Not Your Average Blogger

I’m very interested in the real world effects of blogging and especially how it helps people to achieve their goals. Here I talked to four designers who blogged, to find out what effects it has on their professional lives.

Pubished by Design In-Flight, Jan 05. Also available as a PDF.

It’s tempting to dismiss weblogs as the personal online diaries of semi-literate teenagers, or vehicles for the inflated egos of opinionated politicos. Yet a blog can also be an invaluable business tool for designers wanting to improve their online presence and find new clients. Suw Charman talked to four design bloggers who have cut a path through the blogging jungle to find out why – and how – they do it.

Why Do Bloggers Blog?
“I see it as a community,” says Jon Hicks of hicksdesign, “and if I don’t blog, I don’t feel like a part of that community. It’s a place that’s larger than the room where my computer is and I love that feeling. There’s a great community spirit whenever I’ve asked a question or put forward ideas – other bloggers’ responses have been really helpful, and that’s a lifeline I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for blogging.”

But it’s not just the public aspect that is important. Blogging also has more personal benefits, as Jason Santa Maria of found out.

“At first it just felt like a good way to reach out to people and approach the online community,” Jason says, “but it has also helped me to better analyze my thoughts about design and my own work. I enjoy looking back through my site to see where I have come from and what I have accomplished (or failed to). It’s interesting to see parts of your life as a sort of time capsule.”

On a business level, blogging allows you to communicate with your peers and prospective clients to an extent and depth that simply wouldn’t be possible offline, thus raising your professional profile and bringing attention to your work.

“Networking is the main [reason to blog],” says Jon. “I’ve developed contacts with people I’ve never met face-to-face, but with whom I chat regularly. Visibility is the other benefit. Solely by having a blog my name has been spread in a way that a simple portfolio site would never have.”

And Eric Meyer of views networking as not just about people but about concepts too. “[My blog] helps keep me in the public eye,” he says, “and lets me influence certain discussions to whatever extent I can. There’s a degree of networking, but in my case it’s the networking of ideas – putting out ideas for others to consider and publicly considering the ideas of others.”

The benefits of being yourself
Blogs not only give you an online presence, like a portfolio site does, they also allow you to establish your own personality, your own brand, and to present a more human face to the world. They are a place for you to share your ideas, expertise and experience and to communicate your opinions on the things that are important to you. This gives people – including prospective clients or employers – the opportunity to get to know you before they contact you directly.

“People judge you based on what you have done,” says Jason, “whether they want to talk to you or work with you. Having a personal site can serve as your greatest tool to communicate who you are and what you do. People don’t have to call you or email to find information about you, they can just visit your site and get lost in your head for a few minutes. All of my clients have come through my site or from referrals from people who discovered me through my site. It is an indispensable promotional tool.”

Jon agrees, as does Todd Dominey of What Do I Know.

“I have got a few new clients via the blog,” says Jon. “I heard someone say that he wouldn’t hire anyone that didn’t have a blog as they give him a real taste of the person – what they’re into, what makes them write. That made him more confident about hiring someone over the internet.”

Todd says, “I have received numerous freelance/contract development gigs as a result of What Do I Know, and have ‘met’ a number of incredibly talented people. I assumed most people would find me through my portfolio site, not my personal one, but that turned out to be wrong.

“Looking back,” he continues, “I think the personal tone and expressiveness of the blog format helps introduce you to a total stranger better than a glitzy facade, which anyone with enough skill can produce. But with a blog, a company or person looking for someone to hire can obtain a feel for your personality, general interests and ability to effectively communicate, which is nearly as important as skill set and talent.”

Who Do You Blog For?
Whilst most people blog primarily for themselves – as Eric says, “We’re forced to blog by nobody but ourselves” – that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be aware of your readership. Who are they? What interests them? What might they enjoy?

Todd’s readership is probably typical of many design blogs: “Most people who read my site are traditional graphic designers, CSS/XHTML coders, Flash developers, and other people with similar professions. Plus I pick up a lot of random visitors through Google.”

Good bloggers strike a balance between writing about themselves and subjects of a wider interest. Writing too many irrelevant posts can make you look self-absorbed, but pandering too much to your audience may actually end up alienating them instead, as well as placing unnecessary pressure on you to write more frequently than is perhaps comfortable.

Todd continues, “What Do I Know is really a pretty selfish exercise in web publishing. Content is posted only when I feel the urge to write about a topic, so there are no schedules, deadlines, or advertising requirements to uphold. I’ve spoken with a few other bloggers who maintain sites like my own, and some feel considerably more pressure than myself to maintain their audience.”

Jon says, “Early on, I felt I was writing to an audience. A link from had bought in that audience, and I really felt that I should write articles that would interest them and keep them coming back. Now my focus has changed. I realised that it’s my personal site and I should do whatever I want, rather than worry about whether anyone finds it interesting. It’s all too easy to become a slave to your comments and want popularity, when really you should just be yourself and not give a fig if people find it boring.”

A word to the wise
We’ve all read stories of bloggers who have been fired for their blog, so it’s essential to remember to respect client/employer confidentiality. This might seem like a no-brainer, but throw away comments that could reflect badly on, or be misinterpreted by, a client or employer can come back to haunt otherwise innocent bloggers. The internet and blogs may seem ephemeral but they are not – with Google and the Internet Archive caching old documents, the internet is now forever. Express your emotions, but avoid kneejerk reactions or potentially confidential information.

“In order to represent myself accurately,” says Jason, “I to need write about my true thoughts and feelings, so if I am angry it will be reflected in the writing. But you should never write about confidential information that gets shared between you and your clients or employer. Anyone who does won’t be in business long.”

When handled sensibly, blogs can be a boon not just to the blogger, but to the blogger’s employer too. “I just left my last job recently,” continues Jason. “My employer knew about my site and didn’t seem to mind. I think they saw it as healthy thing, a playground for new ideas and a medium to connect to the latest developments for our industry. They also didn’t mind when I referred a large client (who came through my site) to them.”

Balancing Act
The blogosphere is as diverse as the bloggers who make it up, and as with any other new medium, success is usually a matter of balance. Blogs are about honesty and authenticity, about being yourself, yet in order to write a successful blog you need to balance that with the fact that your words are public and that you have an audience which is looking for interesting stuff to read. Many bloggers do this naturally, but it can take time to achieve that balance and a little forethought won’t go amiss.

The benefits are clear – higher profile, a pool of like-minded people upon whose expertise you can draw and the opportunity to help out other designers who may need your knowledge. Plus, of course, the opportunity to communicate with new clients and employers.

But over and above these benefits, blogging is an enjoyable, sociable pastime, so why not set one up and give it a go?

Hints and tips
If you don’t have a blog and are thinking of starting one, then here are a few tips to help you make the most of the blogosphere:

  • Design your blog well, but don’t ignore standard blog features and conventions. Whilst calendars, archives and search facilities are useful, permalinks, comments and trackbacks are essential – they are part of what makes a blog a blog.
  • Ensure your blog is usable, your archives accessible and your content searchable.
  • Ensure your contact details are easy to find. There is no point impressing potential clients with your blog if they then can’t get hold of you.
  • Make sure your blog produces a full RSS feed and use other people’s RSS feeds in a blog aggregator to keep up to date with what’s happening.
  • Interact with the rest of the blogosphere. No blog is an island – leave comments on other blogs, respond when they leave comments on yours, and become a part of the community by linking generously.

The Bloggers
Jon Hicks, print and new media designer
Eric Meyer, HTML and CSS expert
Jason Santa Maria, graphic designer
Todd Dominey, new media designer and writer

More Blogs For Your Aggregator
Dunstan Orchard
Douglas Bowman
Shaun Inman
Dave Shea
Keith Robinson
Mike Davidson
Speak Up
Jeffrey Zeldman
Signal vs. Noise