An example how visibility adds to practicality

This is a good example of how design should not take over from being practical. Visibility is the key to success, and it certainly wasn’t applied here:

Has anyone looked at the train signs on the London to Brighton line recently? Last Saturday I was travelling late in the evening, and as the train stopped at Haywards Heath I looked out of the window to see where I was.

Having searched for some time I finally found the station name plate, only to find it was so illegible I could hardly read it. This was because the background was a dark green and the words ‘Haywards Heath’, although written in white, consisted of a slim typeface rather than a clear bold one.

This effect may look fine during the day, but becomes totally impractical by night, as the dark green became black, and the slim words melted so they could hardly been seen. Totally impractical for passengers who are unable to recognise the shape of the station buildings to know where they are.

Don’t succumb to the trend to reverse design around. Books have black words on white paper for a reason. A dark text on a pale background is so much better because it is both practical and more visible. Don’t alienate your customers through lack of proper visibility.

How fancy design became impractical

Travelling home from London to Brighton on Saturday in the dark, my natural desire was to look out of the window when stopped at a station to see which one it was.

Instinctively I looked for the station name. Now it wasn’t during the Earth Hour so all the lights were on, but I couldn’t find the name plate. Oh, there it was – but it was so illegible I couldn’t read it.

Why? Because the person who designed these signs decided it would look really good if the background was that nice green that is so fashionable with a slim white font for the name on it.

Hmmm. That may look really dandy during the day, but I bet the designer hasn’t travelled by night to see how this stands up in the dark. The dark green became black, and the slim words melted into it so they could hardly been seen. Totally impractical for passengers who are unable to recognise the shape of the station buildings to know where they are.

Why, oh why, is there this trend to reverse design around? Books have black words on white paper for a reason. Any website I see that has a black background immediately has me gone – I don’t even bother to try to read it. Can’t people see that a dark text on a pale background is better because it is so much more practical?

Don't designers understand what needs to go into a leaflet?

People expect clear definitions about what kind of business you are. In fact, directories have boxes that state either one profession or the other when you apply, without an option for anything else. And if you join a networking group this rule also applies. You are supposed to be either a designer, or a marketer, and not something in between.

But things start to get a little cloudy if you describe yourself as a designer with a marketing twist, or as a visual marketer. People’s foreheads furrow and they may even turn to look for an easier subject to network with. If you don’t fall into those easily understood categories then that’s more hard work for them, and it’s more hard work for me to explain exactly what I do.

Let me provide you with two scenarios. First, decorating a room. There’s all that time needed to strip off the wallpaper, wash down the walls, make good the cracks, sandpaper down the door frames and skirting boards, and get it all ready before you put the paint on to make it look nice. If you don’t do all this the paint will peel off, the walls will not be smooth and the end result will look amateurish.

Scenario Two: have you ever looked at a cake in the café and salivated with the thought of eating it, but when you took a bite you were bitterly disappointed? Chocolate cakes have a tendency to do this. It all depends on the kinds of ingredients used, the conditions the cake was baked in, and whether the flavours matched up to the expectancy of the finished results. The humble carrot cake in the corner probably provided a better treat, as well as being healthier, because the ingredients were superior.

Scenario One demonstrated that a lot of preliminary work needs to be done beforehand that cannot necessarily be seen in the finished result. It is important to set up your foundations for a frame to hang the design on. Scenario Two showed that just because it looks fancy it doesn’t necessarily mean it will perform well. And make sure the contents of your leaflets reflect the purpose, are aimed towards your customers’ needs and wants, and provide a suitable call to action to make the project worth while.

So a visual marketer will combine the elements of design and marketing to make leaflets perform better. Rather than creating logos, I work with your logo (as well as any other imagery that’s relevant). I write copy that has a purpose and an understanding of the psychology of the customer. It’s not just how you position the words and pictures on the page, it’s what you say to gain the reader’s attention and get them to do something towards achieving a sale or buying into a service.

There’s a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ stuff that goes towards a successful leaflet. And that’s what this blogsite is all about: I hope to explain it satisfactorily in future posts, so watch this space!

Create a call to action on every webpage

I really don’t mind giving my opinion on website design. And it’s always so nice to comment on a really good one for a change.

A photographer friend of mine asked for my reaction to his new website design while it was being renovated. My first reaction was very positive, with its clean, clear, crisp lines providing a very professional layout. It was the grey words and logo on the white background that did it for me – how nice to see an uncluttered presentation with plenty of white space and light!

But I felt compelled to provide some comments to increase his website efficiency:

The index page should work to the three second rule. Three seconds to make up their minds that this is the right website and what they should then do. Getting the visitors to do something is paramount; they should be encouraged to go further into the site to learn more, or sign up to something with a suitable incentive (this is to gather their details for future communications). The last thing you want is for them to leave!

Also, don’t overload other pages with detailed content. My friend’s grey text may have looked elegant and contributed to the spatial atmosphere that was so pleasing, but it did make it very difficult to read in large quantities. Websites are not like books. People don’t find it easy to sit down and read through webpages with a cup of tea. Also if they are surfing they usually do not have the time to plough through densely packed paragraphs.

Your accompanying webpages should act like little landing pages for specific subjects. This means they should contain the same structure and marketing elements as the index page, because spiders direct surfers to the most relevant page to their search, and this may not be the index page of the website. Allow for drop-in visitors for that particular subject, and adapt the page for the three second rule too.

Design your webpages with the initial concept of getting your customers to make contact. Once you’ve got them across your threshold then you can give them all the necessary detail to seal your capture. Your content should be delivered quickly and concisely with poignant and relevant information. Separate each benefit with bullet points or paragraphs. This allows the eye to rapidly choose what it wants to read and then enables the reader to digest and take action.

How to get your successful leaflets to look good

nl-flooring-egThe misfortune of the single leaflet (or postcard) campaign is that there is limited space for what you have to say. By choosing only one shot at your potential customer market, you will have to cram in a lot of information into a relatively small space to get the full message across.

The initial reaction, after scanning the grey mass in front of them, is that readers will look for a way out: get rid. Even if all the marketing criteria are met: headline, sub-headline, bullet points, call to action, special offer, contact details, the fact that they are virtually sitting on top of each other defeats their objective.

When laying out your leaflet, the first thing to consider is your margins; wide borders navigate the eye towards a focal point: the message inside. Adequate white space provides sufficient elbow room to allow the leaflet to breathe, so each marketing element has a chance to succeed.

Next, consider which kind of picture you are going to have. Background images can backfire: one particular advert had a relevant picture behind all its text, but it was so complex you couldn’t make out what it was trying to say. Presented by itself it would have been easier to understand its message, therefore providing a more effective contribution.

Another problem with a complex background is that it detracts from the words in front of it. Messages are not easily understood if they have to compete with their surroundings. Clean, clear backgrounds, preferably white or pale in colour, combined with a darker colour for the words, will have far more impact for quick recognition and readability than the reverse.

Pictures should be relevant, and not just a smiling tele-operator who looks good. It’s easy to get a picture off the net that will do, but then it may be so popular that everybody uses it, thus reducing your impact. A good quality, well produced photograph is vital, with excellent focus and presentation within its own frame; a home produced job with camera shake or low resolution taken from a mobile phone will not cut to the chase.

And finally how the leaflet is prepared for the printer will make or break a good campaign. Customers respond to quality, and an obvious product of the office ink-jet will certainly not provide the impression you are looking for. Neither will a leaflet whose pictures are not converted to the printers’ resolution, as failure to do so will result in flat, 2D, uninteresting images that also suggest low quality.

Also the kind of paper or card used will make a difference: good quality with a clean finish will easily sway the customer to read, absorb, understand and therefore take action – ultimately resulting in a sale.

Consistency is the key

Whilst cleaning my bathroom I was struck by the Body Shop bottles on the shelf. That got me thinking on a variety of levels.

One: how the contents of the bottles matched the colours on the labels. Silly really, but I liked that consistency.

Two: the labels themselves were simple and uncluttered, and each bottle matched its partners so that you could tell they were of a set: cleanser, toner, moisteriser, serum, eye cream, etc.

Three: I thought of the consistency of the Body Shop interiors; as a franchise, they are all presented in exactly the same way, so regardless of where you are (Reading, Brighton, Brisbane in Australia) you know exactly where the shampoos are, as well as your favourite brand of face creams.

Four: the consistency of the patter of the sales persons; they all spoke from the same hymn sheet, so no conflictions of information could confuse a potential customer.

Don’t you think that consistency makes your marketing safe? You should make it so that your customers don’t have to think too hard, that it is easy for them without being condescending, that they can find things really easily without losing their interest, that your messages are consistent to avoid confusion, and the simplicity factor highlights your success because everything runs like a well-oiled machine.

That’s something for me to strive for in 2009…