How Not to Design Static Image Adverts

1 May 2021Ashley Maxwell8 min read

This article on how not to design static image adverts may seem like it is reiterating the information you learned in college and University, but there is an odd angle at play when it comes to advert design. There are the things you are told and the things you learn, not to mention the things you think look good and the things you over-think. When you get too close to a project, you cannot see how bad it is. You become so emotionally invested in the project that you are unable to judge it objectively. That is why and how so many poor quality adverts find their way onto leaflets, online adverts, banners and billboards. This article may be preaching to the choir, but as Dennis Prager once said, “Sometimes, you have to preach to the choir when they have forgotten the words.” Also, it never hurts to be reminded of the things you shouldn’t be doing.

The Coming Back or The Ten Varieties Methods

The problem of being too emotionally invested in your work can be alleviated in two ways. One is to come back to your work a week or two later, so you can look at it with fresher eyes, and the other is to create ten variants of the same advert and then pick the one you like the best.

Many people know about these methods, but they are fundamentally flawed in that most people who create adverts are doing so on a time limit. They are not able to tell their bosses or clients to hold off for two weeks while they re-assess their work, nor do they have the budget to afford to create ten variants of their work.

If you cannot use these methods to avoid creating poor quality adverts, or ineffective adverts, then at least follow some of the rules stated below.

Using Too Many Colours

What almost always happens is that the overuse of colours becomes nothing more than visual noise. This visual noise ruins the message being presented and almost always creates a very poor viewing experience.

Advert with too much colour

Take a look at the image above. Starting with the good things, it gets out a lot of information without appearing too clustered, and the use of colour in the top right corner is very cleverly done.

As for the adverts problems? The top central image at the top is very poorly done. The text on the top is the same colour as the background and so is difficult to read, and the text in orange and white is too small. It would have been far better if the top banner only contained the logo. The guy on the top left creates a contrast that could have been used to draw the eye, but the image is so poorly done and makes little sense (is he doing pulling a flag from his behind?). The image in the top left makes the whole advert look amateurish.

The overuse of colour occurs in the segments that descend the page. Take note how the first segment doesn’t overuse colour, and even though the images are cramped, you can still make them out. However, the other segments have so much colour that it becomes visual noise. You have to concentrate on each one to understand what is going on, and forcing people to work to understand your advert is never a good idea.

Avoid Widows and Orphan Phrasing

Sentences are widowed/orphaned when they are isolated. Separating sentences only works if there is only one thing to read, and even then, it can cause confusion.

Avoid Widows and Orphan Phrasing

You may have seen the image above in a few Instagram memes. It became viral at one point because it is a strange example of orphan/widow phrasing. Obviously, it is supposed to read, “If you work hard then you play hard,” but it looks like “If You Hard Then You Hard.”

This is an extreme example of phrases being separated in a very unintuitive way, not to mention the weird text squashing on the “Then You” or the fact that the selling phrase has almost nothing to do with the activity being sold. The advert looks semi-professional but is actually very poorly done.

Do Not Misuse White Space

We all know about how to use white space, and most examples you find online and in textbooks demonstrate how people have not used enough white space or negative space. However, the opposite is also a common problem. Using too much white space can lower the quality of an advert too.

Too much white space

In the example above, there is far too much white space in the advert on the top. A combination of poor font size and the overuse of white space has rendered this advert pretty ineffective. In their defence, the top advert is not how the original advert was supposed to look, but is the result of poor shape optimization. On billboards of different dimensions, the advert doesn’t look this bad.

To half-prove that point, the Google Chrome advert (in the image above) on the lower left of the image shows a very similar advert where white space has been used a little better. However, it too suffers from some very odd font size choices.

Try to Lead the Eye

Yes, we are back to baby’s first advert design tips, we all know about leading the eye, but the point is that you do not “Have” to lead the eye. Simply do not make it difficult for the eye to track the image. Successful adverts can have the eye land in numerous places, and the viewing experience works out fine. The impact of an advert is lost when it is difficult for the viewer’s eye to track the page.

Not Leading the Eye

Take the image above. There are three starting points, there is the terribly formatted section at the top that says “Study MBBS in Europe” there is the picture, and there is the date in a bold blue box.

The advert above is actually a symptom of template-driven advert design. It is very obvious that the advert creator was given a template and then filled it out as best he or she could. That explains the frankly silly formatting near the top, and the odd formatting choices just under the image. It also explains why the three most striking points are in the wrong places. Just to prove my point, take a look at the image below.

Not Leading the Eye - Altered

All I did was to remove the top bit, but look at how easily the eye may now track the advert. Almost everybody will be drawn to the image on the top, and their eye will lead naturally down, probably jumping to the date, which is not a bad thing if the date is important for making the sale.

Make Sure To Chunk Your Text Correctly

Chunking, rather than being an unsuccessful NLP strategy, is what some people call the act of breaking the text down into smaller bite-sized chunks. It is a term sometimes used when people design static image adverts. The rationale is that an advert has a limited amount of the viewers’ attention, and so must be as easy to absorb as possible. It is commonly believed that longer paragraphs of text require more attention and focus from the reader, and are therefore undesirable on most types of adverts.

Terrible Text Chunking

As you can see from the image above, clearly the designer has tried to cut up the text into bite-sized chunks, but due to restricted space and poor formatting choices, it looks terrible. A better use of white space could have been achieved if some of the formatting choices were better, or text placement choices were better. They could have even made space by removing the redundant information, such as telling people they need 6-months of sales experience and contradicting themselves by saying “Freshers also welcome.” Or, my favourite part, where they give the address, phone number, and then say not to call unless you need to ask the address.

Avoid Improper Text Placement

How the text is placed, arranged, and sized makes a massive difference to the overall aesthetic of the advert, and the impact the advert has. Playing around with placement is often a good way to draw the eye, or highlight certain elements. However, you need to get the basics right before you can start experimenting.

Avoid Improper Text Placement

On the surface, the advert above doesn’t look too bad, but to those with a keen eye will spot several problems. One of the problems is text placement, but rather than adjust it myself, I will explain them through the image below.

Avoid Improper Text Placement - Alterations

Section A: The text needs enlarging just a little and then moving upwards. There is far too much space between the elements in the header and the main title of the advert.

Section B: The font sizes need to expand, and they need to fill the white sections a little more fully. They look lost in the compartments they were put in to.

Section C: This section needs to be enlarged and readjusted. It doesn’t need to be adjusted very much, just enough to make it look less like the advert’s afterthought.

An Over-Reliance on Photoshop

Putting ugly people in adverts is not a good idea. You can be as woke as you like, but the fact is that people would rather look at attractive people rather than ugly people. Let’s face it, most people are ugly, there is nothing interesting in seeing something we can see anywhere. People would not rubber-neck at road traffic accidents if there were one on every street corner. Hiding things people consider to be ugly, such as blemishes, bags under the eyes, etc., is common in the advertising industry, but you can take it too far.

Too much photoshop

The image above shows the woman in real life on the left and her over-photoshopped image on the right. This is actually from an advert that was banned in the United Kingdom because too much photoshop was used and it was considered misleading.

Besides getting your images banned, there are other reasons why you should shy away from photoshop. The most obvious is because going too far turns your characters from human-looking characters into oddly sculpted china dolls or CGI cartoon characters from the 90s.

Another reason why you should avoid over-photoshopping is that over-photoshopped images, especially images of people, often reek of desperation. They also appear very disingenuous. Take another look at the image above, doesn’t it almost appear as if the Lancome brand is ashamed of how a woman looks if they have gone to such lengths to make so many changes?

Again, when it comes to how “not” to design static image adverts, it is okay to use Photoshop. I am not saying you should avoid photoshop. There are plenty of ways photoshop helps to enhance an image, especially when you are adding elements that play a part in the advert itself. I am simply warning you away from overusing it. By all means, remove the ugly dark rings around your character’s eyes, but remember that your model doesn’t have to look as if she/he has had his/her skin sandblasted smooth.

Final Thoughts – Experimentation is Not Your Enemy

There is a line I cut from the “Coming Back or Ten Varieties” section in this article. At the end I was going to write, “Let’s at least get the cookie cutter stuff right, and hope that some of our designs excel nonetheless.” However, it actually magnified the problem I have with this article as a whole.

The problem I have is that the rules and design tips given in this article are all 100% helpful and useful, but whenever people give out advice like this, it creates a cookie-cutter mentality. The fact is that all of these rules are solid, strong and powerful, but that doesn’t mean you should follow them all.

Do not be afraid to experiment. Do not be afraid to throw everything you know and have learned in the bin and try something different.

There are times when every rule should be followed (like when you are driving a car) and there are times when breaking the rules can lead to amazing results (like the Nobel Prize winner who experimented on himself to prove that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria).

The point is that you must know the rules, you must understand the rules, and you must embrace the rules before you can start breaking them. That is what separates brilliant professionals from rank amateurs.