Visuals in Advertising

The term visualising is used in two different senses by advertising professionals.  At times they talk of “visualisation” in the broad sense of “Shall we put the idea into words or into pictures?”  At other times they refer to the execution of the “visual” idea – the elements, such as layout, illustrations, colours, and the like, that give shape to the idea of the advertisement.  .

Creative advertising professionals must think visually and verbally at the same time, whether they are copywriters or artists.  Below are some guidelines for emphasising the visual portion of an advertisement.

1.         To get a point across fast

2.         When the product is new or not widely recognised

3.         If the product has innate visual appeal

4.         If the appeal is primarily emotional

5.         If mood is more important than factual information or narrative

6.         When awareness of an idea or the package is a more important objective than the action to be taken

7.         When impulse sales in self-service stores are important

The advertising layout is designed to perform both mechanical and symbolic functions.  Physically, the layout is the plan that indicates where the component parts of the ad (headline, illustrations, text, and so on) are to be placed for most effective communication.  The layout guides the copywriter in planning copy and the lettering specialists, typographers, and other production experts in their work.  The layout also provides a guide for estimating costs.  These are among the important mechanical functions of a layout for a print advertisement.

The layout also performs a symbolic, or psychological, function.  The final layout, transformed into the finished advertisement, gives the audience its first impression of the organisation sponsoring the advertisement.  A very formal layout gives the impression that the advertiser is stable, conservative, and solid.  A modern, informal layout gives the same audience the impression of a dynamic company with innovative new products.  Considerable white space in an ad projects an image of exclusiveness and “class”.  Conversely, a layout crowded with elements and heavy black type, or with white type on a heavy black background, gives the impression of a “discount” organisation and is frequently used in retail advertising.

Layout artists must always work within certain space limitations.

The artist can do a better job of visualising the ad if the copywriter has already done some visual thinking.  Both should be working toward the same basic goal: expressing the advertising idea in the most effective form.  Some writers put in very rough form the visual as they conceive it so that the artist can have some help in arranging the elements.  Many artists prefer to the complete job themselves, with only verbal help from the writers.  In the case of many retail store layouts, the writer is likely to be a jack-of-all-trades who is responsible for layouts and production instructions, as well as for writing the headlines and copy.

The various stages in preparing layouts.

Thumbnail Sketch

Most artists begin by making several thumbnail sketches, or miniature rough sketches, of possible layouts.  Ordinarily these rough sketches are one-eighth to one-fourth the size of the final product.  A thumbnail sketch offers artists an opportunity to try out a variety of ideas; later they can select the most promising ones and blow them up to actual size.  Where format remains much the same from one advertisement to the next, there is little need to make thumbnail sketches.

Rough Layout

The rough layout will be the exact size of the final advertisement.  For example, if the advertisement is to occupy a full page in the Bulletin.  This is the standard size of the type page, not the size of the entire page. By paying an extra 15 percent an advertiser may purchase the entire, or “bleed,” page (the ad “bleeds” to the outside edges of the paper).

Some artists make many roughs, others only a few.  Some layouts are sent to the printer or to newspapers in very rough form, depending on how much service the media provide.  In a rough, headlines are often hastily lettered in and body test indicated only in pencil.  Those layouts in more final shape can be used to help all concerned visualise which of several alternatives provides the greatest promise of success:-

1.         Initial layout sketch

2.         Photograph of product with open space for insertion of art and copy.

3.         Airbrush art and photography that will be combined

4.         Assembled advertisement .  All elements are combined including type.  At this stage the board also shows corner crop marks and instructions for colour separations and printing.

Finished Layout

When a selection has been made among alternative roughs, the “finished” layout can be composed.  The artist may complete this layout or may instruct a commercial studio to do it.  The illustration, lettering and the logotype will be drawn the way they are to appear in the final advertisement.  The test will be indicated by lines neatly rules in blocks of varying lengths to simulate paragraphs.  A finished layout, then, is almost a facsimile of the finished advertisement.


When the finished layout is carried one step further, the comprehensive, or comp, is the result.  If, for example, the illustration is to be a painting or a drawing, the artist will probably be asked to make the final illustration for the comprehensive.  The type will be set and a proof of it pasted on the layout.  In the case of a brochure, this will be a multipage layout having the same number of pages as the final product.  The comprehensive must be painstakingly put together to look like the final product.

Obviously, the size and shape of given space will influence an artist’s layout decisions.  Small-space layouts present special problems.  Options are to keep the ad simple and avoid crowding too many elements in the space or to use an unusual arrangement to attract attention.

Qualities of Effective Layouts

Like copywriting, layout cannot be done by formula.  There are, however, certain qualities that tend to distinguish more effective layouts from the others.


Although professionals often disagree among themselves on the specifics of composition, they seem to have an instinctive appreciation of good composition and an aversion to bad composition.

1.   Ideally, the picture should occupy slightly more than one-half of the entire space.  If there are several illustrations, the total area of all of them combined should occupy that amount of space.  This rule is especially important in beauty, style, and appetite-appeal advertisements.  Recall is also higher when the advertisement is in colour and when photos were used instead of drawings or paintings.

2. In most print advertisements the headline occupies about 10 to 15 percent of the total area.  In general it works best to place the headline below the illustration and above the copy.

However, if the words relate primarily to the picture and make a complete statement, then placing them above seems reasonable.  However, if the headline leads into the copy, it should appear below.

If the main head is placed above the illustration, it is often helpful to include a subhead under the illustration to lead the reader into the text.

3.  Unless the name of the product is prominently displayed in the headline or shown in the illustration, the logotype should be emphasised and put in a prominent setting.  Size, contract, or isolation may be used to emphasise a logotype or illustration of the package.

4.  Repetition of the same motifs helps unify an advertising layout.  A natural affinity between masses or overlapping helps to keep an ad from falling apart.

5.  Borders are useful to keep readers from wandering away from the ad, especially in newspaper advertisements.

6.   Typographical consistency reassures readers that they are looking at one ad, not several.


The word “balance” is occasionally misused in reference to advertising layout.  Some believe that it connotes absolute symmetry.  Actually, flawless equilibrium can be boring to the human eye because there is nothing unexpected about it.  Symmetrical balance is formal balance and is used most where dignity or stability is dominant.

An advertisement is balanced when it looks balanced.  The optical centre of an advertisement is at a point about five-eights of the way up the page.  A way to test this is to take a sheet of blank paper and point to its centre.  You will find that you normally point above the actual geometric centre.

If one side of the ad seems to light, you can add “weight” in several ways.  One is to darken that side or to change type size.  Another is to move elements from the light side away from the centre or use brighter colours and thus make them appear heavier.


Every advertisement should move the eye naturally from one element to the next.  Readers are likely to focus first above and to the left of centre and then roam around the page.  But their eye movements can be controlled by skilful manipulation of the elements.  Some of the more common devices follow.

1.  Gaze motion  Studies show that eyes direct other eyes.  There is a natural tendency to follow the gaze of people or animals in illustrations.

2.  Size     Most people are attracted by the largest and most dominant matter on the page.

3.  Pointing devices  These include hands, arrows, rectangles, triangles, or lines of type.

4.  Cartoons or pictures with captions  The reader must start at the beginning and follow the sequence to get the point.

5.   Gutters of white space These are areas between dark masses of type or illustrative material.  The contract and arrangement between these and the darker background directs eye movement.


The ancient Greeks knew that two areas are more pleasing to the eye if one is slightly larger than the other.  It is more appealing to have masses of space in such proportions as three to four or two to three.  These are less monotonous than equal masses.


One way to emphasise a particular element in a headline or illustration is by contrast.  Dark masses stand out against a light background, as does almost any illustration that is surrounded by a sea of white space.  Well- devised contrast emphasises what you want emphasised by making it dominate.  You should not, however, sacrifice legibility for the sake of contrast.


Simplicity sounds deceptively easy to achieve.  The temptation to overload an advertisement is so great that many ads become far too complex.  Some advertisers believe they are getting more for their money by adding elements, but the opposite is often true.

A layout is simplified when you keep down the number of different typefaces and make sure the illustrations are harmonious.  Avoid decorations that seem “cute” but add little.  A good test is to ask yourself if each element helps communicate the message.  If it doesn’t, eliminate the element.


It is up to the layout artist to make sure that the visual and verbal elements work together to achieve the creative objectives.  It is particularly difficult for the artist to present ideas clearly when faced with a large number of elements (as is often the case in retail advertisements).  One possibility for arranging several elements is the layout based on such letters as “S” or “T” or in a pyramid pattern.

It is often tempting to try layout stunts or add arrangements as a means of attracting attention.  Unless these are relevant to the objective, they are likely to do more harm than good.  Graphic trickery is particularly dangerous in business-to-business advertising.

White Space

Artists and copywriters sometimes disagree on how much white space should be included in an advertisement.  The artist often prefers a great deal of white space to set off the illustration and give it focus.  Copywriters, however, may fight for maximum space for their body text.  Actually, white space can sometimes communicate as effectively as the text or illustrations.  To promote a prestige product or create a “carriage trade” image, it is wise to use plenty of white space to convey this impression.  But a bargain-basement ad that overuses white space would make the store look too expensive for potential customers.

Functions of Illustrations

Illustrations are usually the most important visual element in any print advertisement.  They contribute to its effectiveness in one or more of the following ways:

(1) they attract the attention of the desired target audience;

(2) they communicate a relevant idea quickly and effectively – often one that is difficult or complicated to convey verbally;

(3) they interest the audience in the headlines and copy; and

(4) they help make the advertisement believable.

Attracting and Selecting the Desired Audience

Some pictures attract attention because they seem to say to the reader, “Here’s a reward you’ll be interested in.”  The illustration may suggest a quick solution to some of the viewers’ problems.  Some illustrations attract attention because of the “least effort” principle: it is less effort to look at them than to ignore them.

There is a vast difference between attracting the attention of the target audience and attracting the attention of everyone.  For example, if the product is baby food, it is generally a good idea to include an illustration of a baby somewhere in the advertisement.  But if the product is machine tools, an illustration of a baby is irrelevant and does not attract the prospects you have targeted.

To make an illustration selective, make sure it has relevance to the product or to the copy.  This should be clear to the readers when they first note the advertisement or when they read the body copy.

Communicating the Idea

People put ideas into visual form long before they invented words.  Even though many great artists were relatively illiterate, they could invent shapes, textures, and colours that symbolised what they wanted to communicate.  Improvement in the artists’ skills and the invention of photography made realistic illustrations possible.

An illustration of the product in an advertisement is but a step removed from the actual product itself.  Psychological experiments  show that visual imagery can be as effective as actual experience in guiding behaviour.  As they point out, we may “see” ourselves behind the wheel of a dramatically advertised automobile, or “imagine” ourselves drinking a refreshing glass of beer.


Truly effective illustrations grab readers and almost force them to read the headlines and copy.  To accomplish this the illustration should tell readers enough to increase their desire to read more but not too much.  Research studies  have shown convincingly that learning is more often facilitated by a picture-word sequence than by a word-picture sequence.

Other studies show that the picture communicates better than words when measured by long-run effect (persuasion) as well as short-run effects (awareness).

Making the Message Believable

Unless the illustration is perceived quickly as pure fantasy (e.g., a cartoon), it must be believable.  Because illustrations are perceived quickly and come close to reality, readers are especially critical of anything that strikes them as illogical.  Yet, if the illustration is believable, readers are well on their way to accepting the rest of the ad.  There are times, of course, when one exaggerates for emphasis or for humour, but these should be clearly discernible as such.

Specific Elements

Visualisers must make very specific decisions as to what will or will not be included in the illustration.  Should all of the product be included, or only part of it?  Should its use be illustrated?  It is clear that some types of illustrations are more effective than others in attracting attention.

The Product Itself

Some advertising people underestimate the public’s interest in products, mistakenly thinking product pictures are among the poorest-read of advertising illustrations.  They are right to the extent that of a given thousand or so advertisements, those that have illustrations of products alone will usually have a lower percentage of people noting the advertisement than those that have other types of illustrations.

It is especially important to show the product if it is to be ordered by mail.  It is also helpful to show products whose appearance or style is important to prospective consumers, such as clothing or automobiles.  For packaged goods, a picture of the package builds up reader identity in the supermarket or drugstore.  An illustration of the product may be combined with the signature to achieve maximum impact of the brand name.

Part of the Product 

Sometimes the appeal of a product rests on a particular part rather than the whole.  In such a case the important feature might be emphasised through close-up photography – for example, a new safety feature on an automobile seat belt.  For many products, the real selling point lies in some feature that becomes lost in a total picture.  How much more effective the illustration is, therefore, if it focuses attention without distraction on just that one feature.

The Product Ready for Use

An illustration of a piano by itself is unexciting.  But in a setting of beautiful furnishings, the piano comes alive.  Bringing people into the scene changes it too; their ages, their clothes, their general appearance all make some contribution to the product image.

Illustrations of products ready for use are often found in food advertisements.  The point is not to show what the product is, but what can be done with it.

The Product in Use

A product that is rather dull when shown alone may become quite interesting when shown in use.  A good example is clothing, which is much more appealing to the reader when worn by models than when shown hanging on a rack.  A picture of a child enjoying an ice-cold soft drink communicates more quickly and dramatically than one in which the bottle alone is featured.

Showing the product in use can bring a dull product to life and remind readers of how they can benefit from it.  It helps translate product purchase into consumer reward.  At the same time, however, the product-in- use illustration has its drawbacks, chiefly in the competition it faces.

The Product Being Tested

Sometimes creative people merely capitalise on product tests that are a routine operation at a manufacturer’s plant.  Sometimes they devise tests for use in advertising illustrations.  In either case, tests showing comparisons often make interesting and impressive illustrative material.  Illustrations featuring product tests are especially appropriate in the industrial field.

Differentiating Features of the Product

Almost every brand has some characteristic that differentiates it from competitors.  Sometimes this difference is visual and easy to illustrate as in a clothing  advertisement.  Often it is not, so the visualiser has to figure out a way to illustrate it.

Consumer Reward from Using the Product

Every product must offer consumers some type of reward – otherwise, why should they bother to buy it?  Sometimes the result is immediate and visually dramatic.

The Effect of Not Using a Product

Advertisers of certain products (goods and services) often find warning illustrations useful.  The woman suffering a pounding headache, the family made homeless by a fire, the man being pulled from his wrecked car – these have become almost stereotyped.  Some copywriters are hard put to find arresting, convincing ways of emphasising the penalties of not using a product.

3 thoughts on “Visuals in Advertising

  1. Pingback: Visuals in Advertising (by SmartaMarketing) « Transition Marketing

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