Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

4 Print Advertising Mistakes You Should Avoid

print_advertising_mistakes_mockup_smallI get several flyers in the mail every week. Most are conventional: coupons, sales, and so forth. However, I sometimes find one that catches my eye.

Unfortunately, one caught my eye last week for the wrong reasons. It was such a jumble of information that I had no idea what to focus on when I read it — which means it’s a valuable educational tool.

So, today, I want to talk about what you shouldn’t do when designing print advertising, using this flyer as an example.

I made a copy for you, too — download it and follow along. There’s even a screenshot on this page so you know what to expect.

Note: This is not the actual flyer. This is a mockup that I made to show the flyer’s poor design elements while also maintaining the privacy of the organization that made it. While some phrases from the original flyer remain in this mockup, all identifying information has been removed.

Mistake #1: A Giant Wall of Text

The first thing you’ll notice about this flyer is that aside from the header and footer, it contains 3 columns of nearly continuous text. The columns contain subheadings, lines, and the occasional bullet point, but those features disappear when you squint your eyes.

The thing is, studies have shown that people rarely finish big walls of text online. Instead, they skim and pick out the information that most applies to them. Considering how much the online world has affected our media overall, I’m sure that those reading habits hold true in print, especially for advertisements.

Mistake #2: Not Enough White Space

This is related to, but not the same thing as, Mistake #1. It’s possible to have a lot of text and still use white space judiciously to encourage readability. White space calms the eye and encourages readers to keep on reading. However, this flyer doesn’t do that. Instead, it’s an avalanche of information, and it gives readers very little opportunity to rest their eyes and reflect.

Contrast that with print advertising examples like this, where the use of white space to convey visual interest and additional information is what makes several of those ads so remarkable. Granted, this flyer wasn’t designed with memorability in mind, but research has shown the importance of white space to readability.

Mistake #3. No Path to Lead the Eye

In this flyer, I have no idea which information is the most important. Where am I supposed to start, and where am I supposed to end? Should I just read everything in order from the top of the leftmost column to the bottom of the rightmost column in order to find the one piece of information that might help me?

Put another way, there’s no sense of hierarchy. No textual element immediately grabs my eye to help me get my bearings.

As a result, I have no idea where to focus my attention. There’s no underlying visual path to lead me through the maze of the text. In contrast, here’s a great example of a print ad with dense text that still has a coherent visual path.

Mistake #4: Caring for Your Own Needs Rather Than Those of Your Audience

You’ll notice that the mockup contains phrases like “employment counselling,” “skill development,” and “language instruction.” Those phrases are one of the few indications that remain of who originally created this flyer, and why. The flyer is meant to promote community services to people in need.

This means that the mistakes outlined above lead to the worst problem of all: they show that the organization behind the flyer was more interested in listing everything it did rather than addressing the needs of its target audience. Chances are this choice was made with the best intentions — Every program we offer is important, and we can’t omit any information! I hear them think.

However, imagine who benefits the most from the kind of employment, education, and settlement programs that this organization offers. These programs are meant to help people who:

  • need job training,
  • need to improve their English, or
  • have just arrived here from another country.

In other words, this organization helps the kind of people who are least likely to be able to understand this flyer’s wall of text and most likely to benefit from better readability because they’re experiencing bandwidth poverty.

In that context, think about what a missed opportunity this flyer is. The people it means to help are those most likely to be overwhelmed by its breadth of information. Do you think that was the plan?

I certainly don’t. And I certainly think it’s a pity.

What Would I Do Differently?

I’m not a designer. But even so, I think several things could be done to make this flyer more effective. These include:

  • Rearranging all of the information so that similar programs are grouped together
  • Creating new, larger subheadings to highlight each grouping — an “employment” subheading, a “settlement” subheading, and so forth
  • Making regional versions of each flyer so that each one lists only the services offered in the region the flyer is delivered to
  • Ensuring that all information for a single program stays within a single column — you’ll notice that in the mockup, the info at the bottom of column 1 bleeds over into column 2, and that the info at the bottom of column 2 bleeds over into column 3; this is native to the original flyer

Of course, a lot of other things could be done to make this print advertising more effective. These are only a few. But you need to walk before you can run.

4 Things to Avoid When Advertising Your Book

I don’t normally give in to snark on this blog, but I just saw this book advertisement online and it’s begging for someone to smack it upside the head. All names have been removed to protect the idiotic:

“[Book title]

The most inevitable conclusion to The [Book] Trilogy the world has ever known!”

Yes, this is an actual ad that I saw posted on a legitimate, well-respected website. Here are a few lessons you can learn about advertising from this book’s missteps.

  1. Don’t be redundant. Saying that your book’s conclusion will be “inevitable” is a tautology. Trilogies are only 3 books long – of course they end! Not to put too fine a point on it, but everything ends, eventually.
  1. Don’t use “inevitable” to describe your book’s plot. Like “shocking” or “explosive”, it’s word that people overuse in order to make their stories sound more dramatic than they really are. Using this word makes me think your writing will be predictable. (But chances are if you’re using this word, you’re a hack, which means it WILL be predictable.)
  1. Especially avoid a phrase like “most inevitable”. Leaving aside the fact that “inevitable” is an absolute adjective, how many damn conclusions did you write anyway? What made them all less “inevitable” than this one, and why didn’t you use one of those instead?
  1. Same goes for the phrase “the world has ever known”. Like “inevitable”, this phrase is used by many unimaginative writers to raise the stakes in a story: “Alien Species X will prove to be the greatest threat the world has ever known!” By using it, you’re not only signalling that you’re a hack, but you’re also signalling that the thing you’re writing about will be something your audience is already familiar with. In effect, you’re implying (again) that there are multiple conclusions to your story, and that these other options are available to the reading public. Is this a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure that you’re peddling? It certainly doesn’t look like it – so why are you making your book sound like it?

Ok, so those 4 things aren’t quite lessons or rules per se, but they all boil down to the same thing: Don’t sound like an idiot.

Update: It appears that the book trilogy in question is a satire about the apocalypse. I don’t know if this information negates the advice above, but I don’t think it does – you should be able to sound funny without sounding stupid.