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_

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