Wednesday, January 04, 2012

writers and branding: an interview with Julia Stoops

I am very pleased to introduce my colleague Julia Stoops, who not only designed the latest iteration of, but the first one as well. Julia and I have worked together on branding and web projects for a variety of artists and organizations over the years, and I’m thrilled that she agreed to talk about visual identity, and how writers can benefit from giving some thought to establishing a brand look and feel. Tonight she’ll join other writers for a reading at Portland’s Blackbird Wine Shop.

According to your tagline, you work with “changemakers” and “cultural innovators,” why do you like working with people and companies that fit that description?
I love working with people and organizations that are forward looking and inspired to do something innovative online. "Changemaker" and "cultural innovator" are pretty broad categories. They cover foundations and nonprofits that make direct, tangible contributions to social justice issues. They also cover creative professionals, such as writers, architects, musicians, and visual artists. Then there are the harder to define "special projects," such as ones I’ve done for research organizations. For instance, the site we made for In essence we created an online museum for a huge private collection of antique needlework samplers. It was exciting to come up with new ways in which these textiles, made by young girls hundreds of years ago, could be shared and analyzed online with a global audience.

How is your approach to web design informed by your career in visual art and your perspective as a writer?
I’m glad for the visual art background. Color theory, principles of composition, visual symbol, and art history all inform my aesthetic choices when I'm designing websites. And my time as a college teacher, designing and teaching new courses, gave me skills in creating systems of information communication where the parts can be independent but they also fit together to make a whole. And learning the craft of creative writing grounded me in the importance of the story, the big picture of the client's communication. I'm always thinking, how is this client’s story going to come across to others, particularly to the client's target audiences? And while I don’t do copywriting for clients, I have a facility for establishing the big picture of the brand and maintaining that vision through the months-long design/content/build process.

What do you see as the biggest mistake writers often make with their websites?
Many writers ignore the importance of establishing a visual brand, and their resulting websites look dull and uninteresting. They get done on the cheap, and the result is mediocre. Assuming a writer's work is wonderful, why promote it in a mediocre way?

Why should writers think about visually “branding” themselves? They’re writers, shouldn’t their words just speak for themselves?
The idea that writers' words should speak for themselves is, alas, not tenable in the 21st century. If it were true, books would still have the featureless covers they did a hundred years ago. Books remain a strong medium for entertainment and education, but getting your book noticed and bought means facing the reality that it is competing with film, television, podcasts, video games, and more. Information is cheap – it's attention that has become expensive. Well known writers with established fan bases can (unfortunately) afford to have mediocre websites, whereas lesser known writers have to work harder to stand out. The reassuring thing is that going for a strong visual brand does not detract from your writing. It's not like you have to change your work or make aesthetic compromises. A strong visual brand that is aligned with your vision can only enhance the perception of your work.

You just launched a website for your novel, Parts Per Million. Why did you choose to do a “novel” website instead of an “author” website?
Hmmm, good question! The honest answer is probably that I don't quite think of myself as an "author" yet. Sure, I write, but I'm not going to be comfortable with "author" until I'm published. Until then I'm an artist/designer who one day followed a crazy compulsion to write down a story that was stuck in her head, and after ten years of refinement, it’s ready to go out into the world.

Also, author websites make more sense when the author has more than one work. Or they teach writing or write book reviews or participate in some other tangible literary activity. And although I am working on a second novel, it's not ready to be talked about in detail. So at the moment I'm really just a one trick pony. It’s a big, complex trick, so it seemed better to make a website about the trick than about the pony.

And besides, there’s already a "portal" to my various other websites at ;-)

Where is it all heading in the artistic website realm? More DIY? Less? Are you worried that you’ll be phased out as more and more laypeople have access to the tools of your trade?
DIY web technologies have revolutionized the ability for creative professionals with low budgets to achieve a web presence. It's become crucial to have a place of one's own on the web, to the point where even a mediocre website is far better than no website.

But I'm not worried about being phased out, for three reasons. Firstly, while everybody has access to DIY technologies such as WordPress, Carbonmade, and Other People's Pixels, what these technologies give you is templates. If you're fine with templates, then I say go for it. But if you want to customize your site, then you need to get past a steep learning curve to gain creative control over your site's structure, features, and design. I've known creative professionals who've made their own custom sites with a great deal of pulling out of hair and gnashing of teeth. If you have lots of time, and no money, then that is your path.

The second reason is that the DIY tools are just mechanical tools. They do nothing to help you bounce ideas around, identify priorities, clarify your mission, vision, goals, target audiences, long-term measurables, aesthetics, symbolism, fonts, color palette, and all the other details that do into brand development. There will always be a need for this kind of expertise.

The third reason I don't fear being phased out is that these days I do more brand development and design work with organizations than with individuals. With their multiple stakeholders, dependent deadlines, and complex goals, organizations don't want to soak up employee time learning DIY tools. They often also want a full service design agency, and they understand the value of having an outside perspective on what they do. Collaborating with an agency like Blue Mouse Monkey makes it easier for them to communicate their mission and value to the community.

Julia Stoops, a native of New Zealand, is a recipient of an Oregon Arts Commission Fellowships for Literature and Visual Art. She has experience in alternative radio news journalism and anti-war activism, as well as a background teaching media studies, art and philosophy.
Currently Julia runs the branding and web design company she founded, Blue Mouse Monkey. She is an alum of Portland's popular Pinewood Table writing critique group, and has just completed a novel, PARTS PER MILLION. 


  1. Hi, Suzy and Julia. Thank you for this. At some point I hope to go from seeing myself essentially as a blogger to an author at which point I'll have to decide how to take the blog content and add it to a book website or an author's site. This interview gives me a lot to think about.

    I love Julia's book website. The character sketches, excerpts and visuals bring the characters to life.

  2. Thanks, Lisa. Yeah, I thought her premise to give Parts per Million its own website to profile the characters and offer some "value add" and context to the narrative was genius.

    If you check out her portfolio on blue mouse monkey, you'll see a site she made for author Scott Sparling that has a similar approach.


Thanks for commenting. If you have trouble posting a comment, let me know!