Building a Personal Brand
More than 15 years ago I read somewhere an article about how every person will be in the future their own brand 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 till today:
You can’t prevent people find things about you on the internet you don’t want them to find, but by curating your own 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 some embarrassing photos appeared after HR researched the candidate. Better curate your content carefully.
Even people with high alertness to privacy can often not prevent other people from posting things about them without their knowledge. How easy it is to find university project work, or family and friend connections by just 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 why I started curating my content years ago. The advantages are visible to me now: Not only are my domains very valuable in regards to SEO find-ability and ranking, but I also landed a bunch of interesting projects. I sold licenses for multiple photos, wrote an article for a print magazine, work by me was exhibited in a gallery, and I worked as a consultant for two TV documentaries, to name a few. I got into contact with hundreds of interesting 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 easily, 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 an around 50,000 unique visitors per month (I don’t use site analytics anymore, those are a few year old numbers).
I never had consistent personal branding before; I used different designs, different logos, 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. In recent days I use it less often and only sparingly around my websites (in the Favicon and in social media preview banners).
In 2017 I became unhappy with my personal 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 very, very, very deep and 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 also read everything from Kenya Hara and a lot of other books.
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.
I got a lot of positive feedback for the new design and decided to keep it for a longer time (this time really). I’ll make adjustments over time for sure, but I don’t plan to change the design anytime soon. I love how some famous web developers like Jeremy Keith keep the same design since (probably) the beginning of the 2000s.
Same, Same, but Different
In November 2021 I fell victim to the Diderot effect. It was 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, because he always found that next to his new things, the old things looked bad and needed to be replaced, too.
As I mentioned, I own two other websites: A website about the Ninja (my oldest website) and a photoblog. Both designs looked ugly compared to my new website. I planned to replace both designs in 2022, but then one day I thought
Why do I need to create a new design for each website? And so 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 photoblog 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 huge photo on the homepage and each individual 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 really ugly. I had a chess pattern design in the background and weird illogical shadows pointing in different directions. The homepage featured my eBook 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 as a real index page 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 future 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 very nice font for the homepage: Sword Kanji. The real font is multiple megabytes huge because it includes all Japanese letters written with a brush. I extracted just my two Kanji and created a new tiny web font from it.
Translating to English
Whenever I showed my websites to somebody I had to say:
Sorry, that website is in German only, 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 own 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.