Design and legibility: 7 tips for high ad readership

This is part 2 of a 2-part post on ad design and legibility. In this part, we’ll look at how to use basic reading concepts to get more people to read your advertising.

Meaningful sales messages are transmitted through language, not design. The goal of design, therefore, is to encourage and support readership. In general, a designer should strive to:

1. Draw attention to the copy and help the reader get started reading.

2. Make reading easy by applying the basic rules of layout and typography.

3. Help communicate the writer’s message (not produce a work of art).

Specifically, a designer should make every effort to work with the realities of how people read and make the process as easy and transparent as possible.

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Design and legibility: 10 basic principles of reading

This is part 1 of a 2-part post on ad design and legibility. In this part, we take a look at how people read.

With no special instruction, people instinctively learn spoken language. In fact, within just three years, an infant will master a vocabulary of about 1,000 words. Reading, however, must be taught. It’s a difficult process, and even after years of instruction, most people remain relatively poor readers into adulthood.

Reading is literally an unnatural act.

This is crucial for you to understand, since so many marketing efforts, and most especially direct mail and print ads, depend on your getting people to READ. In fact, I would go as far to say:

Direct mail and print advertising is all about READING.

Reading envelope teasers. Reading letters. Reading brochures. Reading order forms. Reading headlines. Reading coupons. Without reading — easy, effortless reading — you have no sales.

Therefore, one of the most devastating response barriers is simple legibility. Can your prospects read your message? Can they read it effortlessly?

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Comic book ads reveal “action” design

Comic Book Ad

I was looking at some old ads for comic books recently. In addition to bringing back boyhood memories, it got me thinking about what’s often wrong with ad design these days.

Comic books (and the ads for them) are all about action and adventure. The design creates this feeling with vivid colors, imperfect hand lettering, perspective, and angles.

Imagine what a comic would look like if the colors were muted, the letters were small and perfect, the images were flat, and all the graphics were linear.

It would look like many ads you see today. Boring and aloof.

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How to design an ad no one will read

Direct response design is all about getting people to READ the text. If no one reads the words, why bother running the ad?

While flipping through some magazines recently, I came across this ad for a laser sighting device. I know what the ad is about because of the photo, but certainly not because of the text. This ad ignores virtually every convention for designing readable copy.

Gun Ad

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Do customers see what you see in your ads?

Is the woman turning to the right or to the left? That depends. Some will see her turning one way while others will see the opposite.

This animation is a visual trick, but it illustrates the idea that two people can look at the same thing and see something entirely different.

Selling is largely about perception. And everyone’s perception is a bit different. To be successful at writing or designing direct mail, ads, or other selling tools, you must grasp this simple idea.

Every person comes to your advertising with different experiences, knowledge, language skills, attitudes, preferences, and prejudices. Even something as simple as a headline can create a totally different response for two people. Read more

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Can good design be ugly?

Drudge Report

In a recent article on 37signals, a writer asked the question, “Can good design also be ugly?”

He’s referring to the Drudge Report, a news site that is loved (and hated) by millions. It’s one of the most popular and successful Web sites in the world. And it’s profoundly ugly.

The writer’s conclusion is that, yes, good design can be ugly. And I heartily agree.

He says that the ” … definition of design goes beyond aesthetic qualities and into areas of maintenance, cost, profitability, speed, and purpose.” Or, in architectural terms, we might say, “form follows function.”

He’s writing from the perspective of Web design, but his take on what makes for good design applies to anything, most especially to direct response advertising. Read more

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The power of color in direct marketing

Color is one of the most powerful elements of design for direct mail, ads, and other marketing materials.

color in direct mail and adsWhy? Because color is a form of nonverbal communication. Research has shown that color increases brand identity, assists in memory, increases a reader’s participation in ads, and improves readership, learning, and comprehension.

This is a complicated subject and is worthy of a dozen posts, but I’d like to cover just three important points about why color choice is so important.

Color carries meaning through association.

This meaning can be divided into two parts: natural associations and psychological or cultural associations.

By “natural association” I mean that colors bring to mind certain ideas that everyone understands. For example, green is associated with nature because that’s the primary color of plants everywhere in the world. Blue is associated with the sky. Yellow is associated with the sun. These associations are simple and universal.

Psychological or cultural associations are more tricky. In the U.S., orange is associated with Halloween because pumpkins are a big part of that holiday. But since many other cultures don’t celebrate this particular holiday, that association doesn’t exist. Likewise, while black is associated with death in the West, white is often the death color in other cultures. Read more

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Good direct mail design: let form follow function

Good direct mail design is like good design in other fields. The best work results from a designer who understands how design is used to accomplish something.

In other words, form should follow function.

In the case of direct mail, the function is to deliver a sales message to a list of recipients to persuade them to take some kind of action, such as placing an order, requesting information, or going to a Web site.

The wrong way to design direct mail is to come up with a “creative concept,” then force fit the copy into the design.

The right way to design direct mail is to understand the selling message and the goal of the mailing, then allow the design to naturally flow from these ideas.

For example, if the goal is to build traffic for a Web site, it would be silly to create an elaborate envelope package. Since you’re not asking for money and the action you’re asking for is easy, all you need is a small piece, such as a postcard.

On the other hand, if you’re selling a product with a $500 price tag, you shouldn’t try it with a postcard because you’ll need a lot more room to convince your recipient to part with his money, provide a means of response that may include a reply form, and include other information such as instructions or your return policy. Read more

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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. Read more

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The danger of getting too creative with type

My wife dragged me to a mall recently and I ran across a good example of why getting super creative with type endangers legibility.

Take a look. (Forgive the poor quality of the photo. I snapped this with my cell phone.)

example of poor legibility

Sure, you can tell that it reads “SALE.” But it takes a second for your brain to make it out, doesn’t it?

This sign violates two basic principles of legibility. It spells a word vertically rather than left to right, which is the standard in English. And it crams the letters together so that the familiar configuration of the word is damaged.

Now take a look at an example of good legibility just a few stores down in the same mall.

example of good legibility

Same word, but it reads left to right and uses the natural shape of the word to make it instantly recognizable. The brain doesn’t need to read this sign, it recognizes and understands the word “sale” instantly.

From a designer’s perspective, the creative sign is more interesting. But that’s irrelevant, since the purpose of the sign is to announce a sale and bring people into the store. All things being equal, the less creative sign is more interesting to customers since they’re interested in the sale, not the sign.

By the way, you should also note that the less creative sign uses the colors red and yellow, which are more dramatic than the soft blue of the other sign. Plus it adds some copywriting savvy by calling the sale an “ultimate sale” and providing some detail on the number of styles marked down.

I recently referred to an article that provides a primer on reading and legibility in design. If you didn’t read it then, read it now. Even if you’re not a designer, you need to understand these ideas since most direct response advertising is about reading.

(Oh, and for the people out there who hate shopping but get suckered into malling anyway, this illustrates a great way to eat up time when a mall is about to close. Announce that you have an idea for your blog and take photos. Don’t take the pictures when you first see a good subject. Walk way past it, then say you have to go back. Then fiddle with your camera for a while. If you’re good, you should be able to reduce your shop time by 10 minutes or more.)

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