If your site’s design isn’t broke, fix it anyway

If your site’s design isn’t broke, fix it anyway

Chris Wolfgang's Layout avatar

Let’s say you did an amazing job selecting a fabulous theme for your professional WordPress site. Several years later, it’s still doing its job beautifully. You have no major problems with the functionality, and your readers have never once complained about the design. Let’s talk about why you should consider a revamp anyway.

What elements influenced your initial choice? Ask if those are still important to you.

Ariel Meadow Stallings has owned and edited Offbeat Empire, a series of alternative lifestyle websites, since 2007. All four sites, which also include Offbeat Home & Life, Offbeat Families, and top wedding site Offbeat Bride, share a design that was created in 2009. By the time Stallings rolls out a new look next January, the brand’s charcoal gray color scheme will have set the Empire apart, particularly from other wedding industry sites, for about five years.

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 3.40.38 PM Offbeat Bride, 2014

“Look at this,” Stallings said, scrolling through the Top 100 Wedding Blogs. “It’s just a sea of white. And pastel.” Even Offbeat Bride’s main competitor, Rock ‘n’ Roll Bride, is all white.

Offbeat Empire’s current WordPress design was custom made for Stallings by Iris Chamberlain. “She suggested going the opposite direction of everyone else with that dark charcoal background,” Stallings said. “Also, we’re photo heavy, and images look better against a dark background.”

But while the need to stand out from the crowd is still important, the sites have aged. Gracefully, but still. Copy is published on a light tan field, and the home page is more Early 2000s Clutter than Contemporary Minimalism. However, Stallings isn’t planning a complete rebrand (but “that’s definitely down the road”), so she’ll most likely stick with the site’s current color palette of charcoal, pink, teal, and green.

Have you been able to tweak what you’ve got? Ask if you need more flexibility.

If you’ve kept to a particular theme for a few years, it’s probably been flexible enough to allow for a few slight adjustments. Offbeat Empire has benefited from some custom illustrations, a few new tabs, and images widened from 500px to 800. The theme was also recoded last year to be responsive. However, Stallings said she’s looking for a few functionality updates.

Custom illustration for Offbeat Bride by Iris Chamberlain

Custom illustration for Offbeat Bride by Iris Chamberlain

“I’ll probably keep most of the wireframe,” she said, “but I’d like a floating menu, something to scroll with the page. A home page that serves as more of a launching pad to relevant content, instead of the most recent.” Most traffic, she pointed out, enters the sites via post shares, not the home page. In other words, readers are coming in to check out individual posts linked on Facebook and Twitter before clicking elsewhere on the site. “The home page should help you engage culturally or topically,” Stallings added. “Not so much recently. A little more magazine-y, because that’s more like what we are. We’re not a news source.”

Offbeat Empire’s largest site is unquestionably Offbeat Bride, with 45,000 visits a day, 64 percent of which are new users. Perhaps obviously, most of those readers are planning a wedding — they tend to hang around Offbeat Bride for about a year and a half. “They want to see what’s relevant to them,” Stallings said. “The most recent post may not be the most relevant to where they’re at with planning.”

Still, there are certainly readers who’ve been around for the long haul, and Stallings wants to be able to offer those long-term followers a security blanket of sorts. “We might have a page for offbeatbride.com/recent instead, for example,” she said. “So easy to do with WordPress.”

How did you build it the first time? Ask if you need a new method.

Stallings has been on the internet since the late ’90s, with sites on Blogger, then Moveable Type, and finally WordPress in 2006. Since 2007, Offbeat Bride has evolved from a book-promotion method to a full-time business to a fleet of sites operated by a small staff. Needless to say, today’s site bears little resemblance to its first incarnation (visible here. Stallings called it “adorably outdated. Look how cute it was!”).

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 3.48.47 PM Offbeat Bride, 2007

Stallings achieved today’s look thanks to long-term relationships with both a skilled developer willing to try new things and a talented designer/illustrator. But circumstances change (for example, her developer, Jennifer M. Dodd, became so skilled at WordPress that Automattic hired her). As a result, Stallings hopes to update the Empire without a designer and with only minimal customization from a different developer.

That means tweaking a pro WordPress theme instead of investing in a from-the-ground-up custom job. “There are so many good pro themes, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Stallings said. “I can customize the wheel.” She’s begun experimenting with a purchased theme on a staging server and is hopeful that she’ll have a customization finalized by this fall.

Pro theme Stream

Stream, the pro theme Stallings is currently exploring, has a lot of the functionality she’s looking for right out of the box. “It has the floating menu. The top right menu, the nav bar — familiar placing. The home page is not just recent but clustered. Post pages themselves are wicked sexy — the author spotlight is at the top instead of at the bottom where it currently is on OBB. I like the reader progress bar. The sharing functions.” Stream also reflects the web design trend that bigger is better, at least as far as site copy and images are concerned. “Font size was teeny in 2005,” Stallings said. Eight-point Verdana might be legible on a piece of paper, but it’s hard on the eyes on a screen. “I’m looking for bigger copy and bigger images.”

“The internet is into finding stuff that’s new and cool. Design should always feel fresh and contemporary.”

“There is appeal to the ‘burn it to the ground and rethink it’ plan,” Stallings admitted, “but we’re coming at this from ‘let’s make it look better and improve some things,’ rather than ‘shit is busted.’ Redecorating the living room is a great way to re-engage.” She added that it’s important to keep changing with the web if a site is going to stay on top of where it’s going. “The internet is into finding stuff that’s new and cool. Design should always feel fresh and contemporary.”

Ariel Meadow Stallings / Photo by Jenny Jimenez for Tugboat Yards Ariel Meadow Stallings / Photo by Jenny Jimenez for Tugboat Yards

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