Stay Tuned/Ad Design For Dummies

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Ad Design For Dummies
30 August 1998

Those of us who have suffered through a few books on advertising design are aware that advertisements break down into three components: pictures, words, and the arrangement of items on the page (layout).

Actually, you don't need any special books at all to know that, which is part of my point: Most books about advertising design are pretty useless. The precepts in them - which usually purport to be Pearls of Wisdom - are things which any fool with insight can discover for herself.

Advertiser Bob Gill wrote a book about ad design some years ago. It's not really a useful tool; it's his portfolio, in very thin disguise. Gill is a very smart man, but his ego gets in the way - for example, you read about his brilliant solutions to advertising problems, but not until you get into the client list at the back of the book do you find out that he has included several designs which were rejected!

At any rate, although I hardly consider it an ad design book, it does state the following rules quite lucidly:

1. Strong words should be accompanied by weak images.
2. Strong images should be accompanied by weak words.
3. An advertisement is really a problem in disguise. Think about the problem before starting to design the ad.

While these are good rules, all three of these seem self-evident to me, and they probably seem self-evident to you too. So much for ad design.

As for which kinds of pitches are best suited to sell which products - the real question of ad design, and what an advertising student is presumably reading to learn - don't bother plowing through an ad design book to find out. They have no clue.

Most advertisers seem to work this way: They figure out what their target group is (i.e. who they're trying to sell the product to), write a pitch they think is appropriate, and then cross their fingers and hope it works. This means that, like Hollywood, they tend to stick with known successes. It doesn't explain, however, why there are so many horrendous ads out there. You'd think that with so many herd-followers, they'd at least tend to be average.

Although I used to think the quality of an ad was directly proportional to its budget, I am beginning to doubt that theory, as the small shops come up with brilliant ideas and the large ones allow ads to leave their doors which the world should never have seen. (Example of the latter: Everything Pepsi's done in the last five years - more ironic because their Mountain Dew team has produced some great stuff in that period.)

Even the agencies which have massive successes - such as the Saturn campaign from Hal Riney & Partners - are not immune from stumbles. When Riney put out a Subway ad some time back, using the same comforting voiceover and visuals shot in a similar way, the effect was ridiculous instead. The Saturn ads themselves may be suffering from familiarity-breeds-contempt. In the past weeks, we at Stay Tuned HQ have heard not one, but two ads parodying the Riney style (one for a breakfast cereal and the other for a Playstation game).

It seems like the obvious thing to do, when you're designing new ads for a living, is to talk to the people you're going to be selling to. And many advertisers do - this is what "focus groups" are all about. But sometimes it's difficult to do. For example, you might be talking to a market that can't or won't articulate what it likes very well. Sometimes you can't give away details of the product-to-be because of corporate idea theft. And sometimes people just plain don't know what they want.

Also, tastes change. I have commented before on the history of advertising. A hundred years ago, ads were dense, copy-heavy things, with few or no pictures and limited distribution. Now ads are generally image-heavy, for a generation that doesn't or won't read, and are often circulated nationally for even the most minor products. In a century we have completely inverted the idea of what a "good ad" is.

It's easy to see a change in our preferences if you look back on that grand a scale, but it's harder to see the changes from moment to moment. An ad which was the big winner last month may fall on its face if you try it again this month - and no one, neither the advertisers nor the consumers, will be able to say with any certainty why.

I have seen lots of good ads and lots of bad ads. The worst ads, aside from locally made ones for local companies, are the ones in the Sunday newspaper circulars. (My theory on this is that they think most readers clip the coupons and don't even bother to read the ads.) The best ones are the ones I see every year in the advertising annuals: Print, Communication Arts, and the One Show awards.

Unfortunately the picture isn't balanced and the breakdown isn't that clean.

Many of the design annuals feature "ads" which were house pieces, used to promote the advertising firm, or work for corporate clients to use internally - there's big money there, so they get the best work. In short, "ads" which the public never saw. If we weight the ads by how much exposure they get in the Real World, I'd have to say that the vast majority of advertising is average-to-bad, not average-to-good.

If you're watching a lot of TV, you may doubt this. TV actually keeps getting better and better advertising, in direct proportion to the rising costs of buying time on the tube. So that might give you a skewed perspective. Most of the advertising in this country is print advertising. Think about the ads you saw in your newspaper or your copy of Redbook and consider how bland they are. Then reassess.

As for the breakdown, well, there's the beauty of it. Just as I occasionally find an ad in a design annual which really sucks (and I think, "What were the judges inhaling?"), there is also occasionally an item of brilliance in the humble Sunday circulars.

Keeping with the principle that ads are basically word-centric or picture-centric, next week I will offer some of the high points and low points in the world of copy from those circulars; the week after that, I'll fire up the scanner and do the same for the pictures.

In the meantime, if you've seen any examples that make you cheer or groan, send them to me and I'll tell everyone what you've found.


The Bob Gill book is called (deep breath) Forget all the rules you ever learned about graphic design. Including the ones in this book. That title alone should tell you why I still keep the thing around. If you can find it, give it a look. He really is good, even if he knows it, and his sense of humor is always present. It was published in 1981 by Watson-Guptill.

Bob Garfield (look, it's All-Bob day!) wrote a scathingly funny column about the Hal Riney Subway ad, way back when. Originally there was a link to it here, but it does not exist any longer (as part of the process of Ad Age removing anything that could possibly be entertaining from its website) and I have removed it.

The next column with highs and lows of copy did get written, but the one with the pictures did not, as (unbeknownst to me) this column approached one of its periodic lacunae.

and now back to our program

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