How to (and not to) Design for Advertising
July 8, 2013

In an economy where efficiency is an ever-increasingly valuable asset, wearing multiple hats is now more common than ever.


A growing number of small business owners find themselves not only functioning as the lead visionary and primary driver of progress for their company, but also taking on roles that are typically filled by specialists. In areas like accounting, sales, shipping, and sometimes even janitorial and maintenance duties, we find you can afford to “flub it” at times. That is to say, you can get away with unconventional filing systems or a bit of an awkward sales approach, you can ship something overnight if you’ve forgotten to send it early, and if the garbage cans get a little full or the hinge on the bathroom door squeaks, it isn’t the end of the world.


Your advertising, however, is an altogether different animal. While it can be tempting for a business owner to say, “I know my audience, and I know my product, there is no reason I can’t put together an effective ad as well as some mouse-jockey sitting at a computer all day,” it doesn’t take much looking around to spot business owners who have taken that exact approach.


You see the “signs” everywhere: misspelled words; blobs of text and graphics that are all the same color; masses of text and graphics all competing for attention; industry jargon that confuses a layperson; unattractive fonts; low-quality images… These factors all have one thing in common, the viewer’s first impression of your ad is that there’s something “off” about it. This is disastrous for many reasons.


Never underestimate how judgmental consumers can be.


Consumers are savvy. They need to be. With a nearly endless assault of advertisements thrown at them on a daily basis, individuals have learned to quickly and effectively filter out anything they immediately judge to be “spam” or otherwise inapplicable to them. Maybe your advertisement ISN’T spam. Maybe your product or service applies to them perfectly. Unfortunately, unless your ad makes it past that critical first “Garbage Filter,” your audience will often never even fully read your advertisement, let alone contact or purchase from you. Back buttons on browsers are hit, radio and television stations are changed, and gazes are averted.


Some business owners have realized this, but have gone in the wrong direction in an attempt to counter the resulting inattentiveness. Music in radio commercials is louder, sound effects are jarring, voices are more excited, colors are brighter, images are bigger, everything in the ad “pops”, yet the problem of an inattentive audience remains.


There is no replacement for experience.


Much of what goes into creating a truly effective advertisement cannot be conveyed within a blog post, or even gained by going to school for design. The simple fact is that creating a truly effective advertisement comes through trial and error, that is to say, experience. It takes perseverance and a commitment to understanding how your audience will take in an ad by dissecting how YOU take in an ad.


When you look at your competitor’s material (you should be), make your best effort to take off your Industry Hat and see the advertisement with fresh eyes. Use the information we’ll give you in this article to spot the pitfalls your competitors are encountering, and see if you can determine why they made the choices they did. Honestly critiquing their ads (they might be quite good) as well as your own (they might be quite bad), will help you to build an approach that makes it past that immediate Garbage Filter, and ultimately gets you much more bang for your advertising buck.


1. Less is more.


You’ve heard this before. Remember, though, that you are now dissecting how you take in information. To see how this works, consider the phrase, “less is more.” The phrase itself is only three little words, ten letters in all. Yet the effect this phrase has on your mind is astounding. When you read it, you immediately generate a picture in your mind. Maybe this image is of a minimal advertisement you’ve seen, or a conversation you’ve had in which this phrase was used. The point is that the phrase engages your imagination to either create something or remember something. As far as advertising goes, either of these activities is an absolutely invaluable interaction.


Any time an advertisement engages an individual’s mind in a positive way, it gains tremendous ground in the fight to make it past the Garbage Filter. The temptation, however, is to engage, then immediately inundate. “Great!” you say, “I’ve got their attention by engaging their imagination! Now, I can tell them about all my specials coming up in the next month, give them my website address, physical address, PO Box, phone number, fax number, cell phone number, and put in some explosions (for excitement), pictures of the company dog, etc. etc.”


Which makes this a perfect time to move on to…


2. Less is more.


That’s right. This phrase is so good, it’s in here twice.


If you are reading this, it’s probable that your advertisements are often meant to be a first impression. Whether this is for your company as a whole, or a new product, service, or offering is irrelevant. Avoid attempting to utilize your advertisement as a salesperson. The ultimate goal of any advertisement is to spur the viewer to engage further. That engagement may be calling you or visiting your website. That engagement may be visiting your location or event. After you’ve gotten their attention, focus a laser beam on conveying that method of further engagement.


Using too many methods of engagement is as pointless as using none at all. Be honest with yourself. Are you attempting to jam too much information into what will likely be a 3-5 second interaction? A good rule of thumb is this: If you cannot physically speak all of the information contained in your ad (including describing images out loud) in the amount of time an individual will typically be viewing your ad, you’ve got too much. If you’ve saved your contact information for last, you can probably already guess what that means. Your phone number, website, or company name will never even be listened to or seen, let alone remembered or used.


3. Image choice matters.


Imagery is one of the most misused of all the devices of design. Low quality or poorly staged photographs distract from the actual content of the image itself. Images taken from somewhere else (“Just take something from Google,”) are dangerous for several entirely different reasons. First of all, your audience may likely recognize the image, which erodes at your credibility. Secondly, search engines are increasingly able to identify stolen images, and will penalize websites found to be using them.


Look at the images in major advertisements, and then look at the ones you are planning on using. If they don’t stack up, you’re probably better off leaving them out entirely. Unfortunately, this is an area where there simply is no replacement for a professional. Snapping a photo of the front of your establishment with your iPhone is never going to go over as well as hiring a photographer to take a professional photograph.


Remember that advertisements are about projecting an image of your company. What image does a low quality or stolen photograph convey?


4. If you are not advertising a circus, don’t use a circus layout.


If you look at enough designs put together by beginners, you’ll notice a common phenomenon that can only be described as a “circus layout.” A circus layout occurs when many different portions of a design are attempting to demand your attention all at once. Text laid out at different angles, shadows and contrasting colors, and large variations in text size are all symptoms of this. It typically happens when the individual designing the ad is ignoring points 1 and 2.


Don’t over think it. The eye naturally wants to read left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Lay your text out that way. If your ad is going to be light on copy (good idea!), make sure you are creating a path for the eye to follow. There should be a clear beginning and end to that path. If you are certain your content is engaging enough, you can have several points of interest along the way, but do yourself a favor and recognize that much of the information will be skimmed over. You cannot combat this by attempting to force the eye to stop where it does not naturally want to.


A good way to avoid creating a circus layout is to make a list of all the points of information contained in your ad, from most to least important. The most important should be the first thing you see when looking at the ad. Remember that in order to get your audience to consume your ad at all, you must first engage them. Your “hook” needs to stand out easily from the rest of your ad. However, this doesn’t always mean that it needs to be enormous or brightly colored or some other over-the-top method of grabbing attention. You can often achieve the same effect by doing a small amount of embellishment on that one portion while avoiding the temptation to embellish the things that are simply not as important.


5. Color has certain powers over emotion.


You’ve experienced this before. An ad for baby products will almost always contain soft pastels, you can’t get excited about them and you don’t need to… The emotion being invoked is one of calm (something all new parents pray for just a moment of). The ad provides this and thus extends the feeling to their product. An ad for a car will use dark, “strong” colors that convey solidity or quality. Ads for beverages will almost always combine “hot” and “cool” colors in order to first make you thirsty, and then provide that sense of relief on the container itself.


Are you advertising a product? Use the colors of that product. Are you advertising a service? Use the colors of the items you utilize. Are you advertising a technology? Use colors (and amounts) that relate to your audience’s experience with that technology.


The moral of the story is this: There are few ways to do advertising right, but a myriad of ways to do it wrong.


This article is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the factors involved with advertising design, but if you keep these things in mind when designing your ads, you just may avoid creating things that look like a non-designer created them. While the best thing to do would be to hire a designer with a strong portfolio or do business with providers that have design departments, the next best thing is to be honest with yourself and realistic about your audience (and their attention span). If you can keep yourself from panicking and throwing the kitchen sink into your design by clicking every button your design program has, you can create effective ads with simple messages that will bring your audience to your door.


Good luck!


Are you a non-designer and find yourself needing to create advertising? What are some ideas or approaches you’ve found to be useful? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear from you!