Friday, 6 June 2014

How to create an attractive needlework/arts blog

Do you want to start a needlework blog, but are really not sure how to go about it?  Maybe you read some written by others and want to join in the party yourself, but could use some help in getting started.  Or perhaps you've already got one and are looking for improvement suggestions.  Today you'll find some basic information on where to find free blog hosting and some design tips for set up and laying out your new blog. I also cover how to get people to read your blog and, preferably, do so regularly.

Although the focus is on needlecraft blogging, the principles work equally well for other arts and crafts, so if you don't specialise in textiles, stay with me anyway.  All screenshots are of my own blogs and reader screens, (this top one being my feedly cloud from a while ago).

Starting out blogging

First you need to find somewhere to host and build your blog.  If you’re like me and have minimal (or no) programming knowledge, you’re almost certainly going to want to use one of the free blogging platforms. Here are some that spring to mind at once:

* Blogger (which I use for several blogs)
* Wordpress (on which I have an account, but haven’t used for actual blogging)
* Typepad
* Livejournal

Each of these services will give you a free blog to which you can post as much or as little as you like without incurring either charges or the risk of having your blog deleted for inactivity. Of course, you’re not planning to start a blog and then leave it, but it’s good to know it won’t disappear if you’re unavailable to post for whatever reason.

Each blogging service will give you a choice of templates and layouts and will let you make considerable changes to the look of your blog, so you can make it really personal to you and to your style.

This article on the Six Revisions blog gives you some basics on each of 10 popular blogging platforms which should help you find your perfect blog hosting service.  Speaking personally, I’m happy with Blogger and all images (and probably much of the information regarding layouts etc) will be of my own blogs on Blogger.

Design Considerations

Once you've got a blog hosting service arranged, chosen a name for your blog and it’s set up and ready to personalise, the next step is selecting a template, background and text colours.  The service you’ve chosen should have plenty of guidance on how to manage the actual process (most of them are very simple, you just follow what’s on the screen), but what design principles will show off your blog and your work to the best advantage?

The best and most popular needlework, art and crafts blogs are simple and uncluttered. Remember that the main reason people look at art based blogs is to see the artwork and maybe learn a little about the creative process and any background stories related to it. That means that an arts blog’s content is, by its very nature, very visual and full of photos. That being the case, you’re going to want your readers’ eyes to be drawn to your photos, i.e. to the work you are showcasing, and not to be distracted and confused by dozens of conflicting images. So, the best thing to do usually is to select a very plain and simple template and a plain background.

It’s very tempting to use background photos, but do try your utmost to resist that temptation and go for a simple, either very light, or very dark background that will provide good contrast to your photos and show them up well. The photo above is of my travel blog, but it gives you the idea of a plain background showing the photos up well. Some have a delicately self-coloured wallpaper that doesn’t detract from their photos, so you might want to look into this option too if the idea of totally plain doesn't work for you.

Another good reason to have your background subtle is that using an image and having a decent part of it showing can take up valuable column space. Having your content column as wide as you can means that you have plenty of space for your own images. Basically, background images are great for those who are writing mostly text blogs and don’t need to draw the reader’s eye to photos.  For you as an arts blogger, it's a very different story.  Beware visual overload!

When it comes to choosing a look for your text, then make sure of some very important things: It needs to be clear and easy to read which would also include size considerations – neither too small nor too large – and also it should provide a good contrast with your background. It’s usually best to stick to one, basic colour and not have several colours going at once. If you have a dark background, consider white text for your posts and a pastel shade for post titles. If your background is pale or white, then choose plain black or dark grey text with mid-dark shades for titles etc. Ideally, have one basic colour as a theme, and use shades of that.

Some tips on sidebars

Blogging platforms offer a selection of different layouts within each template. What that means is that you are offered the choice between having your sidebar on the left or the right, how many sidebars you want and even the width of each column. Which is best?

Sidebars are usually best kept to a minimum, just one if you can manage it. Too much use of space for several sidebars may mean leaving only a cramped space for your main text column. Remember that your postings are the most important feature of your blog and are where you showcase what people have come to see – your art! So, it's best to make it easy for them to do so. I recommend having a good, wide main posting column and one sidebar – you choose which side feels best to you.

The photo here shows a tag list located on my sidebar. You can see the proportions – that the posting area has the majority of the screen. Don’t make your sidebar too narrow, or it won’t look right and some of the features you may want to add will be too wide and the whole blog will look either squashed up and you’ll end up with a horizontal scroll bar in your sidebar (!) or images may even start to spill over onto the other section. So, good balance is needed here. You may need to experiment a little before you get something that fits everything well.  Bear in mind as well that not everyone has the same width of screen, so be especially careful in choosing your widths if you personally use a very wide monitor.  It could be wise to check what you've chosen on the narrower screen that many of us still have.

Another tip on sidebars is to resist the temptation to overload them with every widget your blogging provider offers. A good list of things you want to make sure to include is:

* Blog archive, so that readers can easily find older posts
* Tag list or cloud, helping readers to find posts of interest to them
* Subscription and e-mail sign up widget(s), which will help people sign up to read your blog regularly
* A list of key content, perhaps your most popular posts
* A translation widget, so that those who don’t speak your language can get an idea of what you’re posting about
* Some sort of share button(s) so that others can publicise your blog for you.=)

You may also want to include group membership badges (I have my badges for Stitchin’ Fingers, The Hand Embroidery Network and Fibre Arts Mixed Media on mine), a followers widget, a recent visitors feature and maybe even a list of your favourite blogs.  I don't include a blog list personally as I would hate to offend anyone by excluding them and there are getting to be too many....

Be judicious in your choice of sidebar content. Keep it to a useful and functional minimum and try to avoid too much graphical content or having a list of blogs you read so long that the sidebar ends up being three times as long as your main section, which can look out of balance. You’ll be able to select how many posts to display on your main section, so, once you have made enough posts to compare lengths, you might feel you need to adjust your sidebar content accordingly.

Designing your header section

A header section is important. Although it really only needs to state the title of your blog, you want it to be attractive and tempt readers to look further down your page. Here are some ideas and watchpoints.

One of the most important things is to make sure that your header is ‘user-friendly’. That may seem an odd way to describe it as your reader is not going to alter your header, but it is going to appear on his/her computer screen and it’s best that it does so all in one go. What I mean by this is that your header photo, collage or graphics should not be so wide that a horizontal scroll bar appears on screen, nor should it be so long that that reader has to scroll down to see it all and get to your content. The image(s) you chose as a visual intro to your blog should fit easily on one screen and, if at all possible, have some of the other blog features showing below it.  Of course, you don’t need to put any photos or images in your header at all, but most blogs look nice with a little something.

Some options are to create your own banner using a third party service or software, to pick just one photo that says what you need it to, or to, as I used to, link to a series of carefully sized photos hosted on a third party server. I used Photobucket for my blog header images, which is generally good, but you have to log in to your account every 2 months in order to keep the images active. This may be a problem for some and so I found a more stable solution that is suitable for those who read via smaller, mobile devices.

Have an 'About' page

People like to know a little bit about the person behind the voice and the talent they see in your posts, so consider adding an ‘About’ page to your blog. This doesn’t have to be very long – in fact, it’s probably better to keep it relatively brief.

Things to cover include:

* Your basic circumstances (i.e. I’m a retired civil servant, I’m a stay-at-home mum to 3 etc).
* Your experience with the art you’re blogging about (I’ve been cross stitching since I was 6)
* How you learnt your skills (My mother taught me as a child, I’ve done City & Guilds level x)
* Maybe some contact details.

Watchpoints include:

* Too much personal information! Don’t EVER post your home address, home or mobile phone numbers and other things like that. All a burglar needs is this info from your blog and then you to post, ‘I’ll be back posting again after our fortnight in Italy’ and whilst you’re having the time of your life in Venice, he’s ransacking your house. It does happen. Don’t let it happen to you!

* Any e-mail address you put in the public domain is 99.9% certain to be spammed, so don’t use your private e-mail address if you choose to make one available on your blog (I don’t, for just this reason). If you want to include a contact e-mail, use a secondary one hosted on another server, say a gmail or hotmail account that you don’t mind being spammed so much.

* On both your ‘About’ page and in your main postings, try to resist the temptation to be too open about your feelings, circumstances and things that have made you angry. It can seem a great way to let off steam, posting something to your blog, but things have an annoying habit of getting back to people and, whilst your boss may not seem likely to read your cross stitch blog, someone else in the company might and may just tell him your ‘About’ page says you ‘work for the ugliest creep on the planet’. Take the stories of people losing their jobs etc after on-line comments seriously and avoid anything you wouldn’t like to get back – even in edited form – to the person you’re talking about.=)

Posting blog content

Include a selection of details about your projects such as how long it’s taken you get this far, any changes you’ve made to the original design, how well (or badly) you feel it’s going, what the piece is being worked for (a gift, a competition, for fun) etc. Readers like to know the plus *and* minus sides of what you’re doing, so don’t feel you need to come across as the world’s number one expert on the subject.

In the main, post content falls into two categories: text and images.  Let’s start with text. Some pointers to bear in mind are:

* Left or fully justified text is preferred as centre justification for a whole posting can be hard to read. Only use centre justification for sub titles and where a photo needs only a short explanation.

* Use a clear, simple font. Those fancy, handwriting styles look great in theory (and could be ideal for your blog title font), but they are hard on the eyes when reading a lot of text.  Also, pick your size carefully.  It's needs to be easily legible, but over large fonts can be hard work to plough through and may turn readers off.

* Again, in the interests of keeping your blog clean and easy to read, it’s best to keep your text free of floating or mouse pointer graphics. Gimmicks look fun, but they can be most irritating! Leave them for people who have nothing to say and need fancy features in order to create something. You’re an artist and have *plenty* to share without drowning out the main attraction with gimmicks!

* Spell check, proof-read and preview each post at least once. Some otherwise great blogs can be spoiled by an over-hasty clicking on the ‘Publish’ button. Make sure your text editing is good quality and people will enjoy reading it.

Moving on to images:

* Learn to take good, clear and well-lit (but not over-lit) photos of your work. Blurred or dark photos aren't what you want, but don't be afraid to subject a less than perfect photo to the Photoshop treatment!  I edit almost every shot I take to improve the quality and I suspect I'm far from alone.

* Make your photos as large as you reasonably can without being over-sized and a scrolling bar being needed. Readers love good sized images and it’s so disappointing when you can’t see a good level of detail on a beautifully worked piece.

* Having said that, when I say 'large', I mean using the option to have the photo show on your posting as 'large' or 'extra large'.  What I find a little off-putting on some otherwise lovely blogs, is that the author hasn't edited the original photo to make an optimal size to load quickly.  Many digital cameras may take an enormous sized photo that could be 2Mb or more in size and, regardless of which size you have your blogging platform display the photo on screen, it will take a long time to load if the file isn't shrunk first.  I take most of my photos on a 5 megapixel setting, then shrink them to an average of 40% before uploading.

* Use interesting angles to highlight your work in ways that you may not have considered. It’s obvious to take a shot from above – full frontal, but what about an across your piece shot? A diagonal? Something that clearly shows any raised or textured elements?

* Have a few photos of each piece (where practical – small pieces may not lend themselves to multiple shots), but don’t overdo it. Also, don’t fall into the trap of posting images that are almost the same over and over again just for the sake of having five photos each time. Maybe two or three are optimal for that piece.  Also, don't post the same photo more than once in quick succession.  You don't need a small and a large version of the same shot and, if you post the same shot three times within a few days, readers will get bored.

* Where you can, show work in progress shots. People often love to see how a piece of work is developing and also appreciate reading how you feel about it.


* Lastly, but actually the most important for both images and text: Post great content!

Creating a gallery on your blog

Most blogging platforms allow the user to create a certain number of ‘Pages’. You’ll probably have already used these when you wrote your ‘About’ section. You can also use them to create a beautiful gallery of your work for your readers to admire.

Simply use the image upload function to add carefully chosen photos to the page. Add meaningful and informative, but concise captions to each image and you’re done! On my blog, I have a different gallery page for each style of needlework, the one being shown here is my raised embroidery/stumpwork one, which attracts the most visitors.  I also have pages listing all my blog tutorials and feature articles such as this one, so that they're easy for readers to find.

Once you’ve added your completed project to the relevant page, you may also want to include a link to the work in progress series of posts so that readers who come along later can research back in your blog and see how things are done. You can do this by adding an identifying tag to each piece, then selecting to view all posts with that tag (by clicking on the tag in the footer section of any of the relevant posts) and then saving the URL that comes up for it and adding that as the link on your Gallery page. The tags I use are something like ‘ST3′ for my third piece of stumpwork and I deselect this type of tag from the tag cloud/list so that it doesn’t mess up my clean list in the blog sidebar.

Getting people to read and, hopefully, subscribe to your blog

All your work could well be in vain unless you have people coming to read your blog, right? Here are some tips to building readership.

* THE most important factor is great content. A blog that is not only well laid out, but also really has something to say and share will be read and talked about. So, your first priority has to be making it well worth reading.

* Once you’ve got your great content, you need to publish it regularly – at least once a week if at all possible. Don’t overwhelm yourself promising daily posts, especially not in the early stages, but do try to have a posting pattern if you can. I used to try to post at least twice per week, three times when possible, but that no longer works for me. When I can, I sit down and create a few posts all in one go and use scheduled posting so that I can be sure there is regular content going out on my blog.  (This post was created a few weeks before publishing.)

* Enable the comments feature on your blog. Read and, where possible, respond to your comments. Also, read others’ blogs and leave meaningful comments. There’s nothing wrong with inviting that blog author to read your own blog, but do make sure that your comment on their post is genuine and not just advertising. Interact with people and they will begin to read your blog.

* Link your blog to any social networks you might use so that post updates show there too.

* Put a link to your blog in your e-mail signature line and on any forum signature lines that you have. You’ll have seen others do it and even clicked on their links, so now’s the time to join in.

* When you create ‘flagship content’, say a tutorial or feature post on something that should interest a lot of people, try to get it featured on ’round up blogs’ such as Craft Gossip. Just submit your link to them and, if the relevant editor thinks it will fit in, they will feature you. Expect to see your visitor stats and regular readers soar after that! I’ve posted a few articles and tutorials on things people want to know about (namely stumpwork and ribbon embroidery), which were picked up by Craft Gossip and my followers skyrocketed! Try it and see. First you’ll need to see what the round up blog covers and make sure that you fit in well, then get in touch.

* Host a contest or giveaway and try to get it advertised on popular and round up blogs. This tends to be quite a crowd puller, although one can never be sure if folk are subscribing for the chance of getting freebies, or because they like your content. If you want to try it, go ahead. I personally have chosen not to so far, because I’d like to feel that my readers come for my content, not because they can get stuff from me.  Also, I haven't anything to give away!!

* I know I keep saying this, but try to avoid all tacky gimmicks.  Music starting up when someone lands on your blog, or tinkling sounds, floating mouse pointer graphics and stuff drifting across the screen (such as snowflakes in winter etc) may seem cute, but they can be highly off-putting and may well stop a potential reader spending more than a couple of seconds on your site.  Simplicity really is key.

* Be patient. Although there are certain things that will give your blog a significant boost, no blog is an overnight success and every one of them has needed both a build up time and a period during which they made many improvements (although from my own experience, some of the improvements have come thanks to Blogger making more functions available). Put the effort in though, and you will reap the rewards.


(This article was originally published by me on the now defunct Squidoo in August 2013.)

Text and images © Elizabeth Braun 2014, 2017


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article Elizabeth,I'd never heard of Round up Blogs and might give them a try. Do you submit old published posts as Craft Gossip want the URL of the post and surely your own post has to be published before you can give that to them?

Rachel said...

... And make sure the header picture doesn't take up an entire screen's worth!

One of the advantages of the scheduling feature is that you can write something, add to it as you think of more, tidy it up, copy edit it, and post only when you're sure it's a great post.

Cynthia Gilbreth said...

Hi Elizabeth,
Great post, it will be extremely helpful for those who wish to start blogging and even for some of the old timers. Some of the things that really annoy me and turn me off are: script fonts and center justification which make the text annoying to read; music and especially fancy items all around the blog that make it slow to load. But what really annoys me is poor spelling and grammar! I'm a stickler about that, so I read and reread my posts several times before posting.

Thanks again!

Bunny said...

Great post!

Anonymous said...

thank you for the valuable tips and input.. these information are really helpful to newbies like myself.. will try to improve my blog..

have a great weekend ahead.. ;D

Wendy said...

Hi Elizabeth - Did you know that your header takes up the entire screen? All I can see is the photos and the tabs.

Elizabeth Braun said...

If you can see the tabs, the header doesn't take up the whole screen. ;-)

Brenda M. Côté said...

Thank you for such an informative post. My blog is just about a year old and I'm having a wonderful time writing it. Your suggestion about using Round Up blogs is a good one and will be my next step.

Brenda's Needlepoint Studio