As a freelancer (web design and development) I’ve always considered my service, my attitude, and my professionalism to be my branding. Not my logo, not my website colors nor fonts. However, all that changed when I started blogging seriously. Suddenly, visual branding became a monumental aspect of my blog-business strategy.
You see, the thing about owning a service-based business is that no one particularly cares about my own visual branding. Most people want to see proof of my expertise, and to that end, I share my portfolio with a potential client. If they like my style, they hire me. If not, they move on. Branding, for my freelance business, has therefore strictly been contained within these few variables: whether or not I deliver on time, whether or not I deliver what I promise to deliver, whether or not I deliver ONLY what I promise to deliver, how I react when things do not go my way, whether or not I own up if I make a mistake.
And then this blog happened.
Here’s the thing about a blog. It’s not the same as other businesses. Yes, delivery matters. Whether or not I blog consistently is a big deal. But as far as accountability is concerned, the constraints are a lot relaxed compared to a service based business. I don’t really owe anything to anyone. I do my best to serve a community of like-minded people. But at the end of the day, I’m not bound by any contract to show up, nor is my audience bound to spend time on my blog.
So, how do I keep my audience coming back for more?
Well, the two most important elements of a blog’s branding come into play here.
Quality and consistency of the content.
As far as consistency is concerned, it varies from one blogger to another.
Quality, now THAT is something every blogger is expected to uphold if she/he wants to be a successful blogger.
And visual branding just happens to be part of this quality.
You’re looking for something specific. You open up Pinterest and type some words in the search-bar that come to mind. Maybe you’re looking for vegan salad ideas, so you type “vegan salad recipe”. And voila. Pinterest shows you a whole bunch of images that have one thing or another to do with vegan salads.
Now, if you were doing this on Google, you’d probably click on one of the top links based on whichever description sounds more appealing to you. On Pinterest however, you click on the image that stands out to you.
That’s visual branding. One aspect of it anyway.
Let’s consider another example: let’s say you go to a restaurant, and turns out it’s kind of dirty and the service is not the best. There are tables that haven’t been cleaned away after the previous patrons. Bits and scraps of food are scattered on the ground. Flies zooming about. But since you’ve walked in, you figure you may as well sit down and order something. You do not expect much, but to your surprise, the food turns out to be exceptionally scrumptious.
As much as you enjoy eating the delicious food, it’s still uncomfortable. Your table has some dried out food particles lying about which you’re trying to avoid touching accidentally. You ask a waiter to clean it, but the rag he uses is dirty.
You leave after eating and never come back again.
Now imagine the opposite. You walk into a really nice and clean restaurant. It’s spotless. The decor is classy and welcoming. You order your food and wait in anticipation, but once the food arrives, you realize the taste is just so-so.
You don’t bother coming back again.
Blogs are very much the same. The quality of the content is important, but so is the presentation. The colors, the fonts, the layout, the time it takes to find something (like a contact or an about page, or a particular blog post you wish to revisit, for example.)
What we need to understand as bloggers is that our blogs are like restaurants where we’re serving delicious dishes (blog posts). The quality of the posts is paramount to our success. But so is the decor of the blog. If we use a font that’s not easily readable, we’re going to tire out the readers. If we use colors that clash, it will cause unintentional irritation on the part of the readers. If we use a funky logo (and I use the word “funky” in a very non-flattering way here), it may give off the wrong vibe.
And that’s precisely why, as bloggers, we need to pay attention to visual brand design just as much as we need to ensure quality content creation. The goal is simple: to serve the best, and to make sure the time spent under your turf (in this case, the blog) is as pleasing and comfortable as possible for the readers.
Earlier this week, this very blog underwent a complete re-branding. When I started this blog in May, I rushed things and didn’t spend enough time on branding. but as the blog started to grow, I realized a change was needed, and the longer I waited, the harder it would become down the road. So I pulled the plug on everything that this blog was (including the name of the blog — Blog to Biz) and started from scratch. Above is the brand new style guide that I created for the new look and feel. I was hoping to juxtapose cool and warm, and well, that’s what I came up with.
As important as branding is for a blog, often for new bloggers who’re not savvy designers AND minus the budget to hire a professional designer, the task can be daunting. So, while I was working on my own branding, I decided to think of a structured, step by step process that non-designer bloggers could follow and come up with a great visual brand design, no matter the niche or the industry.
And here’s the (hopefully) failproof process that I’ve personally crafted so that all the design newbie bloggers can now create a stunning visual brand identity for their blogs.
Who is Your Audience?
Always, always, always start by asking this question. It’s basically business 101. Unless you know who your audience is, you cannot possibly serve anyone. And you can never serve everyone. It may not seem all that relevant upfront to worry about your audience when designing the visual aspect of your brand identity, but trust me, it is! For example, I know my audience is mostly women and the majority of them are between the ages of 25 – 44. So, I began my branding decisions by asking myself what most women in this age group could relate to. Nothing too girly, but also not overly somber. Something cool, classy, and elegant. All my decisions pertaining to my visual branding was made with these observations in mind, and all choices followed up with this question: is it cool, classy and elegant?
Pro-tip: Branding is about you AND your audience. Some folks get too stressed out about expressing themselves in their branding and ignore their audience altogether. A good brand design is a delicate balance. A balance between representing who you are and who you serve.
Name it Right
Names are important, aren’t they? Prior to rebranding, this blog was called “Blog to Biz”. As you can tell, I hadn’t done my research. There are a bazillion “Blog to Biz” out there and so, being the newbie blogger that I am (started in May 2018), my chances of beating some of the other “Blog to Biz” that’ve been around for ages would’ve been mighty difficult. Because… SEO!
How does a blog name relate to visual branding, you ask? Well, consider this: a blog name like “The Funky Blogger” cannot possibly have a visual branding in place that’s cool and classy and elegant, can it? To have a certain kind of visual branding in place, the blog name itself must reciprocate the vibe you’re going for. Now, perhaps you WANT something funky. Maybe your audience is, in fact, a group of funky teenagers. Then it’s a perfect blog name, and your visual branding elements should reflect that. Bold colors, quirky fonts, off-beat vibe — now that sounds like something the intended audience of a “funky blogger’ may be into.
Pro tip: Make sure the blog name isn’t being used by others (like my “Blog to Biz” was) for anything. Also, check to see whether or not a certain name has been trademarked.
Go Easy on the Logo
Alright, so this guide is for design newbies. Which means you’re not a savvy logo designer. Now, here’s the thing about a logo. It’s HARD coming up with the perfect logo. While I can dish out a lot of good advice on designing the perfect visual brand identity, designing the perfect logo is a whole different ball game. It takes a lot of practice and a fair amount of technical know-how. So, my advice is that even if you’re doing your own branding, at least for the logo, hire a professional. DO NOT attempt to design a logo unless you’ve had prior experience OR do something quick with Canva. I love me some Canva, but it’s NOT for logos. So yeah, stay away from it.
Now, if you’re on a tight budget and are unable to hire professional services, here’s what you can do: keep things simple, and use a text-based blog name in place of the logo. It’s not a real logo per se, but until you’re ready to invest, having your blog name in plain text is better than having an obviously amateur attempt for a logo.
Be Careful with the Colors
A few months ago I was having a real hard time with a client. I was working on her brand design, and to help me along, she picked out a few images for me that she said represented her.
First of all, when designing a brand identity, you cannot be focused on yourself alone. You must take your audience into account.
Second, just because some colors go well together in an image or photograph, doesn’t mean they go well together when you’re designing a website. It takes a professional with a lot of practice to recognize these subtleties.
But you’re not a pro, are you? So, what to do? One obvious way to work out these quirks is by trial and error. Try a few things and see what works. But to give yourself some breathing room (and make life a little easier), limit the number of elements you’re working with. You don’t need 25 different shades of colors to make something pretty; two or three would work just fine!
If you’re a newbie with no design background, I have a tip for you:
Start with black and white. This pair always works like a charm. White canvas (the background of your blog), with the major element in black (the text). And then pick just one other color for the accents, such as the color for the hyperlinked texts. The thing about black and white is that they work with all other colors! It’s a fail-safe method and works all the time.
Fonts Can Make or Break Your Brand
What does a blogger do? Well, traditionally, a blogger writes. Who is a blogger’s audience? Those who read. So, when it comes to branding and choosing the right fonts, pick a font that’s easy to read. Take care of that, and more than half of your branding conundrum’s been taken care of.
Here are a few pointers:
The most important part of your visual branding has to do with the body text. Yes, it’s not the logo, nor the colors you choose. It’s the font you choose for the body text. So, choose wisely. No reason to get all fancy with it either. In fact, I’d say that you should stay away from all things fancy when it comes to choosing the body font. Pick something easily readable and non-obtrusive. The reader must have an easy time reading without getting distracted by your choice of font.
Your body font should never be a script font.
Stay away from system fonts (Times New Roman, for example).
Consult Fontpair if you need some inspiration.
Never use any more than 3 fonts on your blog/website. 2 are quite sufficient, and even just one good font is better than using more fonts that don’t compliment one another.
Use a script font only for special cases. If unsure, leave it out altogether.
Again, your body font is THE most important element of your visual branding. To make sure you’ve picked the right one, type up a paragraph with your chosen font, and then read it yourself. Does it take away your focus from the content of what you’re reading? If so, move onto the next font.
The goal is to get your readers to keep reading. If your choice of font takes away from the reading experience, it’s not the right font.
An Image is Worth a Thousand Words
Most blogs have images. In fact, you SHOULD have images. We live in a world where information is a dime a dozen. There’s just way too much noise. An image gives us a bit of an added leverage when it comes to being found, being noticed… being picked out of all the other similar content.
Take Pinterest for example. Way too many people are blogging about the same things and sharing them on Pinterest. Remember the example I mentioned towards the top of this post? Well, whose vegan salad recipe would you click on if you were presented with a hundred recipes of more or less the same salad? I bet you’d click on the image stat stands out to you. The image here is the decisive factor.
Often times you may be writing a blog post that has step by step guides to doing something. Ask yourself if your readers will benefit from visual cues. If so, make sure to add images.
Images used as educational cues aside, some of the other images (such as the one used on Pinterest or other social media outlets) may be there just to make things look more interesting (a blog with text only will make your readers yawn no matter how value-packed your posts are). These images should compliment your branding and should have a consistent style.
This takes me to my next piece of advice…
Create a Brand Style Guide
Just like the one I shared above — the one I made during the re-branding of this very blog. A style guide is very useful. You put all the important elements in one place, typically a single piece of graphic. This helps you get a bigger picture of your overall feel and vibe and you can use that to make sure you’re on track while designing individual pieces of your brand identity.
A style guide has a few key elements: the logo(s), the fonts, the colors, and I also suggest adding a few images that you think go along well with your brand style. This will help you curate content in the future. Whether you’re creating graphics for your blog posts and social media/Pinterest accounts, or media/press kits for brands and companies you wish to work with, this style guide is something you will continue to come back to over and over again. So, spend some time putting it together.
Over time when you’re able to hire professional help (whether to design an actual logo or supporting marketing materials or graphics), you can just give your designer this style guide to help them understand your brand identity.
Consistency in style for everything associated with your blog is one aspect of branding, and a brand style guide can help you keep yourself in check. Update this style guide as needed as your blog grows in size and scope.
Create a Mockup of Your Blog
A professional designer will create a mockup of your blog with a sophisticated software such as Photoshop, for example. If you’re not comfortable doing so, use any other free graphic design platform to create a mockup before you put together the actual site. This will make life a lot easier for you, trust me. Instead of putting together the whole site only to realize that things aren’t quite coming together as well as you’d expected, and then starting from scratch again, creating a mockup first will help you figure out what you’re envisioning is really as effective as you expect.
If a mockup with a free, easy to use software is still out of your comfort zone, at the very least, draw up a wireframe on a notebook with a pencil. Even that is better than going in blind.
Keep the Layout Simple
People go to school or take courses to learn user experience or UX. I say that to emphasize that just putting a website or blog together is not enough when it comes to branding.
Your audience isn’t dying to spend time on your website. To make sure they do, you need to come up with various tactics. Tactics not meant to confuse or trick your readers, but to help them stay on your site because your content is just so freakin’ amazing!
But your amazing content will be of no use to anyone if your poorly executed website layout drives your readers away.
As a non-designer, your best bet is to keep things simple. Do keep in mind, when it comes to good design, simplicity, in fact, is a great strategy. Simple doesn’t translate to boring. Simple is easy. And readers love the ease. Take Medium for example. I’m sure you’ve heard of Medium by now unless you’ve been living under a rock.
To all the cave dwellers out there, check out Medium and see how simple their interface is. Nothing fancy, just plain old black text on a white page. Simple, distraction-free, reading experience. That’s great design right there!
Don’t Be Afraid To Scrap It All
As much as we hate to do something only to scrap it all and start fresh, sometimes it can’t be helped and it’s exactly what’s needed to grow and scale a business and/or a blog.
In fact, that’s exactly what I did with this blog. It was called “Blog to Biz”. It looked different. It felt different. But I could clearly see that things were changing, and I couldn’t operate under the initial branding anymore if I allowed the changes to take place.
So I scrapped it all and started fresh. Did I take a hit? Yes, I did. My growth slowed, and I lost momentum for a little bit. But here’s the thing. If we let fear dictate the big decisions of our lives, we will never grow! So what if my growth took a hit? If I was able to start a blog from ZERO and get it to a place where I was getting daily email subscribers, there’s no reason to fear I couldn’t do it again! In fact, last time I started at ZERO. This time I actually already have a solid foundation. So what’s there to be afraid of?
Here’s a piece of advice and a warning. Growth will require you to challenge your comfort zone over and over and over again. So start becoming comfortable with not being comfortable. That’s how you grow. That’s how you scale. You cannot stay in the same place and expect to move ahead at the same time. And sometimes, moving ahead will mean abandoning everything you’ve built, and then starting fresh. And that’s OK.
If you do not get your branding right the first time, it’s OK. Most people don’t. Blogging and online business pioneers didn’t get it right the first time. Pat Flynn didn’t. Melyssa Griffin didn’t. Jon Morrow didn’t. So, what are the chances that you would? Close to none.
Do your best, and be prepared to start over. And if you take any of my advice about branding so far to heart, it’s this one.
Also, to help you create a beautifully laid out visual brand style guide, I’ve already made a template in Canva that you can customize with your branding elements. Get the style guide below today and start laying out your brand vision!
- Business / Branding
Brand Style Guide | Canva Template$10.00
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Happy blogging (and branding)!