Redesigning eaves.ca: Online Branding Lessons for Solo Entrepreneurs

I recently redesigned a website for a personal friend and although it wasn't done under the official umbrella of Raised Eyebrow, I found that the project offered some interesting challenges I'd like to reflect upon briefly.

The friend in question is David Eaves, who has more trouble answering the question, "What do you do?" than just about anyone I know. He's a prolific writer, public speaker and consultant who works in three areas of interest: public policy, open source, and negotiation. I never imagined those three things could overlap in such interesting ways until I met David & heard him wax poetic on subjects like open-source community management (bringing negotiation skills to online communities) and Government 2.0.

So there you go: You already know what David's biggest communication challenge on his website is. It's demonstrating what he does in a way that makes intuitive sense to people reading his popular blog. The previous iteration of his site was a pretty typical personal blog, with a long sidebar filled with links to this & that, and hardly a self-promotional word to be seen. It was a great demonstration of his brilliant mind at work, but a poor sales tool. (It didn't even have a Contact page. I'm serious.)

Now, David isn't really a sales-y kind of guy (in case the lack of a Contact page wasn't your first clue), and he didn't want his blog to transform overnight into the website equivalent of a flashing "Buy! Buy! Buy!" sign. He simply wanted to pare down the visual clutter, and make it easier for people who might want to hire him to know how to do that.

I took a simple approach: I interviewed David about the kind of work he does & organized it into three categories: public speaking, writing & consulting. The first two merited their own pages, and the third got folded into the About page (since his consulting services are a bit more amorphous & his consulting clients generally come to him via word of mouth). And the rest of the menu bar was filled out with a page of media appearances (since David appears frequently on television & radio as a commentator on current events) and a "What I'm Reading" page that lists some of the writing that's inspiring his free-flowing pen (or rather, keyboard). (We hooked up the latter with his LibraryThing and Delicious accounts so that they can be kept up to date automatically, saving him the hassle of updating the page by hand.)

The design process posed an interesting challenge: David really liked his old minimalist, low-key blog design and didn't want too radical a change. He also didn't want the site to look too "designed," because he feels that part of his brand is a kind of approachable, do-it-yourself style that doesn't jive with anything too flashy or trendy. So I had to really rein myself in and keep it quiet, monochromatic, and simple. (I love simple design, but I didn't allow myself any indulgences on this one.)

The header is very similar to what he had before, but the menu bar was a new addition, making his "sales" pages more prominent. The sidebar got hugely simplified, to focus the visitor's attention on what's relevant & important rather than cluttering up the space with superfluous content.

But where I pushed David to be bold was in two areas:

  1. The home page now features a single, complete post. This is rather unusual (though not unheard-of) for a blog, but it really allows the visitor to fully absorb one piece of content before moving on to the next. The previous post is highlighted in a box directly below the most recent post, to encourage further exploration of the site.
  2. The pre-footer area is large & prominent, and directs traffic to recent posts, popular posts, the "sales" pages and to David's various social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, etc. etc.).

These two design decisions go hand in hand. If the home page housed five or ten posts, the pre-footer area would be virtually invisible, so it wouldn't merit special attention. But in this case, once a reader has absorbed the content on the page they are reminded of the various options they have to read further. A lot of websites ignore the footer area, but when your site attracts voracious readers (as David's does), it pays to reward them by allowing them to navigate the site from the bottom of the page as well as the top.

A lot of bloggers wear multiple hats and have little time to build stand-alone websites for each of their endeavours, and I think David's site is a good example of a middle ground: he shares information about how to hire him without presuming that's the goal (or desire) of every visitor, while maintaining a familiar blog interface to those who simply want to read his latest post. If a highly promotional website is outside your comfort zone, this site may hold some lessons for you. In particular, I think I managed to convince David to:

  • Stop withholding information about your services from people who want to hire you.
  • Always, always, always have a Contact page.
  • Consider that bringing in a designer can be helpful even if you don't want anything "designed."