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Site Design as Context: An Amateur’s Perspective


I hesitated to change themes because, well, it’s one of those things people do instead of writing. But while my customized version of Quite Big theme had treated me very well, I hate using Tumblr’s default mobile theme on phones, or seeing my desktop-optimized layout on a tablet. I also had modified Quite Big so much that it started to look a little off to me. I know enough HTML and CSS to avoid breaking sites altogether, but over time my changes had started to give the theme a clunky look. I decided that I needed to find the ultimate theme for me: minimal, useful, and responsive.

Minimal, Useful, and Responsive

Some people use minimal themes to keep the focus on their content. Others use minimal themes because they think any content placed within a minimal theme will appear great. I think of myself as the former, and it’s why I’ve been personally trending to more minimal site designs for a long time. I consider the use of a minimal site design focused on content to be a commitment. It commits me to quality, and that’s a great thing.

I also want my website’s design to be useful. I’m particularly annoyed when a theme requires me to scroll down to the footer to see how the author describes the site, what other pages are on it, or how you might contact the site’s purveyor. Give me the things I expect when and where I expect them. Yes, it is absolutely a sense of entitlement, but when you’re writing at a blog, you’re writing for whomever is reading. If most people expect things in a certain place, put them there and get to writing the real stuff.

Finally, most free blogging platforms have automatic mobile layouts, but they’re often global, meaning that all sites on the platform end up looking the same on a phone or whatever device the reader is using. This site is on Tumblr because I got tired of maintaining WordPress and other self-managed CMS installations. I love Tumblr for its simplicity and its Markdown support, as well as its truly beautiful apps. But their “optimized mobile layout,” while minimal and designed for clarity, feels far too cookie-cutter.

Vision Quest

After all, a theme, however minimal, does more than determine post width and font face. It sets the tone for the site. It provides a context in which all of your content is going to be experienced. I think of site design, whether for a blog or a corporate portal, as a form of self-expression. Many people get enough self-expression out of being able to share whatever they want, or looking “professional” or “enterprise,” and to them the theme of their site isn’t important. But I take pride in:

  • having a vision for how my content should be presented to readers;
  • seeking out well-made themes as starting points for that, and
  • being able to make customizations that bring the theme I found and the vision I have together

If you can find a theme or site design that fits your vision out of the box, that’s great. Nothing beats just applying a new theme and getting to the writing part of it all. But if you do need to modify someone else’s design work, it’s important to leave credit somewhere in the theme.

I credit Idraki Muhamad‘s MNML in the footer as well as on my About page. The changes I’ve made fit the design into my vision, but Mr. Muhamad created the theme.

Ed. note: I’ve moved to Observer by Tumblr designer Zach Sultan since first writing this in January, but the principals still apply, and MNML is an awesome theme.


Most people use blogs as a means to an end, usually to share opinions or showcase work. But geeks often see their blog as an end in itself. If your site is a book, its aesthetic and layout are the cover, and unlike many authors, bloggers have full control over it. I take advantage of that, and I encourage others to do the same.

In a world of cloned “default” themes, a site design with a little bit of personal nuance will stick in someone’s mind. You don’t need to use design to scream “I’m DIFFERENT!” but you should use it to politely remind visitors that, you know, you’re different.

Then, all you have to do is write amazing content.