see the whole site. Knowing that stylegala is aimed at web designers, it’s probably a pretty safe bet.

If I were designing canesforpains.com, I wouldn’t make it 4 columns wide. A significant proportion of my audience wouldn’t be able to see a portion of my site without side-scrolling, aka the kiss of death.

Will your site have competition for audience share? If so, look at what your competitors are doing. Don’t do the same thing as them. You’re site is your brand, and as such it should be unique.

h2. Put it all together

Having identified your user base, your decision might already be made. Cainsforpains.com would be 2 column. I’d need room for larger type and am limited by lower resolution monitors (btw, seniors are the fastest growing group of internet users in the world). Odds are, it won’t be so straightforward.

Let’s imagine I’m designing bmxrocks.com. Having identified all the stuff I want on the home page, I now need to go and fit it all together. I use a pencil and paper at this stage. You may find it helpful to cut out some different rectangular shapes in coloured paper (having 4 year olds in the house is helpful re: construction paper). Label each one appropriately, ie post, blogroll, most recent articles, etc. Now push them around and imagine how they’ll work together. Do you have too much stuff? What can you take away?

*Remember, the more stuff you have, the more you dilute the effectiveness of the thing as a whole.*

Folks without design training tend to jump directly to their computer at the early design stage. Unless you’re an absolute photoshop/illustrator/fireworks wiz, I strongly recommend staying away from the keyboard until you have your layout pretty well worked out. The computer ties you into a course of action. Once you start down one design road, it’s very difficult to see how awful it is until the whole thing is done. Stick to paper first. Draw boxes and arrows. It shouldn’t be pretty. In fact it can be a real mess – just like my sketchbook:

Of course, if this all seems a bit much, you could always hire me! Seriously though, the decision about how many columns your site should have goes way beyond “oh, that site looks cool”. For one, you completely miss the opportunity to do anything new. *And new (when done right) is the new black*.

Let’s wind up then with a couple of examples, shall we?

h2. One column sites:

* “Dadlog”:http://www.dadlog.com (in the midst of a redesign, not working in ie)
* “Workbokers”:http://www.workboxers.com
* “Garrett Dimon”:http://www.garettdimon.com

h2. Two Column sites:
* “Darice”:http://www.darice.org/
* “To-Done”:http://to-done.com/
* “Johnnie Manzari”:http://johnniemanzari.com/

h2. Three Column / hybrid column sites:
* “Mark Bouton”:http://markboulton.co.uk/
* “9rules home page”:http://markboulton.co.uk/
* “Overcaffeinated”:http://overcaffeinated.net/

All of this presupposes that you’re not using a stock template. If you’re writing a personal blog, by all means, go nuts with kubrick or your blogger/typepad templates. But if you’re writing a business blog, please, please make an effort to give your blog a unique, effective, well designed look. You’re going to putting a lot of effort into your site. You want your site to look at least as good as the content you’ll be putting into it.

Let me close with this thought: when someone reads your blog for the first time, it’s as if they were interviewing you for a job. You may be absolutely brilliant – you may have 4 phd’s and a dozen patents. But if you’re dressed like a slob, and I’m looking for someone professional, you words won’t carry the weight they deserve. Sorry, but its the truth.

_Edit: 2 minutes after hitting POST, I came across “Taughnee’s”:http://www.endeavorcreative.com/index.php/blog/which-blog-layout-is-best/ post about the exact same thing! Go check out her opinion_

Blog-splosion.

I don’t usually re-quote other sites, but this bears reading. Shel Israel and Robert Scoble, two very smart, very big-picture thinkers, are writing a book about business blogging called “Naked Conversations”:http://redcouch.typepad.com/weblog/2005/05/chapter_2_why_b.html.

They’re actually blogging their book; sharing their research and posting the chapters as they’re written. To make matters even more interesting, they’re taking the comments received very seriously. They have made significant changes to some of the text, and have quoted dissenting views to give a broad-based context to the book.

I’ve been quoting Pew Research’s 40,000 new blogs a day number for some time now. It turns out I’ve been wildly underestimating the real growth:

bq. According to David L. Sifry, founder and CEO of Technorati (a Google-like service that tracks blogging topics, links and trends), the number of blogs has been doubling about every five months since 2003. When Typepad launched, there were approximately 100,000 bloggers. Eighteen months later, the Pew Research Center estimated there were 8.5 million, bloggers, and that 40,000 new blogs start every day. Just a few months later, in May, 2005, Microsoft reported seeing 100,000 new blogs opened on its service alone – per day! While as many as one-third may be abandoned within a year, the overall growth of blogging is among the fastest in history. According to Pew, one-fourth of all people who visit the Web read blogs, and that number is rising at the rate of 60 percent annually.

bq. Today, blogging has become the most rapidly adopted technology in history. Today, in May 2005, more than 100,000 new blogs will start in just one 24-hour period. By the time you read this book, that number will be hopelessly out of date and will undoubtedly be much higher. More than 10 percent of all Americans read blogs, an increase of 60 percent in 12 months, according to Pew Research. Technorati, a company that tracks vital blog linking, says growth is even faster in Asia and the Middle East than it is in North America. The full number of blogs worldwide today is more than 12 million, up from about 100,000 two years earlier in 2003. Half of these blogs are private, a majority of them being used for internal communications behind corporate firewalls.

Let’s look at this cooly for just a moment. Most of the 100,000 sites launched a day will not last beyond the “Woo Hoo” stage. Of the remainder, at least 50% will be personal “I ate cheese today” blogs. So we’re down to a measly 25,000 new potential clients *a day!*.

So, does anyone else think differentiating your business blog is going to be important?

The King is Dead.

I feel like such a contrarian. The whole blogosphere is talking about content. Content is King, after all. And rather than writing about content, I’ve been thinking about design.

See, I can’t get passed the fact that 40% of Fortune 500 CEO’s are over 6 feet tall, while only 13% of the general population has sprouted to such lofty heights. Why?

I’m stuck on the fact that there’s a McDonald’s everywhere you turn. Why?

Nike sells $200 runners. Why?

Because looks count. A lot.

Heresy? Not at all. I can get away with this statement because of one little word: *parity*. We live in a world of parity products, of parity content. Our interconnected world has only made it even more so. Anything you can say, someone else has said better. Or if not better, than very similarly. Any product that can be made will soon be copied. That original idea you just had? Ten others just had it too.

We’re at the infancy of the blogosphere, and right now, those other ten people may not be online. With 40,000 new sites _a day_, how long will it be before they are? What will happen then?

How do you set yourself, your site, and your ideas apart? Do it with story, with intelligence, with wit, with compassion, and with style. Good design does all of this. Design is much more than choosing colours and fonts. Good design flows from the content to support and promote it.

Quality content is *incredibly important*. But it is *not* the end all and be all. Content is the single most important ingredient in a successful web site. But it is not the only ingredient. It’s kind of like trying to make a cake, and insisting that all you need is flour. Yes, flour is very important, but I’m gonna pass on that slice if its all you’re using in your baking.

A successful business blog uses a unique design to push its message forward. Design helps the reader grasp your point, and talks directly to the readers’ subconscious. If you’re investing the time, energy, and effort into a business blog, you owe it to yourself to invest in design.

Stop and smell the roses.

Take two:

h2. Stop and smell the roses.

*Focus.* But on what? New business? Existing business? To-do’s? Next actions? Multi-tasking my leisure moments, I hasten my step towards what? Death? Sleep? Release?

This job that I do, this job that I love, making things to help you reach me through the haze and bustle of our endless responsibilities has got me confused.

I want to move forward with blazing speed. I’ve got to; the train is moving that fast (at least it looks that way when I get off it and stand still). But, but, but (you know where this leads) what do I miss with my blinders set just so?

The details, the texture, the lush wet smack of recognition. The taste of success, tannic and rich that spreads out from mouth to my fingertips like the warm glow of alcohol.

But the buzz of the rush is reward in itself. Conquer, move on. Conquer, move on. To say one is better, more right than the other is what I sought to do when I sat down to write,

Yet now I’m not sure which prize is more rightgeous, for surely its me who’s to judge what I want. Interesting how the process of writing can help one to get at the truth of one’s own intentions.

Stop. Read. Repeat. Go again: I thought when I sat down to write this just now, that what I wanted was wrong, that what I needed was less. To my innocent surprise I find that more is just fine.

“Just know why you’re doing it” that voice says to me. “Set your eyes on the prize that is the process.” That works. Holy shit. That works rather well. I can be free from my shackles of self imposed doubt.

The prize is the process; not money, not fame. Move forward and manage my way through to those. They’re the prize in the box, not the cracker jack itself.

Updating design

I’m making a few changes to the backend and design this morning, so you may encouter some weirdness. Sorry. Hit refresh, and all should be good.

EDIT: Darn, time got away on me. I’ve got to run, and hate to leave this site in its current state. Everything works, sort of. I’ll post more about it this afternoon.

Does blog design matter, take 2

I started working in a more traditional office environment a while ago. I dressed up to go to work – no tie or jacket, but nice pants and a dress shirt. It has been very interesting to observe how differently I was treated when I’m all gussied up. It’s not a subtle thing. My propositions are accepted more easily, my ideas carry more weight, and *girls smile at me on the street*.

It’s not just people who hadn’t met me in my jeans and t-shirt days either. Freelance clients who have known me for ages also respond differently. It’s as though my ideas have been given a boost of authority. I haven’t changed. Only my packaging has.

I first reviewed the design of “Technorati’s”:http://www.technorati.com/live/top100.html top 10 blogs a month or so ago. At the time, I came to the conclusion that design didn’t _really_ matter all that much. I figured that within a couple of months though, with the fantastic growth rate of the blog world, design *would* start to matter. This is based on the belief that given the choice between two sources of equal quality content, people will choose the better designed site.

It looks like I may have been a bit pessimistic. Only one of today’s top 10 is eye-bleedingly bad (“Eschaton”:http://atrios.blogspot.com/).

h2.

Look, we all know design counts. Packaging makes a difference. So why are so many bloggers packaging truffles as though they were no-name baked beans?

I’m a huge promoter of blogging for business. But only under appropriate conditions. “Blogs can have a huge impact on a brand”:http://www.theblogstudio.com/blog/why-is-a-blog-so-good-for-your-brand That impact can be negative.

This is especially true of the hundreds of blog experts who are popping up all over the place. _Don’t they realize how poorly their messages come across?_ How can you be an *expert* when you’re ignoring one of the prime rules: packaging sells. All the marketing and PR knowledge in the world isn’t going to help you if we pass over your content.

h2.

I understand that one of the major appeals of blogging is its low barrier to entry. *This is not true of business blogs*. Business blogs *MUST* be well designed, be unique, and be in line with current branding. There is a very significant risk of damaging one’s brand if the packaging does not match the quality of the content.

There are a couple of situations where this is not the case. A start-up does not have an existing brand, and can do no harm by using a template designed for a personal site. Some businesses have anti-brand brands (think no-frills stores, work-from-home accountants, etc). I’m not a reader of “Escaton”:http://atrios.blogspot.com/, but I get the impression that anti-design is part of his brand. These no-frill brands would probably be better off with a template site. But that’s it.

h2. Plump, ripe fruit. Ready for the picking.

We’ve gone from 8 million to 9 million blogs in the blink of an eye. 40,000 new blogs a day. Sure, most of them suck. Many will never get past the “testing testing 123” stage. But if only 1% are good sites with business aspirations, that’s 400 new blogs *a day*, 12,000 new blogs a month, and 146,000 a year. *All of these blogs will need to be professionally designed*. Do you see where I’m going with this?

The more professionally designed blogs there are, the more important design on the blogosphere [shudder] becomes. In other words, the more of my fellow designers I can convince to compete with me at “The Blog Studio”:http://www.theblogstudio.com, the more work there will be for all of us.

Thoughts?

Using Place to differentiate your blog

I’ve posted an article at “The Blog Studio”:http://www.theblogstudio.com that touches on one of my key principles: that design has a responsibility in differentiating a product or service in a marketplace of parity products. In it, I suggest using place to make a blog stand out.

This relates directly to the piece I just posted here about web design taking on a sameness. While not appropriate in all settings, using the sense of place, be it imagery, inside jokes, or stories can be a very powerful way to A *connect with local users*, and B *differentiate a site*.

Thoughts?

A call for change, monkey style.

There’s a certain same-ness that permeates web design these days. We’re all reaching for the same goals, and following the same leaders. Maybe it’s because we’re all looking at the same sources for inspiration.

Gallery sites are useful and fun, but also a bit dangerous. Watching trends fly from site to site is amusing, and a bit disheartening. I’m not excusing myself from the hangers on; I’m as guilty as most. My “monkey sense”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/?id=73 is telling me though that it’s time to start looking for answers in new places.

I think we’re about to see a shift enter our little design world. Web design has undergone a pretty dramatic change recently. The widespread uptake of standards-based design has taken hold. The rate of discovery has plateaued (witness the drop in “how-to” css posts). The “css aesthetic” has leapt beyond the web. Pulling my head up from my computer, I see two trends emerging in the next couple of months.

The first is a move towards third level functionality (first level being structure, second is style). Witness the age of the designer-coder. If you’re like me and don’t know much about scripting, time to start learning.

The second trend will be breaking the box. I predict a rash of innovative layouts that make use of third level functions to adjust themselves to various browsers viewports. I think professional blogs will look less bloggy, and web design will once again explore alternatives to 2 or 3 col layout.

I should add at this point that the good work of standards movement will *not* be compromised. Accessibility will remain an important goal.

How these trends will play out is beyond me, but I’d bet my “97th monkey”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/?id=73 status that both of these will come true. I put a challenge out to my fellow designers, and the gallery owners in particular to start pushing forward again. If you can’t do it with client work, do it with you own. That’s how the css movement took off, after all…

Fundable: a truly original idea

You have an idea. You want to make something – let’s say its a cd. But recording a cd costs money, and you don’t have any (join the club). You’re a good musician, and you’re sure that if people heard your music, they’d put up a couple of bucks to pre-order your cd. If you got enough pre-orders, you’d be able to pay for a recording session. But who’s going to do that? There’s too much risk.

*Not any more.*

Enter “Fundable”:http://www.fundable.org/. From their site:

bq. Fundable is a new service that lets groups of people raise funds or make purchases.

In practice, what this does is allow you set up something like an ebay auction. You list your item (the thing you want to make), list the contribution you’re seeking, and the number of contributors required. For example, let’s say my mythical recording session was going to set me back $1000. I could set up my fundable auction to seek $10 from 100 people.

When I go all ga-ga over the “power” of blogs and social software, this is *exactly* the kind of thing I’m talking about.

So far nothing special, right? Here’s where it gets interesting: you have to set an expiry date. If your total has not been reached, everyone automatically gets their money back.

It doesn’t have to be just products either. Let’s say you really want a “browser cam”:http://www.browsercam.com/default.aspx account, but can’t shell out the big bucks for. Use Fundable to get a group to go in on it together (not sure the browser cam folks would smile on this though).

I’m not sure how the system would handle intellectual property issues. I’ve got to dig into it a bit more as time allows.

When I go all ga-ga over the “power” of blogs and social software, this is *exactly* the kind of thing I’m talking about. Eliminate geography, race, and gender, and amazing things start to happen. This is the web at its best.

Does blog design matter v2

I started working in a more traditional office environment a while ago. I dressed up to go to work – no tie or jacket, but nice pants and a dress shirt. It has been very interesting to observe how differently I was treated when I’m all gussied up. It’s not a subtle thing. My propositions are accepted more easily, my ideas carry more weight, and *girls smile at me on the street*.

It’s not just people who hadn’t met me in my jeans and t-shirt days either. Freelance clients who have known me for ages also respond differently. It’s as though my ideas have been given a boost of authority. I haven’t changed. Only my packaging has.

I first reviewed the design of “Technorati’s”:http://www.technorati.com/live/top100.html top 10 blogs a month or so ago. At the time, I came to the conclusion that design didn’t _really_ matter all that much. I figured that within a couple of months though, with the fantastic growth rate of the blog world, design *would* start to matter. This is based on the belief that given the choice between two sources of equal quality content, people will choose the better designed site.

It looks like I may have been a bit pessimistic. Only one of today’s top 10 is eye-bleedingly bad (“Eschaton”:http://atrios.blogspot.com/).

h2.

Look, we all know design counts. Packaging makes a difference. So why are so many bloggers packaging truffles as though they were no-name baked beans?

I’m a huge promoter of blogging for business. But only under appropriate conditions. “Blogs can have a huge impact on a brand”:http://www.theblogstudio.com/blog/why-is-a-blog-so-good-for-your-brand That impact can be negative.

This is especially true of the hundreds of blog experts who are popping up all over the place. _Don’t they realize how poorly their messages come across?_ How can you be an *expert* when you’re ignoring one of the prime rules: packaging sells. All the marketing and PR knowledge in the world isn’t going to help you if we pass over your content.

h2.

I understand that one of the major appeals of blogging is its low barrier to entry. *This is not true of business blogs*. Business blogs *MUST* be well designed, be unique, and be in line with current branding. There is a very significant risk of damaging one’s brand if the packaging does not match the quality of the content.

There are a couple of situations where this is not the case. A start-up does not have an existing brand, and can do no harm by using a template designed for a personal site. Some businesses have anti-brand brands (think no-frills stores, work-from-home accountants, etc). I’m not a reader of “Escaton”:http://atrios.blogspot.com/, but I get the impression that anti-design is part of his brand. These no-frill brands would probably be better off with a template site. But that’s it.

h2. Plump, ripe fruit. Ready for the picking.

We’ve gone from 8 million to 9 million blogs in the blink of an eye. 40,000 new blogs a day. Sure, most of them suck. Many will never get past the “testing testing 123” stage. But if only 1% are good sites with business aspirations, that’s 400 new blogs *a day*, 12,000 new blogs a month, and 146,000 a year. *All of these blogs will need to be professionally designed*. Do you see where I’m going with this?

The more professionally designed blogs there are, the more important design on the blogosphere [shudder] becomes. In other words, the more of my fellow designers I can convince to compete with me at “The Blog Studio”:http://www.theblogstudio.com, the more work there will be for all of us.

Thoughts?