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13 Quick Tips for Smart Design

This is the last of a three-part series.

In parts one and two of this series, I looked at the reading process and a few corresponding principles of reader-friendly design. Now consider some general design ideas to improve your direct response advertising.

• Attract attention. Certain graphic elements are sure to be noticed, such as a face making direct eye contact with the reader, bold colors, money or coupons, a busy layout, large photos or illustrations, odd sizes and shapes, large headlines and the word “free.”

• Don’t be afraid to be ugly. You may judge advertising professionally, but real people judge it personally. Their primary concern is how relevant it is to their lives. Designs that look real look more relevant. When you need to be pretty, be pretty. But when you need to be ugly, be ugly. It works.

• Make the design active. Neat, tidy, linear layouts make advertising feel settled, peaceful and still. This is not what you want. You want a design that feels active and, therefore, spurs action. Use bursts, callouts, tilted pictures, arrows or whatever you need to create this feeling.

• Read the copy. Make sure you understand the message and the action you want the reader to take. Every element of your design should lead the reader toward that action. Copy is not a design element. It is the physical expression or body language of the message. Do not start with, “How will this look?” Start with, “How can I help communicate the message?”

• Design for actual reading distance. How something looks displayed on the studio wall is not how it will look to the reader.

• Put headlines above body copy. Generally, headlines anywhere else will interfere with the natural reading pattern. And keep headlines close to the body copy so the reader can move from one to the other easily.

• Lead the reader’s eye into the copy. People in photographs should be facing toward the copy, not away from it. Angles of illustrations should be headed toward the copy.

• Make coupons easy to cut or tear out. Stick to the standard dashed-line border. A dashed line says, “This is valuable. This is how to respond.” Odd-shaped borders say nothing and make clipping or tearing confusing and difficult.

• Show products being used. This is usually better than static illustrations or tabletop photos, except when showing specific features. People like to look at other people. And it makes understanding and visualizing the product far easier.

• Make phone numbers big and bold. This will almost always increase response. A big number gets noticed. A big number says, “This business wants me to call.” Never be subtle with a phone number.

• Make phone information complete. Give every numeral that must be dialed: 1-800/123-4567. Do not put the (800) in parentheses, because it makes the number look more like a regular long-distance call. If you take calls 24 hours a day, say so. If you are open Saturday and Sunday, emphasize it. If you use a coupon, put the number both inside and outside the coupon so both parts are complete even when separated.

• Make a letter look like a letter. For most consumer letters, use a typewriter face that is 10 points to 12 points. Use a 1-inch margin or more. Keep paragraphs short. Indent each paragraph. Single-space between lines. Double-space between paragraphs. Break odd-numbered pages in the middle of a sentence, especially page one. And use blue or black for the signature.

• Call attention to key words. Use underlines, highlighting, boldface, italics and other techniques, but do not overdo it. Less is more.

This barely scratches the surface, but it should give you a few profitable ways to improve your design. Always remember that writers and designers are partners. Their purpose is to create a message to generate a response and make a sale.

A good designer must be a salesperson first and an artist secon

• Dean Rieck is a direct response copywriter, designer, consultant and president of Direct Creative, Columbus, OH. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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