5 Dumb Design Mistakes That Crush Copy
(And How to Fix Them)

image of ugly toad with crown

Content is king, but if the king looks like a toad, no one will know he’s royalty.

On the one hand, your blog theme might be drop-dead gorgeous. But if your writing isn’t compelling, readers won’t stick around to read it.

Even worse, your writing might be fantastic . . . but if your design doesn’t stop web surfers long enough to read the first few sentences, you’re doomed.

Great design makes good copy sing. Everything you write becomes clearer, easier to navigate, and friendlier on the eyes.

Bad design doesn’t do your writing justice. The words you work so hard to string together might as well be written in the clouds: they disappear before they’re noticed.

Graphic and content design

First, let’s be clear about one thing. “Design” isn’t just your logo, the header on your WordPress theme, or the typeface you pick. Those things matter, but they’re just a small part of design.

Design is also about how you put your content together. How you structure it. How you choose to present and write it. That’s why this post is about visual design, but it’s also about content and copy design. They go hand-in-hand.

If you avoid the five problems below, you’ll improve the chances that your blog and marketing materials will be given the royal treatment: readers who pay attention and stay engaged.

Dumb mistake #1: It’s delirious and incoherent

  • Be clear about the audience you write for. Find out what they struggle with. Create content that meets their needs.
  • Speak to one person in that audience. Visualize that person as you’re writing. Doing this will help your ideal customer know she’s in the right place.
  • Keep it brief. People are busy.

Dumb mistake #2: It’s hard to read

  • Break up large blocks of text with bulleted lists, call outs, or sidebars. Call outs, where you pull out a sentence or two and make it larger, help readers hit your copy highlights. Sidebars are stories within the main story, and add nuance to your topic.
  • Use high-contrast type. Typically, that means a dark color on a very light background. Don’t make readers work too hard. Light type on a dark ground or dark type on a colored background can cause eye fatigue. Also, make sure the type size is large enough to read easily!
  • Pick highly readable typefaces and stick to one or two. Variety is the spice of life, but too many different spices will give your readers indigestion. Use no more than two main “spices” when it comes to picking typefaces.

Dumb mistake #3: It’s dull and not engaging

  • Write magnetic headlines to pull people in. Remember, the purpose of a headline is to move the reader to read the first line of your copy.
  • Set your headlines and subheads larger and darker or in a different color. Use visual contrast to differentiate your headline type from your body copy.
  • Pick the most interesting ideas and make them your subheads or call outs. Many people scan before they dive in and read, especially online. Well-written subheads and call outs pull in more readers.

Dumb mistake #4: It’s decorative to a fault

  • Keep colors to a minimum. Emphasize one or two and use any additional colors as accents only. Having a strong, obvious color palette invites visitors into a “world” you’ve created.
  • Don’t overuse drop shadows. They make shapes and text fuzzy, dark, and hard to read.
  • Keep design elements to a minimum. Less is more: always go for readability.

Dumb mistake #5: It’s not believable

  • Create trust with consistency of design and tone. Decide on a “look” and use it for everything you create, now and into the future.
  • Don’t try too hard. Using every graphic trick in the book only makes your pages hard to decipher.
  • Nix the yellow highlighter and screaming red headlines. They might, for some markets, work on a sales page, but they don’t belong in your content marketing. Let your terrific content, not the ugliness of your design, capture the prospect’s attention.

To get readers to give your site the respect it’s due, use both good visual design and solid content design. You can have one without the other, but when you have them both, your blog and marketing will reign over the rest. The red carpet will be laid before you, your readers will bow before your great content, and you and your blog will live happily ever after.

About the Author: Pamela Wilson helps people give their business marketing the royal treatment at the Big Brand System blog.

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Comments

  1. Hey Pamela,

    Thanks for putting this together!

    The one thing that bothers is when all the text is done in a huge block. It makes it hard for me to read. Just like you discussed in #2.

    I tell people when you are writing make sure you are speaking to your audience and providing them with valuable content. Readers will return back for more or perhaps purchase your products or services.

    Chat with you later…
    Josh

  2. Content is King, Promotion is Queen, … Ideas are Pawns?

  3. All this talk of King’s and royalty reminds me of me. Thank you for a great post. I was just discussing some theme stuff with a friend of mine who’s getting involved with me on a site. Dark backgrounds/light fonts may look great, but the contrast is hard on the eyes.

    I’m learning that readers need a reason to stick around on a site or blog. Making our content easy to read is a great way to do just that.

    The Franchise King®

  4. Very good post Pamela, always love to read from a fellow TS grad. You nailed that metaphor (If the content looks like a toad…)
    I just set up new theme for my blog, an I think it’s nice. just have to make sure the content doesn’t crush it..

  5. There’s a lot of competition for our attention, and it’s especially keen on the web. One little click is all it takes for your reader to head away from your site. I firmly believe clean, readable design is one of the ways you can draw people in and keep them engaged longer.

  6. For most webpages, the choice for a black background and a white font is wrong indeed. For some sites, like photography blogs, the choice may be just right. Just make sure to increase the line height, to make reading easier.

    Thanks for the nice overview!

  7. I love my bright colors, but your point is well taken. Ease of readability is of absolute importance, even if I’m “only” being entertaining!

    Good job!

  8. It seems to basic to many of us but so many miss this point. Thanks for putting it out there. Design still matters. Most people tend to process information visually, meaning the scan and then read. Design should aid in this process.

  9. Hi Pamela,

    Great info that makes a lot of sense. My blog has only been up for a few months, and I have tried from the beginning to have good readability and solid content. I learned that from reading Copyblogger for awhile before starting. All the information here is top notch. Thanks for reinforcing this message and reminding us to keep it readable.

    Geoff Burnette

  10. I am going to go with number 4 as my fave.

    Since WordPress makes it is so easy to add widgets, people go insane with gizmos, bells, whistles, crazy colors, and popups that make you feel as if you just walked in to a carnival and not a blog.

    …I am guilty of this myself on occasion.

    I like the technique of sitting back and squinting to look at your blog, where you see the things that catch your eye first (hopefully your content or sales bottons) and you can test the balance of your designs as well.

    People hate BORING, but they also run away screaming from HOLY-CRAP-THAT’s-TOO-INTENSE.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  11. Great post Pamela! So often I focus on the visual design aspects, so thank you for the reminder that the content needs good design as well.

  12. So true! I especially agree with the tip about using bullets in posts with lists. Bullets give the eye a chance to “rest” and definitely keep the reader organized.

  13. “Content is king, but if the king looks like a toad, no one will know he’s royalty”

    Love it. Amazing opening and fantastic article!

  14. Joshua, that technique is great, and so is sitting someone down in front of your site and asking them to interact with it and verbalize what they’re thinking. It can be an eye opener.

    Adam, if you only knew how happy I was when I found that toad with a crown photo!

  15. Hei Pamela,

    Congratulations! Very nice article! Thank you very much for putting this info together. I have to repeat Beki words, I also love the design and bright colors of a blog I started one year ago, and that I want to re-invent, but looks like it is time for a change. Talking about that, thank you very much for your insights related to that old blog. I also recommend people sign up for your newsletter, just awesome! Talk to you later!

  16. Thanks for the reminder, Pamela.

    p.s. The best book I ever read on this subject is “The Non-Designers Design Book.”

  17. Rock solid post Brian!

    It’s so important to make your
    content readable. People are so
    quick to hit the close button on their
    browser.

    We have to drop a lot of the grammar
    structure that we learned in school when
    it comes to blogging.

    Thanks for always sharing GOOD content:)

  18. I’ve found that a lot of people don’t realize when their copy or blog or eBook or whatever falls into the area of bad copy, or bad design.

    When in doubt, have someone WHO YOU DON’T KNOW take a look at your site or product and get their feedback.

  19. Shane, that’s a fantastic book. It breaks down basic design concepts into easy-to-understand examples. I only hope my work is as clear as Robin’s.

  20. All good stuff as usual. I would also add: be concise and clear. Too many words and sentences that are too long can be deadly.

    Cheers,

    Don McCobb

  21. Line after line of continuous text is dull and boring and the points that you make: side bars, bulletted lists and call outs definitely help in breaking the monotony of the content.

    I prefer ‘relevant pictures’ that give a certain relief to the eye, reading all that, especially light font text on a dark colored background.

    Excellent post, Pamela. Thank you.

  22. Yep, definitely have to use tons of white space in your design. It just makes things more appealing and easier to read.

    I hate long blocks of text with a passion, so blah and uninteresting.

    Keep it short, keep it simple and you’ll get better results. Great post.

    Talk soon,

    Mike

  23. “Speak to one person in that audience.”
    Sort of. I like to boil the target audience down to a mythical Bob and a mythical Sue.

  24. “Light type on a dark ground or dark type on a colored background can cause eye fatigue.”

    That’s the only thing that I’d take issue with. I’ve read studies (wish I had them handy) where it was found that the RIGHT light type and the RIGHT dark background is just as readable as the what we are all used to.

    For any combo one chooses, it’s very high contrast that causes strain. Pure black on pure white tears my eyes out.

    But, I think it comes down to a reader’s own preference and the site’s content.

  25. I have seen that frog, Looks like someone I know.

  26. What front and size are you using for this blog design? I like your use of white space.

    By the way, What wordpress plugin are you using for the tweet and facebook share and count? Also which plugin for the ‘Related Articles’? Thanks for the help!

  27. Good ideas, some more difficult than others. Design is difficult for us who are poor of $$$ and design deficient ourselves. I continue to struggle with it, better bit by bit. Finding the audience is something I am working on with this new blog (above) and the old one -http://thisoldbrain.net .
    Great post, though. I actually printed it out; I don’ always do that!

  28. Loved that opening statement: “Content is king, but if the king looks like a toad, no one will know he’s royalty.” I think I’m doing okay with my content, but I need to work on my blog look. Thanks for reminding me how important that is, too.

  29. Thanks for your article. My biggest take-away is the concept of the text as part of the design. I’ve been aware of things like headlines and white space but never looked at it as overall design. Thanks for shifting me to my next level of awareness of its importance, and for doing it with such grace and humour.

  30. The easiest way to make me stop reading anything is to type everything as one big block of text, especially online. Short paragraphs and bullets make it easier to focus and create visual organization.

  31. Hashim Warren :

    I haven’t thought about design like this before. Thanks Pamela.

  32. @ShaneR, I would say that I’ve never seen a really readable and eye-friendly light type on dark ground, either in print or on screen, except for treatments that are just a few words. (It can be quite good for logos and headlines, for example, because it’s very eye-catching.)

    I’m not saying there is no possible such combination, but most of us are probably not going to discover it. Too often people mistakenly think they need to do something more “original.” But originality in design needs to serve the design problem (for us that would be to present our content in an appealing and readable way).

    I’ve seen several blogs done by graphic designers with light type on a dark background, and I read for about 30 seconds before getting annoyed and leaving. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think it is.

    @Mike, I know this will sound like an ad :) but that’s what I’ve always liked about Thesis. It looks good out of the box without tons of design help. The type spacing and site proportions are set up so a design ignoramus like me doesn’t need to do much to make it look appealing and to serve my content well.

  33. Really great post here Pamela. :)

    I try to break my articles up with bullets, quotes, and when I can find good ones – images.

    I just recently redesigned my blog, and I tried to do whatever I could to make a post look as appealing as possible. I use big images in the featured post, used a nice font for the headline and I think the visual appeal of my articles is a lot better now.

  34. Jurgen Estanislao :

    Great post Pamela!

    Very concise and chock-full of vital information. In general, the mindset has been something I’v been pushing for in our company.

    Cheers!

  35. Sonia, I agree: it’s all about readability, and any design decisions should be made with that end goal in mind.

    It’s not sexy for a designer to talk about readability, but I help businesses who want people to read what they publish or promote. We’re doing a disservice if we design in a way that makes information difficult to interact with.

  36. Thanks for the reminder.
    Readers attention should be on the king (content). Don’t let design take that away.

  37. Great post Pamela. Concise and informative.

    Regarding Dumb mistake #2: It’s hard to read…

    Typography is so important in any design. The basics of spacing along with typeface choice/format can really make the difference between a user-friendly, appealing design and one which is tiring to absorb whether or not the content is great.

    A good resource for stripping your content down into a structure which can be ‘understood’ before the text is even read is Michael Twyman’s ‘Typography Without Words’. Look it up :)

  38. G’day Pamela,
    “Always go for readability.” This should be printed in large letters–serif, upper and lower case of course–on the wall of everyone who writes stuff for reading on the web.
    I first got involved in direct mail over 15 years ago. A pre-eminent Aussie direct mail guru put it this way.
    “Find the biggest selling newspaper in your area: newspaper not magazine. Practice writing the same way. That newspaper sells well for lots of reasons. One of them is because it’s easy to read.”
    And you and Sonia are right. “Reverse” printing, white on black or light on dark, kills readership stone dead.
    I could go on forever about the way web marketers defy the essentials of writing readable copy. But i wont. I’m off to throw another prawn on the barbie.
    Regards

    Leon

  39. Also, a lot of these over the top design elements use javascript, and if you are not too careful they will slow down loading speeds to a crawl. Following the KISS philosophy is the best bet when it comes to design.

    Oh, and using web safe fonts like Verdana or Tahoma that look the same in any OS-browser combo is a smart idea

  40. Pamela, I love your post. Quality conent is key to online success but the copy must be easy to read. It’s incredible how many designers miss that point.

  41. A great article. I think all too often design is the one element left undiscussed when talking about what makes a blog work. You’ve very nicely filled that gap.

  42. Great post. The advice about the headlines and subheads standing out from the rest of the text is something I never paid attention to before. I will use it in my next post. Thanks!

  43. What a cool post thanks for sharing.

  44. Hi guys,

    This was a very informative and great blog. I love the picture of the toad. Thanks for posting.

    Kind regards,

    Sam
    X

  45. Your post serves by example. Thanks for articulating helpful points so concisely. I’ve got a growing edge as a doctor blogger; detail drags down the read yet there’s a fine line between too little and too much detail for health topics. I continue the study.

    I like your idea about sidebars, I haven’t used them and I’m going to try them. I think they’d work well for my content.

    Thanks,
    Cynthia Bailey MD
    http://www.otbskincare.com/blog/

  46. You know why I insist on doing my own graphics even though I know a 14 year old could do better? Because I’m here – and I’m doing it. There is a huge process to find someone to create something graphically for a blog.

    1. Find someone you trust knows what they’re doing.
    2. Make sure you can trust them with $ – and they’re ok with half up front, half upon completion.
    3. Convey your idea to them in a way that you’re not going to be shocked and awwwed with what they give you in return. If you don’t explain very, very well what you want you don’t get what you want. How could you? It’s a tough thing to nail the first few times. I’ve never nailed it. Hence my continued do it myself.
    4. The wait for something. I can’t wait – I need it now.
    5. I’ll get bored of whatever they gave me in about 3 months and have to go through the process again anyway.
    6. I’m learning something by doing it myself. Not really – I don’t think I’ve learned a new PhotoShop skill in 9 years… but I tell myself I’m learning and I’ll be able to do it competently in another few tries.

    God I hate outsourcing anything to do with design.

  47. Mike, you are exactly the type of person I am trying to reach with my blog. I believe wholeheartedly that people can learn the basics of design so they can do it themselves – or most of it, anyway.

    We all work with computers that have fantastic design capabilities built right into them, and if you know the rules, you and anyone else can create nice-looking materials.

    I’ve worked with many, many clients who have been burned by the designer(s) they’ve worked with before me, so I know the outsourcing nightmare you’re relating happens all too often.

    But when you take it into your own hands, your stuff gets produced by the person who cares the most about it: you! Kudos to you for doing it yourself. More power to you.

  48. great post :) I think you just need to find a happy medium between both content and design…then you have cracked it.

  49. Important, that readable type.

    And don’t try to squeeze too much in! We are not only busy, but old and don’t like to admit we need glasses.

  50. This is what should be the basis for making a website. Sometimes images we display have a large capacity with high resolution, but we want the image to appear properly. Good content does not necessarily produce great web.

  51. I loved this post! Is Courier New easy to read? I love to use it, because of the vintage feel, and because it is standard type fare for screenplays, but now I wonder if I’m alienating part of my audience.

  52. Hi Nicole,

    Here’s my opinion: it’s hard to read.

    I can see why you want to use it, but I wonder if you could use it in headlines and subheads only? That way you get the vintage look you want to emulate for some of the most-read copy on your site, but the longer blocks of text would be easier to digest.

  53. Thanks for the response, Pamela – and for taking the time to respond. I really appreciate the advice!

  54. Great article! I wish more people had this information before the started their projects. Too many people today consider themselves a designer just because they can put a page together in Word or they can create a website, but the design of the page is what really communicates the message. If your page looks cheesy, so will your product, service or message. A well designed page communicates so much more, so it is worth the time, effort and money to be sure you are saying what you mean to say.

  55. Some interesting points! Will be reviewing your content after reading this.

  56. Clean designs and great content will always win in my book. One of the things I love about using Thesis is that it is easy to keep clean and neat for you to highlight the content.

  57. Great advice to keep from making those dumb costly mistakes.

  58. I like this website. It has good content. And I really like the simplicity of its design. The reply button below each comment invites me to comment.

    I am thinking of this website while reading your article. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Pamela.

  59. To summarize this article: use a minimalist design, and try not to do anything stupid. ;-)

  60. Great article. These are some very common mistakes. The solutions are pretty easy to implement and have everything working well again. Thanks for sharing.

  61. You’ve left me with just a thought here…and the only thing that comes to mind is “Interesting” lol. By: Seo Optimization

  62. I wish more sites would have a serif letter. Old Times New Roman, or Georgia. But I guess I’m one of the few people who feel this way. It’s just that much easier to read a long stretch of text. No?

  63. Same here. Most of the types available really are not very different from each other, and not that readable. Nice large clean type please!