Archive for September, 2011

Blogiversary IV: 9 Blog Coding & Site Design Tips

Since a bunch of you have requested it, I’m going to attempt to dole out some technical blogging / coding advice. I’ll admit I’ve been very hesitant to write this because I am very much an amateur myself. Asking me for web design advice feels a bit like asking your waiter to teach you how to cook. I can tell you the basic ingredients of what we’re serving, but things might get hairy if I’m asked to put together a menu. It’s really all just trial and error and a decent amount of googling around for answers. Note: yes, the following visual is a coding joke, hence the brackets.

Now that I’ve let my insecurities do a lot of the talking, I will say that I’ve mustered up enough technical prowess to design and operate this blog (of course Sherry has input when it comes to the look/function of things) with virtually no outside assistance (the only exception being our host’s customer service line and the occasional help from a friend or two when we can’t figure out why the heck we’re crashing). So I must be doing something right not totally wrong. But if you’re reading this as someone more amateur than me, please take my advice with a grain of salt. And if you’re more of an expert, please try not to laugh. And feel free to offer up other helpful suggestions for anyone looking for technical/coding tips.

With that said, let’s dive in.

MY BACKGROUND: This blog wasn’t my first dance with coding. Computer Science was a required course at my high school, so at age 15 I was taught C++ and a smidge of HTML (try if your high school wasn’t as geeky as mine). I don’t remember a lick of C++, but it did give me the basic understanding of how code works (and, more importantly, how it doesn’t work when something as little as one end bracket is missing). I used my minimal HTML skills to throw together some casual websites in high school (like this hilariously-embarrassing and hilariously-still-available Geocities site for my high school band French Horn section) but was never formally taught more complex languages like CSS, Javascript and who knows what else. So if it’s not already obvious that I’ve got some geek in my DNA, this photo should make it abundantly clear. Why yes my Dilbert sweatshirt does say “Technology: No Place For Wimps.”

THE CODE-FREE WAY: The beauty of blogging platforms like WordPress, Blogger, and Tumblr is that you don’t have to know any code to use ‘em. Most of them make it easy enough that if you can write an email and upload a photo, you can blog. And that’s exactly how we started. We spent our first five months on a free account (screenshot below) where the extent of our “blog design” was sizing a header photo. So if you absolutely fear coding and designing, this may be the way to go for you.

BE FIND A GOOD HOST: We moved to a self-hosted blog in February of 2008 in order to have more design flexibility. That meant having a find our own host, meaning that our site no longer lived for free on WordPress’ servers but instead on a server that we found and paid for ourselves. We went to the WordPress-recommended BlueHost (that’s an affiliate link) who charged less than $30 a year at the time. Our site lived on a shared server with about 99 other small blogs (meaning that other sites lived there with us, which is why it was so affordable) for about a year. Until we grew too big (i.e. regularly crashed the entire server… taking all 99 other sites down with us… oops). So BlueHost gave us the boot and we did a fair amount of research and landed at LiquidWeb (that’s an affiliate link), where we have our own dedicated server and some great customer support. It’s a far cry from that $30 a year price that we started with (try adding two zeros), but it’s all part of the deal when you’re as fortunate as we are to grow like we have.

OH YEAH, HOSTING IMAGES TOO: When we switched to LiquidWeb, we took some advice from others and also decided to host our images elsewhere – which reduces the load on one single server and can defray some of the cost. We briefly tried Flickr and Photobucket (since they were free or nearly-free, and we’re cheap) but after several complaints about those sites being blocked at certain workplaces (not that any of you read blogs at work, right?) we decided to transfer to a paid host: Amazon S3 (which we saw some other larger sites using successfully). Over time our number of photos grew along with our traffic… and so did our cost for image hosting (this sounds crazy to type, but we pay tens of thousands of dollars a year just to host our images). But again, hosting expenses are just part of the whole full-time-blogging thing, and we’re always grateful to “see” you guys… so we wanted as many people as possible to be able to access our pictures. You know, since they’re kind of the best part.

ESTABLISH A THEME: A theme is what dictates the look of your blog (colors, layout, fonts, etc). WordPress has lots of built-in themes, or you can go find your own (they’re not always free, though). And if you’re really ambitious, you can make your own. But I’m not that ambitious, so we just found a theme that we liked and tried our hand at customizing it. Ours is a free theme that’s called “WP Premium” and we learned of it through Nicole at Making It Lovely. Our two sites are examples of how one theme can be customized to create two totally different and unique looks (we both still use the same template with different customizations). So find a theme that has the basic functions that you’d like in your blog – something with a certain number of columns, a specific kind of navigation, a traditional look that you like, or even a magazine-style theme (like Layla & Kevin’s blog) and start there (that way there’s no coding from scratch involved).

STYLING: If your theme is like ours, it relies on Cascasding Style Sheets (aka CSS). It’s a file (or files) that dictate how your site looks when it loads. So rather than me having to manually code our blog titles to be a certain size and color each time, the theme knows to reference my style sheet each time and follow those guidelines. Our theme has two style sheets, one that guides the size and placement of elements on the page (i.e. make the sidebar this many pixels wide and this far to the right of the main content box) and one that dictates images and color (i.e. all embedded links are blue). I didn’t know CSS before blogging so my technique to customizing the style of our blog was basically “change some code, see what happens.” A lot of times it would have wonky results (“woah, the menu bar suddenly disappeared”), but gradually I figured out the cause and effect of my coding tweaks. And slowly but surely I worked towards a custom look. There are some great CSS lessons at if you want to learn some coding specifics.

AN IMAGE IS WORTH A THOUSAND CODES: Obviously not everything on a website is number and code. Actual graphics (like a headers or sidebar icons) are a big part of the design too. Giving advice on Photoshop is a whole ‘nother topic, so I leave it at this: get yourself some good photo editing software, specifically one that makes it easy to adjust colors and sizes (in pixels, specifically) and save in a variety of formats (like web-reduced JPG and transparency capable GIFs or PNGs). Obviously we’re fans of Photoshop (we own Adobe Creative Suite), but we hear that sites like Picnik are good alternatives. Beyond that, just be sure you’ve got a way to upload your images. Your host may have built-in FTP software or you can Google for a version to download.

TRIAL, ERROR, AND GOOGLE: The “change some code, see what happens” is pretty much my best advice for coding as an amateur. Sometimes the easiest way to understand what a bit of code does is to alter it, and observe the consequence. Just be sure to save the original code somewhere so you’re able to undo it easily. When I get really stuck, I turn to Google. Just Googling the mystery code (and I mean literally copying the code into the search box) can turn up some enlightening results – message boards, support forums and even sometimes literal definitions of the code in question). WordPress itself has some great forums and even a Codex that breaks down what all of their code and functions mean, including some tips on altering them.

PLUG IT IN, PLUG IT IN: You can also amp up the function / customization of your site with Plug-Ins, which are free add-ons to a WordPress blog that you can usually download from right within the WordPress dashboard. They can add cool widgets to your sidebar, increase the functionality of your posts, and even help your site run faster (like our much relied upon W3 Super Cache plug-in which keeps us from crashing all day, every day). But plug-ins can also bog down your site too (like when yesterday’s polling plug-in overwhelmed our site to the point of ahh-we’re-craaashing four frustrating times in a row). So it’s always preferable to hard-code these types of functions where possible (if we knew that plug-in would fail ahead of time we would have tried to hard-code something else). If hard-coding is too hard (har-har), just learn to live with less of them (the ones that really matter) to avoid gray-hair-inducing emergencies like unexplained loading errors and full-on site crashes.

GET HELP: At some point you’ll get stuck. Everyone does, no matter how brilliant they are. So it’s always good to have some places to turn. These are my favorites:

So, there you have it. Hopefully that was helpful for those of you who were interested. I’m sure there are lots of specific questions floating around that I didn’t cover (my answer would probably be “try changing some code and see what happens, or google it!” since that’s usually my go-to method). But again, if you’re an expert – feel free to weigh in with advice for anyone interested! Wait, but one question first: who had a super sweet Dilbert sweatshirt like mine? Come on, I know somebody did. And I hope you also took the opportunity to rock it with stonewashed jeans and a bowl haircut a la Ninth Grade John.



Blogiversary IV: Goal Tending

It’s time for some annual goal declaring (because nothing lights a fire under your arse like a big ol’ public proclamation). Let’s do this thang.

Goal #1: Find Balance- We mentioned that we were aiming for more balance in our lives during this 2011 resolutions post. We basically said that we’re going to try our darndest not to fall into the trap of putting all of our time, money, and energy into the house to the point that we have no life, no savings, and Clara is trapped in our casa for her entire childhood (we actually haven’t been on a big vacation since our honeymoon four and a half years ago other than some low key road trips and family beach weeks). Well, we’re bringing it up again because we need to be better about it.

We’ve had a very busy and exciting year (John came on full time, we moved, Clara is running and talking, we’re writing columns for BabyCenter and Do It Yourself magazine along with a 260+ page book, we’ve tackled tons of house projects, we redesigned the site, etc). But what has slipped to make room for all those amazing opportunities is recharging away-from-the-computer time. Since the internet is 24/7, we’re still plugged in on nights and weekends and even on vacations and over the holidays. Heck I had a baby last year and didn’t even miss a post. So one reason that we started Young House Life was to remind ourselves to take a minute to actually live and have fun and be spontaneous and step.away.from.the.laptop.

Goal #2: Not drone on in every post. This actually might be the key to accomplishing more of the balance that we crave above. See, some of our favorite posts don’t have 2,000 words and 20 pics. We even admit that we skim each other’s posts when they’re too long. So we know everyone at home probably doesn’t read every word of every post that we write either. The point is that sometimes short and sweet is a-ok. And not every post needs to be a novel. Sometimes an update is quick, or we buy something simple that we want to share, or something funny happens and we catch it on video and slap it up. That’s the joy of blogging. Not everything has to be super polished and verbose. Ooh, I just used the word verbose. Ten points? Anyone?

Goal #3: Bring back before & after inspiration. A year ago we used to share Reader Redesigns twice a week along with two weekly giveaway posts (one to announce the giveaway and a second one to announce the winner) and a little poll post on Fridays that we called a Burning Question (about something decor-related, like if you prefer painted cabinets or wood ones, or if you’re a wall-to-wall carpet person or into tile or hardwood floors). But at our last blogiversary we realized that five posts a week about not-our-house stuff was really taking our blog away from the good ol’ DIY diary feel (which is definitely how it started, and something that we wanted to maintain).

So during our last blogiversary we decided to turn the focus back to our house (since we had a big move ahead of us, and a lot to talk about). We eliminated those Friday Burning Questions, along with our weekly follow up giveaway winner post (we just post that info as a p.s. at the bottom of another post), and we bid a fond farewell to both of our weekly Reader Redesigns (we invited folks to share their before & afters on our Facebook page instead). We didn’t miss the giveaway winner post or our weekly Burning Question, but we definitely mourned the loss of Reader Redesigns since they’re so inspiring and full of eye candy and ideas. So we’ve decided to bring them back. Not two a week, and maybe not even once a week – but they’re going to be making regular appearances again. There’s just too much amazing stuff that can leave us all inspired/encouraged. So if you have any awesome transformations to submit for consideration (like the stunning card-catalog-turned-buffet seen below), just send them to

Goal #4: Be Secure In Our Own Bloghood. Sure, we’d love for every single person who drops by to love every single one of our 2,000+ posts, but we’d also love a goose chihuahua that lays golden eggs. The truth is that in putting our lives out there for everyone to see, we have to be ok with not everyone loving everything, or even anything. And in turn they’ll hopefully understand that projects, decor choices, and post-writing is as subjective as favorite foods and hairstyles. So there’s not really one right way to do it.

This is just our personal DIY diary of sorts (the good, the bad, the ugly, and the blissfully mundane). One day we’re gutting a bathroom & one day we’re organizing a junk drawer or even talking about breastfeeding (tangents definitely occur). Strangely enough, four years of that “blogging formula” is exactly what got us here. Over four million hits a month?! We’re humbled and so very thankful. My brain actually threatens to explode when I think about it (I pretend I’m writing to ten people to combat blog stage fright). So sure, some folks might do things differently if this were their blog, but that’s the beauty of blogging: everyone can do it in their own way.

Goal #5: Be Grateful. Sometimes the stress of a harder-than-we-thought project or 150 pending comments to respond to can make us momentarily forget that this is a dream job. Because as much as we love what we do, at the end of a day it’s still a job. We do it because we love it (heck, it was born from pure never-thought-we’d-make-a-dime passion), but we also currently rely on it to feed our family – so there’s definitely pressure sometimes (as anyone who runs their own business will tell ya). So this goal is more of a mental shift than anything else. Whenever we’re feeling overwhelmed by looming projects or mounting comments or magazine assignments and book chapters to complete, we just want to remember to stop, breathe, and remind ourselves that we’re living the dream (corny but true). So in those oh-crap-I’m-stressing moments we just have to think about how geeky giddy we are over this amazing opportunity that has somehow materialized (no one is more surprised about where we have ended up than we are – and we lay awake in bed at night perma-smiling and excitedly chattering about our next project). Life is good. Even when it’s busy and full of chaos. We are oh so grateful.

Goal #6: Try New Things. Whatever they are. Maybe it’s just having an open mind about some weird half-baked decorating idea that pops into our heads. Or embarking on some other new adventure like House Crashing or Window Shopping (who the heck knows what that could be). With our book coming out next fall we imagine that will open up a ton of new (aka: potentially scary) experiences for us (starting with a bunch of photoshoots in the next few months for hundreds of secret projects that will be photographed). So we just want to be open to those new (aka: potentially scary) experiences. And try not to fear them or dread them or turn into a big ol’ ball of stress. I guess this goes hand in hand with being grateful. We want to remember to try new things and take chances and be spontaneous (all of which are what got us here in the first place).

So there they are. Six probably-won’t-all-be-accomplished-but-we’ll-try-our-darndest goals for year five of blogging our pants off (figuratively speaking). While we’re on the goal tending topic, we also like to annually revisit the prior year’s goals to see how we did.

You can read them a bit more in depth right here, but we thought we’d just summarize the ones from last year in bullets to evaluate our progress:

Last Year’s Goal #1: Move On - This goal was all about moving into a new house and enjoying it and documenting our adventures and projects and tribulations, which we definitely did. Yay. The verdict: Mission accomplished.

Last Year’s Goal #2: Loosen Up - This goal was about feeling less machine-like and blogging in a looser more real-time format (we were doing projects so far in advance that things sat in the hopper for up to two weeks before we could share them) so we could get back to posting things as they happened. Now things usually go up a day or two after they’re done (just because editing pics and post writing takes some time). So we definitely accomplished the less-lag-time thing. Score! But we also mentioned getting back to the balance of long meaty posts interspersed with quick updates and small real-life details that weren’t 2,000 words long (sometimes short and sweet beats heavy and wordy, so we wanted to get back to a nice balance of both). The verdict: Still gotta work on that. Hence goal #2 this year.

Last Year’s Goal #3: Get Real - In the first year of blogging we shared ordinary in-progress and spur-of-the-moment stuff all the time (like this, this, this, this and this), but somehow we fell off. So we couldn’t wait to get back to chronicling those real & random moments between before & after (you know, the stuff that you don’t get to see on 30 minute makeover shows). This year we definitely kept it real (sharing messy house tours, fridge before & afters, and even a cloth diaper update) but a lot of the fun off-the-cuff posts that we linked to as inspiration were quick and random (everything doesn’t have to be 20 photos long and full of wordy breakdowns). The verdict: 50% accomplished. Still gotta work on tossing things up that are light and spur-of-the-moment like the good ol’ days.

Now we’re turning the love train in your direction. We appreciate you all so much and thank you violently profusely for dropping in on us. Without you guys our goal would be: get back into the advertising thing because we’d be out of a job. Haha. All in all we can’t believe where we are four years after starting a tiny blog for friends and family members to watch our little kitchen makeover back in 2007. Life is crazy like that. But I better stop waxing poetic about the whole who-woulda-thought-we’d-be-here thing. We could talk about how shockingly random our little blog’s evolution has been for days, but this post is already 1,819 words. Looks like we’ll have to keep working on the old “short and sweet” aspiration. Is anyone really surprised?

Psst- First image found here and last image found here (without our heads on them of course, we added those). Oh and that cute photo of the bean was taken by Katie B.

Psssst- We announced this week’s big $500 West Elm gift card winner. Click here to see if it’s you.