web design

You’ve thought it. I’ve thought it. Websites that capture the spirit of 1994. Hideous graphics. Hellish stock photos of women yelling at laptops. And yet…the customers don’t seem to care! They’re pouring in! What’s wrong with the world?

Indeed, I met someone the other day who was asking, well really, what’s the point of paying for nice design? What’s the ROI of design, when I can see plenty of basic, unlovely websites that seem to be doing just fine?

It’s true. Some horrible-looking websites do very well. Why?

Let us analyse.

1. They don’t actually depend on their online presence

Despite everything that Mashable might tell you, there are plenty of enterprises which carry on their merry way without their websites really making much difference to their bottom line. My vet’s website has had an Under Construction sign up for 6 months now, but the waiting room’s still packed.

Loads of businesses still rely heavily on personal contact, with the website merely playing the part of corporate brochure.

2. They offer something which people want very, very badly

This is really the heart of it, and it accounts for the success of Facebook, Megaupload and all of the major GetRichOnTheInternet sites.

Hopping dayglo graphics and the faint hint of Soviet viruses ready to empty your Paypal account if you click the wrong link? Hmm. I might balance that against a pre-DVD copy of The Iron Lady.*

3. They are in a position of power over their users

This applies to tax offices, concert ticket purchasing, Verified By Visa and all job recruitment sites anywhere.

Jump, my pretties! Jump higher!

4. It doesn’t look crap to the target market

This applies to Myspace (back in the day) and any popular site featuring animated penguins. It may not be your preferred aesthetic, but maybe it works fantastically well with the end users.

(Equally, the kind of pared-down minimalism that is popular with some graphic designers can look really thin and unwelcoming to non-designers who are not stroking their beards about the elegant use of slab-serif).

5. The voice and writing are outstanding

Plenty of successful blog-based sites fall into this category: personal voices, writing beautifully (like Belgian Waffle – wonderful content, unremarkable design), and business voices which aren’t afraid to be different.

(But oh my, different is damned difficult. ‘Renegade’ is very popular right now and it’s very hard to do it in a way that’s truly attractive and convincing.)

6. There’s a very strong connection with readers

This usually goes with outstanding writing. It applies particularly to some successful business coaching blogs, where the readers are hungry for connection, and the coach has absolutely nailed their customers’ interests and deep concerns.

7. It’s crap, but it’s a special kind of crap

Very popular horrible-looking sites tend to be aesthetically off-putting but actually very functional.

Bulletin board styles, for example, as seen on open-source help forums and fan sites, look pretty vile but work beautifully. The font is readable. You can search, you can comment, you can get emailed updates. They don’t break the basic rules of readability. Well, mostly. With some Doctor Who sites, all bets are off.

It’s the equivalent of having delicious coffee in a tacky sandwich bar.

But of course the real question is:

Can you or I be terribly successful with our ugly websites?


Got a unique writing voice, fantastic relationships, and a VERY highly desired product or service? Go to it. Spend most of your time and money on building your connections. (Just stay away from green and blue text).

Not very dependent on the internet? Then your online presence is one part of your overall brand identity, and it should reflect that. As we lose our phone books, a decent, functional, attractive online presence is going to matter more and more. Get a decent one.

Nice voice, okay relationships, and a modestly desired product or service? Design can make the difference between considered and not-considered. It’s not a magic bullet, but it will support and deepen your offer. And it can occasionally take you from good to amazing.


*I wouldn’t really.


I do love WordPress. I see many businesses, especially small ones, constructing their sites with WordPress.* I also see people who can spend hours of their life getting tangled in the back end, when they thought they were using some simple DIY blogging tool. Well, it can be. Until blind ambition takes over, and you decide to implement that fancy new site scheme at 2 pm and at 11 pm you’re still there. Swearing.

So here is my guide to choosing a good theme that will work for you and not take over your waking hours. Seven questions to ask yourself.

1. What’s your skill level with WordPress, CSS and HTML?


Every time you see the phrase ‘Easy to use’ attached to a theme you should mentally add the phrase ‘…For a professional designer.’ Yes, themes are easier to use than ever, but most themes do involve a substantial learning curve, if you’re not already familiar with WordPress.

Drag and drop themes, in particular, make life very easy for designers creating small websites for their clients, but they can be a total non-starter if you need help to put your design together in the first place. (Quick tip: The ‘happy customer’ testimonials should tell you a bit about the user base. Are they all web designers?)

Similarly, all premium (paid) theme companies say they offer good support – but they will expect you to know the basics. I’ve used about 4 different premium theme providers by now, and I find that customer support is pretty technical. It’s not impossible to use these as a total newcomer, but if you need your hand holding every step of the way, you may find that Support is just not supportive enough.


2. How perfectionist are you?

You need to know yourself. Happy is the woman who can download a theme, activate it and move on with her life. Personally, I’m a tweaker. I always want to change something. Over the years, I’ve learned that I need to make sure I’m pretty happy with the overall site scheme, before I start putting it in place. Text size is easy to change, blog layout rather harder.

The problem with this admirable get-your-hands-dirty mentality is that you may hope to build a Ferrari but have the skills (and budget) to simply acquire an old banger. This is where cheap really begins to be expensive. It may take you 3 days to do something that a pro developer would solve in half an hour.

Most DIYers never consider the cost implications of their own time investment. OK, if you want to build your WordPress skills. Not so good if your main business is something else entirely. The true perfectionist should probably save up and hire someone.

3. Should you go with free or paid themes?

I have a whole rant on this.

My own position is that free often ends up pretty expensive. There are some very good free themes out there, it’s true. The best are the classic, popular themes in the WordPress theme directory, especially the basic-looking ones which are designed to be used with your own stylesheet. (Are you a web designer? Off you go.)

Unfortunately, free can also mean a theme which doesn’t get updated much, offers no support and doesn’t work well with all the major browsers. I’ve had some really frustrating experiences with free themes. At worst, there are free themes out there which contain nasty code – if you check out Smashing Magazine’s 2011 round-up of themes, you’ll see a number of comments underneath about themes which contain malware.

Personally, I tend to work with premium themes and frameworks, because they’re tried and tested, there is support available, and the developers have an incentive to keep updating them.

Premium themes aren’t perfect either. There are some really expensive premium themes out there – usually totally unnecessary, but catering to newbies. You shouldn’t need to pay any more than $100 for an individual theme with everything you need and usually rather less. (I really don’t think you get what you pay for in this market).

Check out that you will get everything you need – some theme companies make their money through add-ons. It’s like buying a Lego starter pack and then realising you don’t have enough to make a spaceship with.

4. Will your core website content look good with this theme?

As a general rule, text-heavy blogs do better with a light or white background, while video and photography sites stand out with a deeper background.

If your site is blog-led, look very carefully at the design of the blog index view (often a featured post and a list of abbreviated recent posts), as well as the individual blog post view. These are where most of your readers will spend their time. Do you like what you see? Does it look good?

Also look at comment layout, if you’re interested in conversation. Good layouts for comments will use gravatars/avatars and signal the difference between comment and response (through indenting or colour, for example).

Investigate the menus/navigation, and see if your own style fits with it. For example, some themes are optimised for simple, pared-down navigation. Others look great with lots of pages on display.

5. Does the theme deal well with all your content?

Good themes will offer layouts for different content types, e.g. portfolio, gallery, contact form, archives, alternate pages.

6. What are the implications of this site for your images?

Take a close look at the theme demonstration, which is usually optimised for a particular type of use, and mentally swap in your own content. Look at the image sizes and types being used.

Will that leading-edge site with all the dramatic architectural photos (see Paragrams, in the photo above) look equally good with the head-and-shoulder shots you tend to use?


Does the site use image dimensions which might mean you need to work rather differently? For example, Letterbox styles (wide narrow rectangles) are popular at the moment, but these can be time-consuming to create from conventional images. The theme I’m using at the moment, for example, needs home page slider images which are very wide and narrow, and somewhat boring on the right hand side.

And finally…

7. Is your chosen theme here for the long term?

(Or at least, as long as you need it).

I look for a theme that is popular and updated frequently, and suits current/future plans.

There are some lovely-looking free themes out there which just fall apart once you start to look at them in detail, and which don’t really get updated. If there’s a showcase showing the theme in use, click through to the organisation to see if that theme is still being used. Not only does this show you a live site using the theme, but if the theme’s not actually used any more, that can raise a little flag of doubt. (But note that some site developers are just very indecisive!).

The latest themes are stressing their suitability for mobiles and tablet as well as desktop/laptop computers (often termed ‘responsive design’). This is great for people in businesses where people read or look up content while travelling, or which cater to a heavily mobile-focused demographic. Many of us …aren’t. *sadface*

So there you go. Buyer beware. Non-buyer, beware more. Interested in your experiences of choosing and if you have any tips to pass on.

*This entire post is about WordPress.org, which you host on your own domain.

ETA: I’ve been asked about themes that I do recommend. I’ve only used a small number of theme families, but I have had very happy experiences with Elegant Themes and the StudioPress framework.


Web Design Secrets of the (Internet) Rich and Famous

November 28, 2011 Blog

What do you need to have in place in order to attract thousands of readers? Today I’m going to look at five blog-heavy websites, most of which are pretty much Internet Famous.  All of the site owners run businesses which depend on the blogs, and together they demonstrate the power of five different elements: desire, […]

6 comments Read the full article →

Website to Wonderful, 4: Creating easy paths for prospects

November 22, 2011 How To

Fasten up, this is a long post on the subject of emotional landscaping. First: how exactly do you turn a prospective customer into a paying one? And down below, my take on how it works for all you good people selling coaching and counselling as opposed to widgets. You can find previous posts in the […]

3 comments Read the full article →

37 metaphors to guide your website

July 20, 2011 Blog

In the words of those slightly creepy 70s popstars, Sparks, a metaphor is a glorious thing. What’s your website all about, then? Most people will narrow their eyes at this and mutter that, well, it’s a platform for talking about their services, or selling their products…it’s just a case of getting it all out there. […]

2 comments Read the full article →