Graphics, themes, and formatting: a discussion post

One of my goals this year was to learn how to shape the look of my blog.  I’ve been doing this since 2010 and I still need to learn to create my own graphics, and I want to have a better understanding of WordPress.  So in January, after years of thinking about it, I set off down that path.

First, I tried out PicMonkey, a graphics site that has been recommended by a number of bloggers.  I gather their prices went up recently, which is unfortunate timing, but I’m still giving it a go.  I’ve been working on a few graphics for recurring posts, like monthly wrap-ups, discussion posts, and challenge updates.  It’s slow going, because I’m not sure I’m graphically inclined, but I’m working on it (it seems to me just trying has to count for something!).  My husband helped by designing my new header, which is a photo of the bookstore I worked at in college (and this blog’s namesake).

I like the user interface of PicMonkey, and it has tons of different options.  Maybe too many options.  I was disappointed in the number of templates and ready-made pictures they provide.  I’m still struggling with how to find good clip art that isn’t stealing.  I’d love to hear from other bloggers – do you subscribe to a clip art service or pay to download pictures?  Do you use Pinterest, and if so, how?

My next project was to look at the different themes on WordPress and see if I could find one that looked better.  I decided to upgrade to Premium, hoping that would make a difference in what was available.  As far as I could tell, the difference was simply that before I had to pay for my theme, now I pay a yearly fee and the themes are free.

Every time I tried a new theme, I found I really liked some aspects, but then something else looked horrible.  Once you narrow down your options (e.g. must have 2-3 columns, must show post excerpts on the home page) then you’re pretty limited.  I spent a day cycling through different themes, trying them out and ending up really frustrated when nothing looked like I wanted it to.  After I just about tore my hair out, my husband had a great idea: find one I could live with, and then see what could be adjusted.

That led to me posting questions on the theme’s forum, resulting in a LOT of back and forth with the helpful and very-patient technical support people (for example, why were my book cover photos suddenly GIGANTIC on the screen?).  I discovered there are codes you can add to adjust a lot of things, like alignment and sizing.  I don’t necessarily understand the codes, but at least I know they exist.  And some features I just have to live with.  I’m really struggling though, with margins and how to get the graphics (book covers mostly) the size and dimensions I want them to be.

I started thinking about self-hosting, and at the same time Bookboodle wrote a great post on this topic.  So I’m considering what that would mean for my blog, and if the effort might be more trouble than it’s worth.  I don’t mind investing in this blog, since I’ve had it now for a good while, and I don’t plan on going anywhere.  But I also have limited time and expertise, and I like the convenience of many of WordPress’ features. For all my grumpiness about format, I love WP’s Reader and statistics.  Most of my readers come from WP, so I wouldn’t give that up in a minute.

Thankfully January was a nice quiet month without any travel, and even one unexpected day off (government furlough).  I’ve had some time to wrap my head around this.  But my head is whirling with possibilities and uncertainties.

Bloggers: I would love to hear your thoughts on self-hosting, themes, graphic design, and using clip art.  I’m also interested in possibly getting professional help with the design.  Any suggestions?

11 Comments on “Graphics, themes, and formatting: a discussion post

  1. I like your discussion post graphic! I have used Canva and PicMonkey, but I’m usually too lazy to create new graphics. I also have Photoshop Elements and InDesign and I actually prefer to use those — they take a bit more knowledge of course, but are more flexible and less frustrating. I used these to make my graphics and I think those will stay around for quite a while, because I don’t want to go through the bother of making new ones.

    A place I like for free images (of fine art) is I’ll be interested to know what others you find.

    I feel lucky that I got my site redesigned by a really talented designer with very reasonable rates, but unfortunately she stopped doing this work immediately after that. (I’m pretty sure it was not because I was so difficult to work with). In my experience, a professional redesign was totally worth it because it upped my enjoyment of the blog tremendously, and made it a better experience for visitors. But I would not have done it if the price hadn’t been right. I haven’t hunted lately for designers but I hope there are some out there who don’t charge $$$.

    As for theme and self-hosting, I decided to go with Ashley from Nose Graze so she would take all the technical stuff off my hands. It costs a bit more per year but just makes it so easy. I hope she doesn’t quit any time soon.

    Anyway, as you can tell I love to talk about design and am excited to see what you come up with!

  2. I’ve also been working on improving my graphics this year, so I really enjoyed hearing about your experience so far! I recently switched from PicMonkey to Canva because I wasn’t willing to pay for the service and so far, I’m really liking it. I mostly use pictures, not clip art, for my designs and for free pictures I really like I don’t know of similar resources for clip art.

    I switched to self-hosted a few years ago and I found someone to do my blog design for about $100. It was well worth it to me, because I don’t feel capable of coming up with an entire design myself, but I can now take their idea and run with it – using the same color scheme and similar fonts in my graphics, for example. I’m not sure my designer does custom designs anymore, but she does have an etsy shop with some templates:

    I love the freedom of being self-hosted (currently on BlueHost and pretty happy with them), especially the ability to use plugins, and I rarely have to mess with anything technical. The one big exception is once when my site was hacked and had some weird URLs added and I had to clean up and restore from a back-up myself. I’m not sure how that would have worked if I were still on wordpress. Porting my users over and setting up forwarding initially was shockingly simple.

    As you can tell, like Lory, I enjoy talking about design! If you decide to switch to self-hosted and have any questions, I’d be happy to help if I can 🙂

    • This is really helpful! I appreciate the good information, now I definitely need to think more about self-hosting. I’m incredibly frustrated by the WP themes.

  3. I’ve been working on it too. I’m looking to change my header, but I’ve been looking at either figuring out graphics or taking a photograph. The two sources I’ve used for graphics over the last year has been Canva and PhotoJoiner. I’m sure there are other free sites, but I haven’t found them yet. By the way, I love that your blog shows photographs of bookshelves on the sides.

    • Thanks for the great references to graphic sites, I will definitely compare those to what I’m doing now. It sounds like a lot of people are using Canva (and helps that it’s free). I do like seeing my own books on the blog… the hardest part was getting the photo the right size and getting it to line up properly.

  4. That’s an issue I would definitely have with, for every theme there are some things I like but some things I don’t. With self-hosted, you can customize any theme you use to your exact liking, although you do need to know some css in order to do so (or hire someone to do it for you). But the good news is, people can still read your blog via the WP reader even if you’re self-hosted! And you can still see your stats. You just have to sign into jetpack. (Although I don’t know if you’ll still be able to see previous stats from before you were self-hosted.) As for graphics, I use GIMP, which is a program similar to Photoshop that you download, except it’s free. But you just have to find a program that works for you 🙂

    • Thanks Kristen, it helps to hear about others’ experiences with self-hosting. It makes me nervous. I’m glad to hear I would still be on Reader, since that’s how I read most blogs myself.

  5. I love your new header—I think your husband did a fantastic job with it! And the fact that it’s an actual bookstore you worked at (and your blog’s namesake) makes it that much more special. I also love the graphic you made for discussions.

    I do have a paid lifetime subscription to Stock Unlimited, but I also use a couple of free sites like Pixabay and Freepik (for Freepik, you do need to include a credit).

  6. Pingback: My February Reading Wrap-Up | The Book Stop

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