Building a Personal Brand
More than 15 years ago, I read somewhere an article about how every person will be their brand in the future and has to sell themselves to potential clients or employers. I don’t remember what the article said in detail or who wrote it, but one thing stuck to my mind until today:
You can’t prevent people to find things about you on the internet you don’t want them to find, but by curating your content you can make it easier for them to find the right things.
The author was right. I remember an applicant wasn’t hired for a developer position because embarrassing photos appeared after HR researched the candidate. Better curate your content carefully.
Even people with high alertness to privacy cannot prevent other people from posting things about them without their knowledge. It is easy to find university project work or family and friend connections by browsing for a few minutes. Experts can find out much more by looking into archives, searching reverse for images, or analyzing writing styles with AI to find other texts of the author.
This is the reason I started curating my content years ago. The advantages are visible to me now: Not only are my domains valuable regarding SEO find-ability and ranking, but I additionally landed several interesting projects. I sold licenses for multiple photos, wrote an article for a print magazine, work by me was exhibited in a gallery, and worked as a consultant for two TV documentaries, to name a few. I got into contact with hundreds of fascinating people who contacted me and recruiters regularly send me offers.
To build a personal brand on the internet, a domain is essential. Keep in mind that you can’t change it later without effort because the age of your domain is connected to how good you’ll be found.
I own three websites: stefanimhoff.de, imhoff.name (redirected to the former) and kogakure.de. My oldest website is 23 years old and has around 50,000 unique visitors per month (I don’t use site analytics anymore, those are a few years old numbers).
I never had consistent personal branding before; I used different designs, different logos, and different fonts on each website. The only “consistent” element was a bamboo theme on my website, kogakure.de, since 2002.
I started using a Japanese seal (落款, rakkan) an artist carved for me around 2010. In 2014, I developed it into a logo. Lately, I use it now less and sparingly around my websites (in the Favicon and social media preview banners).
In 2017, I became unhappy with my website. It wasn’t my taste (never was) and I couldn’t look at it anymore.
I decided to create a website that reflects my personality, my love for Japanese culture, Japanese philosophy, aesthetics, art, and design.
I researched long into the topic of Japanese aesthetics and read more than 15 books about Japanese design, colors, and aesthetics. I even created this mind-map to collect my research. I read classics like In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Reflections On Japanese Taste: The Structure of Iki by Kuki Shūzō. I additionally read everything from Kenya Hara and plenty of other books.
I researched Print Design, Editorial Design, and Book Design on various platforms like Bēhance, Pinterest, Dribbble, or Designspiration and collected hundreds of interesting designs.
New Website 2020/2021
After three years and 250 hours of work, I completed my new design.
I picked the Japanese art form of Shibui and wrote multiple articles about the inspiration process, the design, typography, typeface, color, logo, and icons, and the development process.
One year later, I made small design adjustments (a new font) and changed the technical basis from Gatsby to Eleventy. Eleventy made development much quicker, easier, and more fun.
I got a lot of positive feedback for the new design and decided to keep it for a longer time. I’ll make adjustments over time, but I don’t plan to change the design anytime soon. I love how a few famous web developers like Jeremy Keith keep the same design since the beginning of the 2000s.
My website is like my hub. I post my work, contact information, poetry, Sketchnotes, essays, and updates. I might add photos in the future.
Same, Same, but Different
In November 2021, I became a victim of the Diderot effect. It is named after Diderot’s essay Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown where he describes how acquiring new things lead to acquiring more new things. Diderot found that next to his new things, the old things looked bad and needed to be replaced until he was in massive debt.
As I mentioned, I own two other websites: A website about the Ninja (my oldest website) and a photo blog. Both designs looked ugly compared to my new website. I planned to replace both designs in 2022. But one day I thought
Why do I need to create a new design for each website? This is how the idea of a consistent brand reaching across all my websites was born.
I created designs for both websites, but they were based on the same Design System, using the same color palettes, grid, font, icons, and mood.
They look different enough to not be a copy but use a lot of the same code base. Visitors of two or more of my websites will immediately recognize they are based on the same design.
In December 2021, I finished the relaunch of my photo blog, Exploring Hamburg. It took less than three days of work to finish it.
The photo blog uses more of a design with photos as a central object, with a prominent giant photo on the homepage and each page.
I used a bluish accent color to symbolize the water of Hamburg.
Mid-January 2022 I started working on my bigger project: The relaunch of my oldest and most-visited website: kogakure.
The previous design was ugly. I had a chess pattern design in the background and weird, illogical shadows pointing in different directions. The homepage featured my e-book and links to different sections that never changed (due to the limitations of a static website).
I looked at the structure of my website and had to admit to myself that it was never a website, but an online book. This was the basic idea for the new design. I used the “index” page of the homepage as a book index, listing all chapters and sections.
This website took me around 14 days of occasional work to be completed.
I used again the recognizable bamboo illustration I created in 2006 in Adobe Illustrator and re-created it in 2015 in Affinity Designer.
A green accent color symbolized the Bamboo and leaves hidden in the website's name.
I used an editorial design like a photo frame to present my old, small illustrations and photos. I have a plan to re-create these illustrations as a vector graphic, but this is time-intensive work and I need to increase my illustration skills first.
I decided to go full Japanese and use the Kanji 木隠 (kogakure) as my page title. I use a nice font for the homepage: Sword Kanji. The complete font is multiple megabytes huge because it includes all Japanese letters written with a brush. I extracted my two Kanji and created a tiny new web font from them.
Translating to English
When I previously showed my websites to somebody I had to say:
Sorry, that website is in German, someday I’ll translate it. That day has come.
After 23 years, I finally created an English version of 木隠 to make it accessible to a large readership. Translating the website took another 14 days of work. I decided to build my multilingual setup in Eleventy, instead of using a plugin, to have more control. I found the interesting articles Multilingual sites with Eleventy and Language switcher for multilingual JAMstack sites which helped me find a solution on how to do it.
Thanks to this, it’s now possible to create translations for other languages. The whole website could even with the flip of a switch be mirrored in languages like Arabic or Hebrew.
Building a personal brand is fun and worth it. I extended the idea into print to design my CVs and a letter template. But the workload was massive, and I’m happy to be able to turn to my 50+ waiting books and 20+ waiting TV shows again.