Successful blogs usually have their own special voice. And so do successful communities, even if they’re made up of hundreds – or thousands – of different individuals.

But finding that voice isn’t always easy. Many communities form around a topic, but without any common culture holding them together they dissolve as soon as something better comes along.

So don’t make the mistake of wanting to please everybody. A strong voice might turn away some people, but it will make the ones who stay a lot more passionate about your community.

Design Matters…

A common way to express your voice is through design.

Designer News offers the perfect case study: although the site’s design might outwardly seem bare and minimalist, it’s filled with the kind of small details that designers appreciate.

As an example, some posts automatically get special badges when they include specific keywords. Showcase posts get the “Show DN” badge, the “iOS” keyword triggers a badge of the iconic turtleneck and glasses… and for a while, any posts mentioning “flat design” would get the special “beating a dead horse” badge.

Designer News’ colorful badges.

Designer News also lets its member create their own avatars through a simple in-browser pixel art editor. But the Designer News team went one step further by matching up avatar colors with specific criteria.

Where’s my “Wrote about DN in a community building guide” color?!

Reach 100 karma, and you’ll unlock blue. Reach 200, and you’ll get green. There’s even colors for attending real-life Designer News meet-ups.

Early on, we would spend our Fridays hacking on Designer News, so most of the time you would see discrete projects pop up, like the badges or the avatars. Both were meant as ways to add character to the site, and I think they do a good job at that.

Kelly Sutton, Designer News

All this contributes to a strong sense of community: getting an orange avatar on Designer News means something in a way that uploading a new Twitter profile pic simply doesn’t.

…Or Not

So what about communities like Hacker News or Reddit, who are often criticized for, shall we say, their lack of aesthetic sense? Well in some cases, “un-design” can be just as powerful to give a community its voice.

I think it would be an error to try to force the community culture you envisioned because you will end up alienating your users.

Justin Kan, The Drop

Hacker News’ bare-bones, 1998-style design conveys a strong sense of function over form: it’s not pretty but it works, and that’s what ultimately matters. So it’s no coincidence if Hacker News attracts a majority of technical, DIY hacker types. In this case, the medium and the message match up perfectly.

The same goes with Reddit. Its design might not look like much, but this simplicity makes it much easier for individual subreddits to customize their layout. Reddit values freedom and self-expression above all, and here too design (or the lack of it) serves to reinforce the community’s voice.

As much as you try to shape a community’s voice and culture, it will always arise organically. That being said the culture that arises depends a lot on the infrastructure you build for them. So in the end you build the infrastructure that you think will foster the type of community you want to have, but once you build the platform you lose control and the culture evolves naturally.

Justin Kan, The Drop


  • Find a way to spruce up your community’s design with a unique design element (logo, icon, animation, etc.).
  • Ask your most active users how they perceive your community’s voice. See if it matches up with what you expected.