13 basic design concepts every copywriter should know

January 14, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Design 

basic design conceptsHow much do you know about design? Do you understand basic design concepts?

“Hang on,” you might be saying. “I’m a copywriter. What do I have to know about design?”

More than you think, actually.

A lot of copywriters think that “copy is king.” And that’s true. Sort of. It’s true if you mean that the message is what matters. And it’s true that, as a copywriter, you are the one primarily responsible for writing the words that deliver that message.

But you’re wrong if you think words are ALL that matter, as if design is little more than window dressing.

Let me ask you this: When you buy a ticket for a movie, do you expect to sit down in the theater and read the script? I don’t think so. I saw Avatar in 3D recently and I guarantee you that if all I got was the script and a pair of 3D glasses, I would have been very disappointed. That’s not a movie.

A movie is a script that has been brought to life visually. And advertising or marketing materials are copy that has been brought to life visually. That’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea.

You don’t see businesses photocopying your copy deck and handing it out to consumers, do you? That wouldn’t work. What works is copy and design coming together to deliver a selling message. And just as the designer needs to understand the copy, you need to understand the design.

So here are a few of the most basic design concepts you should understand.

  • Attract attention. One of the most basic chores of design is to get someone’s attention. And certain graphic elements help make this happen, 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” set in large type just to name a few.
  • Be ugly if you have to. 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 (not like slick ads) look more relevant. When you need to be pretty, be pretty. But when you need to be ugly, be ugly. It won’t win awards, but 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. Again, not necessarily pretty, but effective.
  • Make sure the designer reads the copy. No one can lay out copy intelligently without knowing what it says. The designer must understand the message and the action you want the prospective customer to take. Every element of the design should help lead the reader toward that action. Copy is not a design element. Design is the physical expression or body language of the message in the copy. The creative process doesn’t start with “How will this look?” It starts with “How will this communicate the message?”
  • Design for actual reading conditions. How something looks displayed on the studio wall is not how it will look to the reader. Mock up a design and stick it in a mailbox, insert it into a magazine, or view it on a website. Look at it the same way your prospect will look at it. Art doesn’t sell. So don’t look at your lay out like that.
  • 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. When you’re reading something, don’t you expect all the words to be in the right order? Sure. And that’s how it should work in marketing as well. Again, copy is not a design element.
  • Lead the reader’s eye into the copy. People in photos should be facing toward the copy, not away from it. Angles of illustrations should be headed toward the copy. This is a pet peeve of mine, but it makes more difference than you may think.
  • Make coupons easy to cut or tear out. Stick to the standard square, 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. This is another example of where a mockup helps you stay in touch with how real people will interact with your message.
  • 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. Why? Because a big number gets noticed. Because a big number says, “This business wants me to call.” Never be subtle with a phone number. Your designer may not like this because those big numbers look clunky. Fine. They look clunky. So what? They get seen and that’s what counts.
  • Make phone information complete. Give every numeral that must be dialed: 1-800-123-4567. Don’t put the (800) in parenthesis because it makes the number look more like a regular long distance call. If the business takes calls 24 hours a day, say so. If they’re open Saturday and Sunday, emphasize it. If you include a coupon, put the number both inside and outside the coupon so both parts are complete even when separated. And if you use a vanity number, give both the numerals and the letters. Have you ever tried to dial letters? It’s a pain.
  • Make a letter look like a letter. For most consumer letters, use a Times, Courier, or typewriter face that’s 10 to 12 points. Use a one-inch or greater margin. 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. Make a letter look like someone actually wrote it, not like a designer designed it.
  • Call attention to key words. Use underlines, highlighting, boldface, italics, and other techniques, but don’t overdo it. Less is more. Your designer will probably hate this too. But it’s just part of clear communication.

Yes, of course, copy is king. But copy speaks through design. Good design can’t save bad copy. But bad design can kill good copy.

If for no other reason, you should learn a little about design so you can work more intelligently with designers. If you’re lucky, you’ll work with a smart designer. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll be able to keep design on-track with your message.

You may not think you need to know any of this. But learn it anyway. You’ll thank me later.

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  1. Dean Rieck on Jan 17th, 2010 11:51 am