Toolbox Blog: resources, tips, tricks & info for creative professionals

Creative and Fun Site Navigation

February 24th, 2009

Navigation is one of the most important elements of a website design.  It provides your users with a road map and guide to your site and gives them a sense of direction.  Therefore, well-designed sites tend to have navigation menus and bars that are simple.  But as we’ve seen before simple doesn’t have to be boring.

The sites below have succeeded in creating nav menus that are creative and fun, while not confusing (and thus probably losing) their visitors.

Design Jobs on the Wall

Jobs on the Wall

Hug My Mac

hugs

Sarah Hyland

sarahhyland2

Simple Art

simpleart

Jilly10

jilly10

Kukral

kukral

Mint

mint

Waters Media

watersmedia

MB Dragan

mbdragan

Our Memory Of

Our memory of

Tasty Planner

tastyplanner

Apple

apple



Optimizing Your Blog for Search Engines

February 19th, 2009

Everyone wants to be heard, chances are it was one of the reasons you started blogging in the first place.  A lot of beginner bloggers seem to have the “If you build it, they will come” mentality, and this just isn’t the case.   The sheer amount of blogs that exist today ensure that you will have to go above and beyond to attract readers.  This is where SEO comes into play.

Let’s assume that you are relatively passionate about your blog’s topic – which means that you are producing quality content on a pretty regular basis.  Great, that’s step one – here are a few extra things you should be changing to make the most of the search engine traffic.

Title Tags and Meta Descriptions

The terms may not be familiar, but you already know what these are…you see them every single time you do a search!

results1

Title Tags should be short and sweet, they should be unique and include the main keywords you want to rank for.  For a blog, the Title Tag is usually the post’s title, but you can tweak it by going into the page’s code and looking for these tags: <title> </title>.  If you use Wordpress these are located in your Header file.  The Meta Description is just a short sentence that describes what the page or post is about.  Again, it wouldn’t hurt to stick in a keyword or two and it should be kept short, under 30 words or so.  You can write unique Meta Descriptions for each post, but to save time using the first sentence or two of the post can be a good starting point.  Wordpress even has a plugin that will do the job for you: Head META Description.

Linkage

It is good to link out to other resources and blogs.  You’ll provide added value to the readers you have, and by linking out you’ll increase the chances that other bloggers and websites will link to you as well.  You should also be creating internal links – this means linking to other posts on your blog or pages on your website within the post you are writing.  Use your main keywords as anchor text in those links and it will help those pages rank for the specific keywords you are targeting.  Having quality links to both your own content and outside pages is important, just be careful not to over do it.  Having too many links on a page will look unnatural and ’spammy’.

Images

People use the search engines to look for images as well as web pages.  If your blog uses pictures often it’s a good idea to optimize them as well.  First of all, give your images names that mean something when you save them – for example, SummerHouseFront.jpg instead of image13.jpg or the date.  You should also use alt tags to give the image a short description (ex. alt=”Summer House”) and long description tags for more detail (ex. longdesc=”Summer House on Lake Michigan viewed from the beach”)  This will help the search engines determine which keywords your images are most related to.

Final Tips

Being aware of the search engine optimization strategies used for blogs can lead to much higher referral traffic from Google, Yahoo and other search engines.  If you use Wordpress download the All In One SEO Pack wordpress plugin, it does a good job of optimizing your content and avoiding duplicate content.  Finally, be patient!  It can be a slow process and take weeks (perhaps months if your blog is new) to see increases in search engine traffic. Trust us – it’ll pay off eventually.



Designer’s Block – Tips for getting out of a Slump

February 16th, 2009

Some days you kick out great work like it’s nobody’s business.  Some days you can do nothing right and feel like you’ll never design anything worthwhile ever again.  Everyone has been there, and its incredibly frustrating – especially when your deadline is looming. So next time you’re wrestling with a bout of Designer’s Block, try a few of these tips and strategies that AgencyTool gathered from a few fellow sufferers.

1. Sketch it Out
Go old-school and pull out a pencil and paper or whiteboard.  If you find yourself stuck do some brainstorming sketching first.  If you are completely stuck just doodling can help to get the creative juices flowing.  If you have a vague glimmer of a plan formed you can cross out, change, and put fresh ideas down faster than with any of the design programs out there.  This way if you suddenly don’t really like how the design is going it will take you all of 2 seconds to scratch it out and start again.  Voila, no “but I’ll lose all the progress I’ve made” dilemmas.

2. Just Let it Go
Say you make some type of kick-a** component, an awesome button, icon – whatever.  But this great piece of art just doesn’t fit into the design you’re currently working on.  You spent so much time and effort making your icon that you find yourself trying to change the entire design (and possibly getting stuck)  just so you can include it.  Words of advice from great designers…’Just let it go’.  Save your glorious button for another day and get your focus back.

Also under the ‘let it go’ category – don’t be afraid to step away from a design that’s just not working.  Let it go for a few hours/days then come back to it.  Then, if you’re still stuck, consider just letting it go altogether.  Instead of forcing something that isn’t quite right you’ll open up to ideas that might work better.

3. Switch it Up
Don’t use the same techniques over and over again.  When stuck, people have a tendency to fall back on tried and true components, resulting in a design that looks like everything else you’ve done before.  Force yourself to branch out and create something that looks different from your previous work.  Experiment with color, technique, layout or change locations by getting out of your office – just switching up your routine may be enough to get you out of the slump.

4. Take a Look at Galleries
There are a lot of gallery inspiration sites around, set aside an hour or so and just take a look through them.  Sometimes all you need is a kick in the pants.  Just be careful not to cross the line between being inspired by someone else’s work and stealing it.

5. Ask for Input
Ask people whose opinions you trust and who will be able to give you specific feedback and constructive criticism.  Steer clear of people who don’t have any design experience or tell you that ‘it just doesn’t feel right’, you’ll end up spending hours trying to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix something that may be perfectly good.  This can be a bit tricky – see the  SEOmoz blog on this topic: How to Ruin a Web Design

6. Relax
It’s cliche to use the batting average example but it does fit.  You’re not going to knock one out of the park every single time you sit down to complete a design.  It might be a good thing to lower your expectations just a bit – not everything you produce is going to be great.  Once you take the pressure off and realize that even the best designers run into this wall you’ll be over it in no time.

photo from icanhazcheezburger.com



5 Common Mistakes Made When Designing a Website

February 10th, 2009

There are some pretty bad websites out there.  In fact, there are sites dedicated solely to pointing them out (webpagesthatsuck.com).  Most of the ‘bad websites’ out there (excluding the truly horrific) are labeled so because they made a handful of very common mistakes during the design process.  These are some of those mistakes we see the most often.

Having design elements that look like ads – There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a reasonable amount of advertisements on your website.  However, you must realize that because of the sheer volume of advertisements on pages, most users have developed selective attention.  They’ll ignore everything that looks like a banner, pop-up or any other type of typical ad – so its not a good idea to have important design elements or information displayed in any of these formats.

Jamming 10 pounds of stuff into a 5 pound bag – Whether you go overboard on content or flashy design elements, cramming too much onto a site is a common mistake.  The result could be a busy layout, a wall of text, side scrolling, very little white space, etc.  Each of these things makes a website difficult to read and making your visitors work for information is never a good idea.

Having confusing and unclear navigation – Clear navigation is one of the most important factors for a site’s usability.  Users should have no questions about how they are supposed to move around the different areas of your site.  It’s a good idea to make your links change colors once a user clicks on them, knowing which pages they’ve already visited helps prevent users from unintentionally landing on pages they’ve seen before.  Also, your users shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to find the content they are looking for – make sure that every single page is within 3 or 4 clicks of your homepage.

Looking amateur-ish – Sure this is a bit vague, but there are certain features/missteps that web designers make that scream beginner.  For example, avoid saying “Welcome to ____” on your homepage.  There are other ways to make your visitors feel welcome.  Similarly, test to make sure your page looks good in all browsers instead of taking the shortcut “Best viewed in ____”.

Using overly wild or bright color schemes – Everyone loves creativity, and this doesn’t mean that you should shy away from using color in your design.  However, when colors are too bright or you use too many colors on the same page it can look unprofessional.  Also make sure that your background color and text color compliment each other, keeping your text easy to read and scan.

So next time your designing a site, take a minute to step back and review.  If you avoid these common errors you are probably safe from having your site end up on one of the many “Worst Website” lists.



Crafty Custom 404 Pages

February 5th, 2009

Few things are as frustrating as not being able to find a web page you are looking for.  You’re cruising along when all of a sudden you click that bad link, or your finger slips and you type a ‘r’ instead of a ‘t’, or you know you got it right and your page has inexplicably disappeared – hey, we’ve all been there.  Yes, when that moment comes and you are met with the standard “Page Not Found” message it’s more than a little annoying.

But sometimes it’s not so bad.  When a designer takes the time to create a custom 404 page it adds to the user experience.  Sure, you’re still a little annoyed you haven’t found what you were looking for – but running into an error page that’s funny or creative or just plain great to look at lessens the blow a bit.  You might even stick around and give it another go instead of bouncing right off the site.

We love well done custom 404 pages – here are 35 of our favorites for your inspiration!

Stef

Nokia

NorthFace

http://www.mamselle.ca/error.html

Sonic

kottke

SocialThing

wulffmorgenthaler

robgoodlatte

truth

CraigsList

BirhgtKit

ApartmentHomeLiving

Zug

bonnaroo

livadaru

larknews

evisibility

zivity

magneticwebmedia

acorncreative

dawdle

lileks

jeremyfuksa

dazeofourlives

cricketfeet

martinkorner

orangecoat

homestarrunner

geeksquad

renkoo

fryewiles

tadley

jackfig

slonky



Is AdSense Worth Running on My Site?

January 30th, 2009

This question gets asked a lot, and the answer is almost always “It depends”.

Let’s be honest, most websites that enjoy any sort of traffic have some form of advertising placed on them.  If you have the resources, time or talent to create your own custom advertising solution that is probably the way to go.  But AdSense can be a good alternative if used effectively and, as with any advertising, the only major drawback is the potential ‘commercialized’ look of a site that runs ads.

Google’s AdSense is one of the easiest ad programs to use, so it’s great for everyone.  They place very relevant text or image ads onto your site immediately…and it’s free to use.  However, just sticking the ads on your site and leaving them won’t bring in much revenue.

To make running AdSense worthwhile you’ll have to do a bit of optimizing.  Placement is important, you’ll want to put the ads somewhere people will see them and click on them, but be careful not to make them too intrusive or your user’s will block them.  AdSense offers a pretty good variety of styles, colors and sizes to use, so be sure to test out a few and see which looks the best and fits in with your site’s overall design well.

AdSense automatically does the targeting of your ads…but you’ll want to make a few changes here as well.  The more relevant the ads are to your site’s content the more likely people are to click on them – making you more money.  They offer section targeting, which is a way to specify certain sections of your site that you would like to emphasize or downplay when it comes to matching content up with ad topics.  You can also filter out ads from certain domains with the Competitive Ad Filter.  For example, if you don’t want ads from a rival showing up on your site, or you notice a site that keeps advertising completely off topic, just enter in their domain to the filter list.

So, yes, AdSense is worth running if you are realistic about the levels of extra cash you can make and if you take the time to create ads that fit in stylistically with your current site design.

For more info, or to get started and try it out head to the Google Adsense page.



Web Design in Yellow

January 27th, 2009

Yellow can be a tricky color to design with, but when used correctly it can lead to a creative and fresh website.  Check out these sites that use the color extremely well…

Scrapbook Your Memories

sebdesign

Muchos Grande

Twist Systems

Yellowlane

Roome Consulting

PenelopeTom

Bruno Magalhaes

Year

Rorol Studios

Web Outsourcing Services Group

Bard Illustration

Extra Small Studio

Team Manager

Yellowstone National Park

Paralotna

BrainStore

ZaumThink

Album Creative

Yellow Bird Design

Java Communications

Guimkie

OFMECC

YellowBook

Agent89

Mohit’s Blog

VideoHive

So, if you’re feeling adventurous – go ahead and make your site yellow!  Here’s a yellow color chart to get you started.



12 Great Free Website Templates – And Where to Go to Find More

January 23rd, 2009

Everyone has heard the saying “you can’t get something for nothing” in some form or another.

We respectfully disagree when it comes to free web design templates.  Templates in general have bad rap – especially the free ones.  There are so many sites out there offering free templates that are thrown together, look like they belong in 1996 or are just plain ugly – you also run the risk of having a website that looks exactly the same as your competitor’s.  Don’t get discouraged!  If you don’t have the talent, time or money to get a custom designed site there are plenty of free templates out there that are not only presentable – but actually quite well designed and even unique.

Here are 12 to prove our point:

And here are 6 reliable sites that offer well-designed free templates:

TemplatesBox.com
FreeTemplatesOnline.com
TemplateWorkz.com
Open Source Web Design
FreeLayouts.com
DotComWebDesign

Happy Hunting!



9 Inspiring Interviews with Designers

January 20th, 2009

A lot of design-related sites and blogs publish interviews with respected/well known people in the industry.  It’s a great way to gain insight and hear about others’ experiences and inspirations.  Plus a lot of these people are really really interesting…so here are a few interviews that are definitely worth a read through:

#1 – MarketingSherpa’s Interview with Steve Krug
A little older, but still relevant.  What works, what doesn’t, best practices…in audio and text format.

#2 – CrazyLeaf’s Interview with Lauren Marie
Interview with the creator of the successful graphic design blog CreativeCurio

#3 – SEO Blog, Marketmou and Aaron Wall
“Top SEO Expert Aaron Wall Speaks Out About SEO’s Bleeding Edge”

#4 – Fuel Your Creativity’s Interview with Fabio Sasso
Freelancing, inspiration, favorite tools and other random tidbits

#5 – Abduzeedo’s Interview with Chuck Anderson
Interview with Chuck Anderson, design mastermind behind NoPattern.com

#6 – Interview with Collis Ta’eed
Web Design and Print Design focused

#7 – Just Creative Design’s Interview with Jeff Fisher
Logo design, branding and blogging

#8 – OutlawDesignBlog Interview: Adii Rockstar of Woo Themes
Premium wordpress themes

#9 – FreelanceFolder’s Interview with Adrian Diaconescu
Freelancing, blogging, wordpress and more…

These are great places to start, if you’re looking for more head to Spicy Web Designers – they interview top designers from around the world constantly.  The actual interviews are usually short and sweet, great for random inspiration!



Web Design in Black & White

January 14th, 2009

Black & White doesn’t have to be boring.  Monochromatic color schemes can be used with just about any color, but some of the most striking are in black & white.  By cutting out color a website relies more heavily on other design elements – such as layout or typography, etc..

So here’s your daily dose of inspiration…30 extremely well-done Black & White websites…

DepthCore

80/20

arsnova Design

Atomised

Authentic Boredom

Back To Help

Brancozero

CRW

ArtWorking

Designing The News

DSGN+DVLP

Expression Tints

Hell-Cat Records

Imagine Boris

Jon Tan

Launch

Mark Wieman

Mojave

Mirificam Press

PostMachina

Rikcat Industries

RedChilli

Romsound

Subtraction

Svenigson

The DECK

XQS

The Old Fashioned

VBG

West Surfing

If you need more convincing check out this post by Youri on Designfeedr: Lose the color! 9 reasons to ditch color



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ABOUT AGENCYTOOL At its core, AgencyTool exists to serve as a resource for creative agencies, whether they be into web design, print, advertising or anything else. Here on the AgencyTool Blog you'll find a mish-mosh of resources and thoughts that we think are worth sharing.

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