5 ways to kill good copy with bad design

You’ve heard it a thousand times: “Copy is king.”

Sure. That’s because direct marketing is all about the message, and copy delivers the message. But … and this is a very important but … design is what delivers the copy.

Assuming that copy is the only important part of a printed direct marketing message is like thinking that the screenplay is the only important part of a movie. A movie starts with the script, but until it’s translated into visuals, there’s no movie.

It’s the same with advertising, direct response advertising in particular. The sales pitch starts with the copy, but the copy must be translated into visuals before you have a complete message that people can read and interact with.

Even a simple letter requires some design: page size, type, color, logo placement, underlines or highlights, signature in blue, and other elements. Get these items wrong and the design will obstruct the copy rather than enhance it.

How? Here are 5 of the most common ways design can kill your copy:

Start with a visual “concept.” There’s nothing wrong with concepts per se, but the message should guide the concept, not the other way around. I once had a client who would send a design and ask me to fill in the blanks with copy. This led to terrifically weak direct mail. Of course, starting with copy from a writer with no regard for design can be nearly as bad.

Design to impress rather than sell. I once saw a print ad for a fax machine with a massive, artsy photo of a woman’s head with protruding tubes and wires. I guess the idea was that, at the time, having a fax was supposed to make you plugged into the world. Or something. It was an interesting visual, but since there was no fax machine anywhere to be seen, the ad served to display the designer’s skill instead of sell the product.

Get fancy with type. I do a fair bit of design, so I know that using the same old Times, Arial, Verdana, and other common typefaces can get a little boring. But selecting unfamiliar or hard-to-read type will discourage reading. And printed direct response advertising is all about reading. Tiny type, white text on a dark background, all caps, text over artwork, text running in odd directions, and other techniques, if overused, can also discourage reading.

Make your phone number or Web site address small. This is mostly a problem in brand ads, but I see it in direct response too. A big phone number screams “call me.” A prominent Web address says “visit this site now.” Setting these elements in tiny type and burying them in your copy where no one can see them instantly is foolish.

Making the design too “neat” and tidy. Every designer has a different style, so there’s no one right way to design anything. But one wrong way is to make every layout perfectly balanced and formal. Neat looking designs discourage interaction.

Example: I once revised a direct mail brochure for a client. The brochure had many folds and each panel was perfectly balanced and complete by itself. There was no incentive to unfold it. I reworked it so that when folded the panels were incomplete, with only partial headlines or images showing. You had to open up the brochure to see the entire selling message. This encouraged both mental and physical interaction with the message. It was not as pretty, but it was more effective.

I’m preaching to the choir here, I’m sure. The sort of designers or copywriters who would disagree with any of this aren’t the sort who read this blog.

But it’s helpful to remind yourself now and then how important design really is. Good copy sells. Good copy with good design sells on steroids. Bad design kills good copy.

Remember: Copy delivers the message. Design delivers the copy.

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13 Responses to “5 ways to kill good copy with bad design”

  1. I.M. Vocal on July 9th, 2008 11:33 pm

    All of us who write copy have had this experience, for sure. It applies to websites, too — in spades. It’s amazing how many people get carried away with their own design “brilliance” and obscure the steps to take action.

  2. Ifbyphone Blog » Blog Archive » Your Biggest Competitor Could be Bad Design on July 10th, 2008 12:14 am

    [...] post at Direct Creative Blog reminded me of him: 5 ways to kill good copy with bad design. Although the post talks about printed pieces, what it has to say applies equally well — [...]

  3. John Lepp on July 15th, 2008 6:49 pm

    Wow, some of us designers sure get a bad rap. Just remember that not all of us are designing for the sake of design. In fact, I have more clients asking me to “sexify” their design for the sake of it. I for one certainly try to design for the audience and reader – not the client. Thanks for the post Dean. John

  4. Dean Rieck on July 15th, 2008 6:58 pm


    Nothing personal. I’m a designer too. But I became one because so much of my copy was getting butchered by bad design.

    There’s a lot of bad copy out there too, so this wasn’t a rap on designers.

  5. John Lepp on August 1st, 2008 10:03 am

    Ha! I wasn’t actually suggesting you were slamming designers Dean – but I’ve been to far too many fundraising conferences and listened to speakers slam art directors and their design happy trends. And there are designers and art directors out there who do over-complicate a piece… but in our defense – I find that some clients are their own worse enemy… Thanks Dean!

  6. Roy Holcombe on August 4th, 2008 5:58 pm

    After 10 years of display ad design and copy, I can assure anyone that DESIGN is KING when it comes to fulfilling the results demanded by your clients. What good is “good copy” if nobody is attracted to it in the first place? God bless graphic artists, i.e., the good ones (and those that want to be!)

  7. John Lepp on August 4th, 2008 8:40 pm

    Nicely said Roy. I’ve said the same thing to clients who are driven and desperate to put a tagline on their outer envelope that screams “I AM JUNK MAIL” because they have been ‘taught’ that they are suppose to… But I am just a designer who has been working in fundraising for almost 15 years studying the results and data as a result of my design – what do I know?

  8. Dean Rieck on August 4th, 2008 9:05 pm

    I frequently refuse to put a teaser on an envelope because there’s the chance it will allow the recipient to make a decision too quickly. I’ve seen plain envelopes dramatically outperform teaser envelopes again and again. When in doubt, throw the teaser out.

    Not sure that I’d say design is king. I think communications is king. And design is certainly part of communications. These days I have a hard time disconnecting copy and design. They are in many ways the same thing. Design is FAR more important than many people realize.

  9. Chui on August 5th, 2008 4:41 am

    Thanks. Love the last tip.

  10. Mr. Javo on August 27th, 2008 9:46 am

    You are right in this article. There are many sellers who design something very strong for the eyes, and some of them put their websites in a large font, red and bolded.

    I think it’s very important to know how to give your message with a design according to the copy, something neither too strong nor too bored, but something catchy.

  11. Spreading Love - September Week 0 | Mr. Javo dot Com on August 31st, 2008 1:34 pm

    [...] 5 ways to kill good copy with bad design – Written by Dean of Direct Creative Blog [...]

  12. September 16th Edition - Best of the Z List | Best of the Z List on September 16th, 2008 10:42 pm

    [...] 5 Ways To Kill Good Copy With Bad Design – The interplay of form and function is not something that is frequently addressed by search marketing blogs. Here, a direct response blogger shares techniques that are easily transferable to landing pages. [...]

  13. Your Biggest Competitor Could be Bad Design | Ifbyphone on July 15th, 2011 7:03 am

    [...] post at Direct Creative Blog reminded me of him: 5 ways to kill good copy with bad design. Although the post talks about printed pieces, what it has to say applies equally well — [...]

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