Issue #5

Design thinking: How to take a critical look at your blog

12 min read

Design thinking is a way of making decisions based on solving a problem to arrive at an innovative solution. It's a valuable thing to learn if you want to improve your online business, and trust me, it's less complicated than it sounds. You don't have to be a designer to think like one.

A common misconception of design is that it's about making something look nice. I want to change your mindset on that right away because design is not just about making pretty things. It's about problem solving and making things that work well; not just look good on a surface level. You may have heard this Steve Jobs quote before, but he sums it up well so it's worth repeating:

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

– Steve Jobs

It's easy to understand why design is often thought of as that top layer because that's the bit we can easily see. But design is more than just the icing on the cake. Both figuratively and literally.

If you looked at a delicious baked good you might consider the design to just be the sugary layer and sprinkles you see on the top, when actually it's all the ingredients that were measured out perfectly and combined to make the cake itself. It's the shape of the baking tin that was chosen, the color, the flavor, and yes, it's also the icing and sprinkles (because who wants to eat a cake that doesn't look visually appealing?).

design is more than the icing on the cake.

When you look at a nicely designed website, you don't see the hours that went into trying many different layouts for the elements before settling on the one in front of you. You don't see the many different color palettes or fonts that were considered before choosing the one that feels just right. What you see is the end result, and if it has been designed well, that end result will seem simple and beautiful.

Here's the thing: simple takes work.

Beautiful, simple design that flows nicely and functions well is a result of lots of small but important decisions coming together to form a cohesive design. That's where design thinking comes in. And it's important not just for the big things like the layout of your website or eBook, but the smaller details too like the banner on your social media accounts and your blog imagery: everything to do with your brand.

Good design builds trust

You probably know this instinctively already, but readers and customers are more likely to trust your website if it is well designed. Dr. Brent Coker from the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Business and Economics conducted a study on this and said:

As aesthetically orientated humans, we’re psychologically hardwired to trust beautiful people, and the same goes for websites. Our offline behaviour and inclinations translate to our online existence.

More importantly though, the same study also said this:

Being pretty, but with nothing to say, is not enough.

Beauty for the sake of beauty isn't enough to be considered good design. When the famous industrial designer Dieter Rams wrote 10 principles to good design one of them said this: “Good design is thorough down to the last detail”.

Six design thinking values to consider for your blog

Paying attention to the details is part of design thinking and it's what separates “making things look pretty” from solving a problem. Of course, aesthetics matter too, and in this issue you can learn about typography, color theory, and creating a cohesive visual style, but to help you make smart decisions when putting those into action, here are six design thinking values for you to consider and learn from.

Design thinking values: problem solvingProblem solving

Good design has a purpose, and if design is creative problem solving then before you can design, you have to understand the problem. When working with clients (and you may have experienced this yourself if you've worked with a designer before), a designer will often ask ‘Why?' a lot to get to the root of the problem.

It's an important step because sometimes the original idea you had in mind might not be the best solution to the problem or perhaps there is more to it than you initially thought.

When you're not working with a designer, you have to be the one to ask yourself ‘Why?'.

Say for example you're about to lay out a Facebook ad.

  • Why? To drive more traffic to your site.
  • Yes but, why? To make more sales of your new product.

In this case, sure a Facebook ad does seem like a good way to get more traffic and make sales, but it should be considered as part of a wider strategy. You could reuse your layout as imagery on social media to send traffic from many different sources to your site for example.

So now you're no longer designing a Facebook ad, you're designing imagery that will entice people to learn more about your product. This is a much better frame of mind to be working with.

Thinking about the problem helps you decide what to focus on and also what the point is of each graphic you're creating:

  • If it's a blog image, perhaps the most important thing is that it will be really shareable on Pinterest. So you'll make sure it represents the post well and uses eye-catching fonts and imagery that fits your brand.
  • If it's a YouTube thumbnail, you'll make sure the text on it is readable at a small size and that it represents the most interesting part about the video to stand out from other thumbnails in a subscription box.

First, uncover the problem, then use design to solve it.

Design thinking values: form follows functionForm follows function

Form follows function is a modernist design principle that means the way something looks should be primarily based on its intended function or purpose. That's why most site navigations feature either a horizontal or vertical list of links grouped together. Their purpose is to help a user navigate around the site, and grouping them together in a clear list rather than scattered throughout the page makes it easy for the user to decide what page to visit next or quickly find the one they were looking for.

The great thing about this is that once you've decided (through problem solving) what the purpose of a piece of design should be, you can use that to help you make decisions on the aesthetics. If the point of your post is to make the reader feel contemplative and introspective, then perhaps you can use color theory and choose blue as the main color with light, airy photography for the image.

You can apply this thinking not only to each individual design element, but to the design as a whole. If the main thing you want to achieve with a web page is to get a user to click a ‘buy now' button, then:

  1. Make sure you give them all the necessary info to make a purchasing decision.
  2. That button had better be the most gosh darn enticing thing on the page to click on next.

Design thinking values: idea iterationIdea iteration

Sometimes your first idea is your best idea. But not always.

Iterating on your ideas and exploring other options before you dive in and start creating can be a great way to get more creative and to break free from your design comfort zone. Designers will try to think of the problem from many different angles and come up with multiple ideas for solutions before evaluating them and choosing the one to move forward with.

Use this method of design thinking next time you create an image by forcing yourself to come up with at least three different designs. The first one will be your standard and will be easy, the rest will be harder as you're forcing yourself to come up with new ideas and new ways of arranging things. This visual brainstorming might help you come up with something new and unique!

If you start applying idea iteration, you might just find that it applies to many different aspects of your business. For example, many blogging experts suggest using the same principle for your blog headlines. Some bloggers will brainstorm as many as 30 versions of an article’s headline before landing on the right one.

Design thinking values: critiqueCritiquing your own work

To think like a designer, you need to be able to look critically at your own work. This self-critique is like a check-in to make sure you haven't gone off track, and that you're still solving the problem you meant to solve.

When you think you're done with something, take a step back from it and ask yourself if it solves the problem. Look at it objectively and imagine it in the place it will eventually be posted. Will it stand out? Will it clash horribly with the thing next to it? Does it display the right information?

Developing the skill of critiquing your own work will help immensely not just with your visual elements, but with everything you do as a solopreneur when there's not a team around that you can ask for feedback.

Design thinking values: detailsFocus on the details

What separates good design from bad design is often in the details; the little things that perhaps aren't noticeable right away. However, if they're wrong they can make the whole design just feel “off”, even if you can't put your finger on why. The trick to catching these little things? Analysing your design closely and going over it with a finetooth comb. Design details to pay attention to are:

  • Typography: Is the line height set to a good number for your text size to make it nice and readable? Are similar pieces of text the same size? Is it aligned perfectly?
  • Color: Are the exact same color values used throughout your design? Do the colors complement each other? Do they highlight the right things?
  • Hierarchy: Do the most important pieces of the layout stand out the most? (remember, if everything “stands out”, then nothing can really stand out!) When you look at it, are you drawn down the page nicely or do your eyes flick about, unsure what to focus on?
  • White space: Often what is not there is just as important as what is there. Is there breathing room in your layout? And is the spacing consistent?

It's important to care about these things as they all come together to determine the quality of your design. Sure the world won't end if one paragraph of text uses a 14px font and the other is 15px, but it sure will look more professional if you make them the same.

Design thinking values: big pictureSee the bigger picture

This may seem like a contradiction to the last point, but actually they're two sides to the same coin. To think like a designer you need to be able to zoom in and focus on the small details, but also zoom out and get an understanding of how everything works together. Seeing the bigger picture gives you context to a piece, and will help you make sure that your designs don't just look good individually, but also work together as a whole.

And even bigger picture than that, it's important to think about where your designs fit into your reader’s journey. Are they seeing your image when browsing Pinterest for the perfect recipe? Are they likely to come across your site in a Google search for a certain niche interest?

Putting yourself in your reader’s shoes will help you not only think about what impression you want to give with your design, but what impression they are likely to get from it based on surrounding information and where they are in their learning.

Design thinking is about questioning

Question yourself. Question the decisions you're instinctively making when you reach for a certain font or color. Ask yourself ‘why' to understand whether your idea is the best possible way to solve the problem. Soon the questioning will become ingrained as part of your process and you'll be thinking like a designer and producing high-quality visuals for your site.

And it shouldn’t stop at the visuals. You can apply this methodology to every part of your online business. Need to write a new blog post? Ask yourself what problem your reader is facing that you're trying to help with. What might they already have read before coming to your site? How might this post fit with the other articles you've written this week? What call-to-action do you want to give at the end?

Design thinking can be a way to help you dig deeper with the things you're doing and consider them individually as well as part of your wider strategy. And hopefully you now understand that design is more than just a pretty layer you add on top at the end, it's something to be considered throughout your whole process.

With this new design thinking lens you've learned, go take a critical look at your own website and share in the comments a few things you want to work on that you hadn't noticed before. I'd love to hear about them!


Charli Prangley

Charli is ConvertKit's Creative Director. Born in New Zealand but currently living in Valencia, Spain she’s passionate about side projects and helping creatives improve their craft and process. When she’s not designing and leading the Brand team at ConvertKit she's creating content for her design-centric YouTube channel and podcast sharing insights into life as a professional designer alongside tutorials and advice on design tools and concepts.

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