How to fix a common ad design flaw

June 5, 2013

By John Foust
Ad Libs™ 

The Flaw: An advertiser is concerned, because her ad seems to blend in with the others on the page. She says, “There’s a lot of information in the ad, but it gets lost on the page.”

The Fix: The problem starts with her statement that “a lot of information” is a good thing. Like many advertisers, she thinks an ad should be noticed because it is loaded with information, but the opposite is true. A preponderance of information is usually synonymous with clutter. Cluttered ads get lost on the page.


5 tools that can help an ad break through the clutter

1. White space. An ad layout can be compared to a room in a house. Just because it’s possible to put a coffee table on top of a sofa doesn’t mean that’s a good idea. And just because you can overlap illustrations and copy blocks in an ad doesn’t mean that’s a smart tactic.

Just like a room should allow plenty of space to walk around the furniture, an ad should allow room for the reader’s eyes to navigate the elements.

White space equals drawing power. That usually means taking something out of the ad to make room for it.

2. Readable type. Here are some quick rules for print and online ads: Upper and lower case type is easier to read than all-caps. Sans serif headlines are generally bolder than serif headlines. In long copy, serif fonts are easier to read than sans serif fonts. Copy that is flush left (with an equal vertical margin on the left side) is easier to read than copy that is flush right.

3. Graphic hook. When everything in an ad has the same visual weight, it all blends together into one nondescript blur.

To stand out, simply make one element—preferably an illustration or photo—substantially larger than the other elements in the ad. This technique is especially effective when you’re working with smaller ads.

4. Color. Because most pages are black and white, it makes sense to use color to attract attention. However, it’s important to use restraint. Too much color—like too many graphic elements in an ad—will result in clutter. And that defeats the purpose of using color in the first place. 

We’ve all seen ads that look like an explosion in a crayon factory. So when it comes to color, remember that a little bit is often all you need to stand out.

5. Break the rectangle. Think about shapes. The page is rectangular. Most photographs are rectangular. Comics are rectangular. Crossword puzzles have multi-rectangles. And the majority of ads are rectangular.

One way to stand out is to break the rectangular pattern—in a unique, non-symmetrical way. Forget about rounding all four corners or putting everything inside a circle. Instead, let a top-to-bottom illustration with a curved left edge serve as the left side of the ad. Or move the top border down to let a design element “extend” above the border. © John Foust 2013. All rights reserved.


John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information

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