I’ve spent the last five weeks redesigning my “real blog” Smarter Admins. Can you believe it?



And that doesn’t include the weeks months beforehand when I was acting like a design squirrel; finding bits and pieces on other sites that I liked and wanted to implement on my own. I’m a bit of a blog theme snob and I have very high expectations when it comes to a theme (which makes theme shopping pointless because no theme is ever what I really want). I have what I would consider champagne taste, beer ability. But that’s what rockstar designers like Jarod and Liz Productions are for. They turned my garbled ideas into reality. A reality that has already seen a marked improvement in traffic, reader engagement and newsletter signups (more than 50% increase in signups since we soft launched the new theme 2 weeks ago as well as some of the highest daily hits and uniques, even on Monday, my traditionally low-stat day).

I could have stayed with my old blog theme — and would have been happy to — but I knew that it needed to better engage readers (my target market probably aren’t blog readers, perhaps not even all that tech-savvy). My blog’s been going for almost 18 months and I have been working in those 18 months to establish a great foundation of content. I wasn’t ready for a re-design for a long time, but then, about 3 months ago, I was ready.

Not everyone has to give as much of a toss about blog themes as I do — and in terms of my personal blog, I actually don’t care very much at all — but for a blog that I intend to monetise, it’s really important to get the design right. Right now I’m avoiding doing some boring behind the scenes work on the theme (yes, reorganising post images on a Friday night is the glamour of blogging no one ever talks about!), so I’m throwing these thoughts together on the redesign process in the hope that some of you might find them helpful.

Cat blogging... literally.

1. Have ideas about what you want

You can’t be vague about this. You need to know wtf you want. I don’t mean you need to know the exact sidebar widget order or whether you want your paragraphs to be left aligned or justified. Look around at your favourite blogs so you know exactly what you want in terms of columns, colour schemes, imagery, whatever. Keep a list of links of blogs you love. Not like; L.O.V.E. When I did amateur blog design, I asked clients to tell me what they DIDN”T like as well. It’s helpful for a designer to know that you love the clean, bright look of blog A but not the washed out colours of blog Z. Show that you think the layout of blog B is great, but not the cluttered look of Blog Y. Don’t forget to think about your readers and what they might be inclined to prefer. It’s okay if you’re not sure what you want; go ahead and ask others for advice! But not having an idea at this stage  means you could waste time pfaffing around, starting again and cracking the shirts that you still don’t have a new theme.

I gave J&L a specific list of blogs that I loved, some that I didn’t like, some that I liked parts of and hoped we could implement. I went from a ‘traditional’ blog design to magazine style. I wanted a slider of featured posts, I wanted a smaller header. So you can see I had some specific requirements, but I also told them “make it awesome” to allow for creative freedom.
Cat at Computer

2. Know what you need your blog to do

What are the objectives of your blog, besides having readers read each and everyone one of your witty and hilarious posts? Do you want them to follow you on Twitter? Sign up to the newsletter? Buy your ebook? These are all considerations for your blog theme too, and critical information for your designer if you’re going down that path.

I told J&L that I needed to increase my newsletter signups. I needed the search function to be easily accessible and for it to be easy for readers to find other posts to read once they got to the bottom of the page. Truth be told, I had a list of needs about a mile long and together with J&L we nutted out what the priorities needed to be for the theme.
blogging cat

2. Get it designed

If you’re skilled enough to bang this out yourself; YAY YOU! Have you found a theme online that  you can download/buy that meets your critera? Even better! Those of us who aren’t as lucky go to experts for this step. There are plenty of options out there in different price brackets; check out the footers of your favourite blogs and there’s sure to be a mention of a theme or designer.

If you do go with a designery person, can I encourage you to listen to any advice they might offier? They know their stuff. They know fancy terms like ‘above the fold’ and ‘white space’ and they know Comic Sans should be avoided at all costs. You can disagree with their suggestions, but give them the courtesy as professionals to have their thoughts heard and considered. They want your blog theme to be awesome too!
cat on computer

3. Soft launch

Sounds a bit wanky, but bear with me. When you’re as ready as you think you’ll ever be, switch your theme on and go live. You don’t have to make a song and dance about it to your followers (and I wouldn’t , TBH). Leave it and give the theme time to “settle in”. Publish a few posts and see how you feel with the new theme. Are you happy with the way the images align? Do the headings need to stand out more? Sometimes you need to be ‘operation normal’ with your blog’s new theme before you notice niggly things that bug you.

Now’s the time to tweak your little heart out and iron out the wrinkles!
cat on computer

4. Get critical feedback

It’s one thing to have your nearest and dearest tell you that your new theme is great, but are they being genuinely helpful? It’s great for the ego, but that’s about it. If your theme isn’t helping you to achieve your goals, then it’s failed. Get some critical friends who can be honest with you about what they think. I took a two-pronged approach. I gave a couple of bloggy friends (one also being my blog mentor) with a specific brief to nitpick the shit out of the theme. They were brilliant. Came up with great feedback and suggestions I was thrilled to have picked up. When you have looked at your theme as much as you will have by this point, you wouldn’t have realised that you forgot to include your Google Plus badge on your sidebar. I also asked a tech-savvy-but-not-a-blogger friend who falls into the category of my blog’s niche market. If you want your blog to work for bloggers and non-bloggers, you need to get one on board for their opinion. You could ask one of your regular commentors!

My critics were freaking awesome and the implementations to my them have boosted confidence I feel that my new theme is hitting the mark. The tweaks have really stepped the theme up a notch and I’m feeling sofa king chuffed that I’ve got a great theme going on. I’m even getting glowing feedback from new readers!

Right about now you’re probably thinking that I’m a bit OTT with how I redesigned Smarter Admins. But already I’m seeing the massive benefits of having a theme that’s been designed well. Definitely worth the investment.

Sorry about all the words. I threw in some kitteh blogging photos to cheer you up. Sorry if I sound all egotistical and ‘zomg my theme is awesome’, but I really think it *is*. I’m high-fiving myself over here :)

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