biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies: web design tricks to improve your brand

by Stephanie

Today’s Biz Ladies post comes from Zoe Rooney, the designer behind A Quick Study, which offers design-focused brainstorming, site reviews, action plans, graphic design and WordPress-based web design. She is currently working on a set of DIY courses and tutorials that will help creative business owners develop websites that are easy to use, functional, brand-aligned and beautiful. Zoe is also one-half of the team behind Worthsy, a social experiment to identify how much value shoppers place on handmade goods.

Today, Zoe is giving us pointers on how to evaluate your blog or business website’s look and feel to determine if you are sending the right messages to your viewers and what to do if you aren’t happy with your current site. Thanks, Zoe, for this helpful set of tips! — Stephanie

Read the full Biz Ladies post after the jump . . .

With all the pressure to have a web presence, a lot of small business owners jump to get a website (with or without a blog) up and running as quickly as possible. Especially since creative entrepreneurs typically run their businesses on a tight budget, these sites are often mostly or all DIY.

Fast forward a bit down the line and many of the entrepreneurs I know have started to feel anywhere from mildly dissatisfied to downright embarrassed about their web presence. I’ve worked with people who are hesitant to give anyone their blog address because their site just doesn’t represent them and their business the way they want to be seen.

Kind of defeats the whole purpose of a public website, right?

Beyond how the business owner feels about the site, however, having a strong, well-designed and attractive web presence is a necessity for doing business online. You want your site to tell prospective clients, customers and collaborators that you are here to stay, that you can be counted on and that you are serious about your business.

While it’s often a good idea to work with a graphic designer or a web designer for total overhauls, there are also many changes you make yourself to improve your web presence and better communicate your brand.

1. Go beyond the standard template.

While the normal Blogger or WordPress template won’t necessarily hurt your business, it certainly won’t help you create a memorable impression. Plus, the defaults often don’t have as many features as other free templates or themes. If you can’t afford to work with a web designer, at least consider opting for a premium theme that makes it easy to customize your site yourself. Especially for self-hosted WordPress sites, there are great options that start at around $20.

2. Create a stand-out, brand-aligned header and navigation bar.

When April Bowles Olin from Blacksburg Belle and I recently began working on a site refresh, we started with her blog header and navigation bar. Since her site is focused on supporting creative businesses, we wanted a professional feel, but nothing too stuffy. April also wanted a much cleaner look than her old header, which ran the risk of distracting readers from her content and didn’t really connect with what she offers.

In addition to the conceptual changes we made to address those factors, we also shortened her header to allow more of her content to show the first time a user opens her page, and we used a full-width menu background to ground her site and make it feel super streamlined and modern. High contrast colors catch the reader’s eye and make it easy to see the navigation links.

As you consider your own header and navigation bar, ask yourself

  • Will people instantly know what kind of business or site they’ve reached from seeing my header, and will it help them recognize my specific brand?
  • Is my header so big that none of my content shows without scrolling?
  • Can people click my header and return to my home page? (This is common practice; your visitors will expect it, and it makes your site easier to use.)
  • Is my navigation bar easy to read?
  • Does it only contain the things that people need to be able to find easily, or are there extra pages that make it busy and confusing?
  • Are the colors and fonts consistent with the rest of my branding?


3. Make sure everything is cohesive and connected.

“Cohesive” is one of my favorite words in branding and design! The idea is to repeat key themes (color, shape, imagery and illustration style are all common choices) across different graphics and areas of your site. These repeated themes shouldn’t be pulled out of thin air, though — they should directly relate to your overall branding, including offline pieces like business cards and labels.

In this example from The Merriweather Council, Danielle Spurge re-designed her own sidebar labels and buttons to better coordinate with her overall branding. She’s gotten great feedback from customers, and her site has become more useable because the bright colors draw your eye, show you where to click and help you find useful information easily and quickly.

Ask yourself

  • Do I have a few central design themes in my branding that I should be repeating so that customers can easily recognize them?
  • Am I using deliberate repetition, rather than sprinkling similar bits and pieces randomly about my site?
  • Am I considering usability as I make choices about where to use color and illustrations?


4. Choose appropriate fonts for your brand AND make sure they’re functional.

I love a good handwriting font as much as the next person, but there’s a time and a place for them and for every other font. Just like with site and blog templates, a plain font or one of the standards that comes with your computer might not detract from your site (at least not for everybody — the design-obsessed will certainly notice), but it won’t add anything, either.

You want your brand to be recognizable and to represent what you do. For that to happen, I strongly recommend searching out premium fonts that will make you a bit more unique and that better fit your business (these start around $20, making them a pretty cheap way to upgrade your look). Do make sure to read the license to make sure you’re using fonts that are approved for commercial use.

Erin Giles of Elegant Girl upgraded her look by commissioning custom, calligraphic lettering from Emily Poe of Sparrow Nest Script. She combined this with a clean but fun font to create a much more intriguing, individualized and recognizable header that better represents her brand and is more appealing to her customer base. Since making targeted changes to her branding, Erin’s jewelry sales have doubled.

Consider usability with fonts, too! Erin did not use a calligraphic font for her blog posts. Even though you may think they look cool, handwriting fonts aren’t a good choice for blocks of text because they’re hard to read. You want people to read your writing, otherwise you wouldn’t put it on the internet, right? Don’t make it hard!

Ask yourself

  • What are some keywords I want associated with my brand? Is it casual or formal? Classic or modern? Funky or traditional? Am I using fonts that I’d describe with the same keywords?
  • How many fonts am I using? (Try to limit yourself to 2–3.)
  • Am I consistently using the same fonts and font colors for elements like post titles?
  • Is my actual page text easy to read?


5. Test and adjust.

As you decide upon and plan changes to your online branding and marketing, consider doing some basic user testing to aid your decision-making. Two quick ways to apply user testing to the changes I’ve just described are

A. Before you start making changes, see how people are spending time on your page, and use that to inform the areas you prioritize in your updates. In Google Analytics, you can use a tool that’s still in beta testing called “In-Page Analytics” to see where people click most often. If it’s not where you want them to be clicking, you’ll know you need to make a change.

B. Try two different sets of sidebar buttons (or any graphic) — use one for two weeks, then another for two weeks. Check your site data to see if there’s a noticeable difference in clicks. This kind of A/B testing is also great for advertising campaigns. If you have two different ads you’re trying to choose between, see if you can run one for a week, then the other, and go with whichever ad gets you the most leads.

Of course, your web presence is only one part of your whole branding package and has to be supplemented by all the other pieces and practices that go into running a small business. But if you neglect to set up a strong web presence, you’re essentially turning away connections and customers. I think you’ll find that putting even a little time and energy into your website will reap big rewards!

I’d love to hear more about the changes you’re hoping or planning to make, and even see your before-and-after shots!

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  • perfect timing! just this morning i’ve been contemplating a design for my blog. i just used a template for the time being, but i am seeking this branding you’ve written about. thanks for the advice!

  • Great post! I’m really looking to make a much cleaner, more cohesive brand. I got so excited with designing my blog that I didn’t keep it all that minimal, which is really what I had in mind for my brand. I’ll do a re-design soon, but I don’t feel like I’m talented enough at web design to do it on my own!

  • Hi Grace – thanks for that post – most helpful and inspiring. I’m due to go back to work after my extended maternity leave to PR-Girl Ltd (I think you deal with my other half David alot?) and we ARE those people who don’t give out our web address as it’s so out-of-date / not us anymore. Once back at work, my first job will be to re-design /re- brand our website and transform it to a blog that we are proud of. So thanks, your tips will be my starting point on my first day back in the office. Since being on maternity leave I’ve started my own blog buttercupdays. It’s about what makes me tick … it’s persona and a bit creative whilst touching on parenting, work-life, memories and nostalgia. Would love you to take a look and tell me what you think :) http://www.buttercupdaysuk.blogspot.com xxx

  • I love, love, love seeing you & your work here on DS Zoe! I pretty much love everything you do-there is a cohesiveness awesomeness to all your work; ) This is a great post that outlines what I think your biggest strength is, finding creative (& attractive) solutions to small business problems. You rock!

  • As always, great advice from the Biz Ladies posts. Thanks for the examples, Zoe. Very helpful to have visuals. Friends of mine have had great luck with Squarespace to set up sites. They have templates that you can customize. http://www.squarespace.com/
    I’m trying one now & it’s very user friendly.

  • I can always use a refresher for business…….heck I’ll try a refresher for every aspect of my life.
    Thanks, Ladies

  • THE NUMBER ONE thing we hear from clients is how embarrassed they are about the current state of their website. Thank you for this post and encouraging small business’ to take charge of their sites after they’re designed, it creates a win win situation for everyone that way!

  • I do think that having a unique design is very important. It sets you apart from every other person with a website and make you look much more professional. I have a few sites, i usually wait until i can build up a following and some traffic, until i invest in a good design.

  • I love these posts! I just worked on a site for a local Pilates studio, and while we worked on all these things, I definitely couldn’t articulate it this clearly!…these are great recommendations as I start on on my own creative biz site. Thanks!

  • Thanks for the advice. This inspired me to go back and find the original font I used for my header (like 6 years ago that I had completely forgotten the name of) to create links with the same font. Seems like such a little thing but it’s so much nicer now that it’s the same. It gave the site a more cohesive feel instantly. I feel lucky that I have some basic design training, too.

  • Thanks for all of the great advice, Zoe. As a small business of handmade goods, Eat Boutique needs to be on top of it’s online game. I’m completely mesmerized by the In-Page google analytics!

  • Terrific targeted advice! I am in the process of redesigning my website, so this comes at a perfect time. I’d also like to see an article about options for software for ecommerce sites. There’s a lot out there and the choices can be overwhelming. Thanks again.

  • Please don’t use white font on black background for a large chunk of your website or blog. It’s tough to read for long periods of time.