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Are Your Marketing Materials Ugly? Yes And No. Here’s Why And How To Avoid It.

By March 14, 2012June 26th, 2015Branding & Design
Are Your Marketing Materials Ugly? Yes And No. Here's Why And How To Avoid It.

“That’s ugly.”

You may have heard this about your marketing materials. You may even have said it about someone else’s. While they say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, sometimes it’s a cold hard truth that your website, letterhead or brochure got slapped upside the head with an ugly stick.

If you run a business or are an entrepreneur, marketing yourself and your business requires some level of design. The fact is that when it comes to building a brand and making a good impression, good design is better than poor design.

Good design can go a long way towards getting your audience to feel what you want them to feel or persuading them to do what you want them to do.

Ultimately, you are designing for your audience and not for yourself. It’s important to consider the impressions, emotions and perceptions that others will have about your business based on the visuals you present. And more importantly, your design, graphics, and use of color must all support and strengthen your brand.

Not doing so will go a long way to getting you closer to “ugly”.

Nonetheless, it’s that word, ugly, that I want to focus on because defining ugly is important if you want to turn your marketing materials into powerful tools for business growth and profit.

Taking A Deeper Look At “Ugly”

“Ugly” is a subjective idea. What may be ugly to one person may not be ugly to another. But for the purpose of this conversation, let’s not hide behind that rationale.

Let’s instead focus on what “ugly” means because I have found that people use that word in a very sweeping, all-encompassing fashion that sometimes does not mean what they intend.

For example, an ugly logo may be a perfectly acceptable logo with a slight color change. A website design may be suitable if a key section is added. A business card may by beautiful if the type size was just a bit smaller.

In other words, you should deconstruct your marketing piece down to component parts and distinguish between the good parts and the bad parts. In so doing, you can apply simple tweaks to a design and flip it from ugly to awesome.

Some Tips That You Can Apply When Evaluating Your Marketing Pieces

1. Make a distinction between aesthetics and layout.

The way content is laid out has an impact on the overall design. The layout is separate from the graphics and colors but also intertwined with it. A bad layout can create the illusion of bad graphics. The opposite can also be true. Be clear on which is the culprit.

Before you start designing that website or brochure, have your copy ready. This will act as a roadmap and allow the design to organically flow from the content. If you know you are going to have two pages with a sidebar each, write it all out. And make sure to include headers, bold and italic indicators so that your design will support that as well.

It’s common to see a designer have to start from scratch because they did not realize the volume of content they were dealing with and did not accommodate for it.

Overall, the content should drive the design process and not the other way around. Never design something and then work to retrofit or cram content into the spaces you’ve created.

Brochures are a good example of this relationship gone awry. I have seen many brochure designs that have beautiful graphics and splendid color palettes, but the layout renders the piece a mess.

Avoid this altogether by determining how space will be used before beginning a design. Create a rudimentary wireframe of the layout. Something as simple as “logo goes here” can go a long way.

Decide what you want to include and what you are willing to omit. Try to avoid using every last bit of space. Just because you’ve got some empty space on a page doesn’t mean you need to fill it.

Sometimes less is more. Cut and then cut some more until you can see some breathing room around your content. This applies to your website, as well.

Want to know what I do when I’m developing a website and I need to convey an idea to my creative director? I sketch out space and layout on a napkin. That’s it. This frees the designer to match the aesthetics to the space and layout constraints. If you are working alone, use this tactic to help you create a mental framework.

If you are working with a designer, use this tactic to save yourself money and your designer time by creating clear instructions for him to follow.

2. Separate color from graphics.

Sometimes the problem with a graphic or a design can be very subtle. Every designer has encountered scenarios where finding the right shade or color tone proves elusive. That’s part of the process.

Fight the urge to simply use your favorite color. Use colors that work well across all the mediums you will use whether digital, print or both. When designing your material, always explore the design in a variety of palettes. Your initial gut feeling may have been beautiful in your imagination, but it may fall flat once it’s rendered on screen or on paper.

Also make sure that your elements have sufficient contrast so that the end user has a pleasant experience and doesn’t have to strain to read or navigate your materials.

If nothing else, give your design the “squint test “. If you squint your eyes and you can see reasonable contrast, that’s good. You can also use a color tool such as Adobe Kuler to help you find decent color combinations.

There is a science to color use and tools like Kuler do the heavy lifting for you. It will give you color variations in formats that are suitable for print and screen.

3. Separate graphics from content.

Are you objecting to that banner, or the words on it? Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate the beauty of a design if you don’t like the text. Designers will often use fake text, called Lorem Ipsum, in order to make a distinction between the design and the words in it.

Make a clear distinction to yourself and to your designer what exactly is objectionable. You may want to go through the exercise of outputting the piece with no text to make sure you like it on its own. Also, experiment with variations of the text and sizes. When it comes to fonts, less is more.

Award winning designers have one thing in common; they don’t go overboard with fonts. Perhaps a lack of restraint in this area is what’s unappealing in the first place.

Remember that fonts are themselves works of art created by designers usually with specific intended uses. Using fonts that are preinstalled on your computer will never give you the creative range of investing in a few strategic and beautiful font faces. In fact many powerful brands and designs revolve around simple, elegant typography.

Your content and graphics are separate but equal. Finding the balance where both can live in harmony is a challenge, but well worth it.

4. Have a script and don’t stick to it.

As well prepared as you may be with your copy and wireframe, the design process may coax some additional beauty out of it. Don’t be afraid to break your content up and restructure it if the design or layout produces new and better ideas. This particular tip is dangerous because it’s also where the wheels can come off the wagon, turning a reasonable project into an expensive project.

An organic, fluid workflow is great, but if changes and rewrites are being made simply because the team is not confident in the original plan, then it’s time to reassess. However, subtle changes in trajectory upon discovering valuable new ideas have potential.

It takes a good content writer and an excellent designer to make suitable and attractive changes late in the game. It can be done, but be cautious and make sure everyone has the same vision.

So as it turns out, your marketing materials weren’t ugly after all. A simple change in hue, a reduction in font size or perhaps dumping Comic Sans was all you needed. One small element can really spoil the whole affair, but now you know that focusing on the small ugly part will release the beauty of the whole.

While you’re here, read Michael’s article on Typography And Design as well as Color, Emotion And Design; they are well worth the read.

Don’t forget to sign up for free article updates at the top right of this page and comment below.

If you feel up to it, contact me on Twitter and give me your thoughts on “Ugly” vs “Not Ugly.”

Happy designing!

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Amy says:

    I’m all-in with you re: wireframes. Not only do they give us and our clients a good first look at layout, they’re a nice insurance policy in the case of verbose clients: “The wireframe we agreed on doesn’t have room for this much content. Can we help you edit it down?”

    Your comment about requiring content prior to design and building, however, is more difficult. Sometimes it’s just not possible to get that content — should we then delay any work until we have all the content? That seems counterproductive. Any thoughts on finding a balance?

    • Here’s a quick analogy in another medium; when feature films begin shooting without first having a complete script the end result is usually poor. This is because a narrative has to have a cohesive beginning, middle and end. If you start shooting and have scenes “in the can”; future rewrites may affect the overall film.

      I know there are nuances in film that don’t exist when creating marketing materials, but to say it differently; if you don’t know where you are going; how will you get there?

      In my experience clients get a false sense of security when presented with designs and layouts if they fail to recognize the importance of content. It’s the content that usually draws a project out. A site can be fully constructed and installed on a server and still have it’s launch stalled as people debate comma placement, wording and grammar.
      Starting a project without a completed script or copy is like starting to build a house without wood beams. Sure you can start the  project, but the potential for spending time retrofitting to accommodate new or edited copy will be costly.

      Many agencies do it this way because it makes it easy for the client, but the goal is not for the project to be easy, the goal is to produce material profitably. If you don’t know what you are working with, how can you plan? If you can’t plan, you will work less efficiently. If you work less efficiently, you will be less profitable and more costly to the customer which then gets into a whole different area of agency-customer relations. The most profitable and efficient route is to plan all materials ahead of time before production begins, get sign off from the customer and then assemble from there.

      I’ve heard people say, “yeah, but I can’t get the customer to work that way.” My answer to that is to tell the customer up front how you work, what is most efficient and how they can save money. Give them the option; work efficiently for one price or have the luxury of having a fluid production process at a greater expense. I have found that customers usually opt for the lower cost option assuming no change in quality.

      • Amy says:

        Excellent analogy with filmmaking — that’s a perfect way to explain it to clients. 🙂 

        I agree that it’s all about education and setting expectations. Despite its popularity, there’s still a lot about the Internet that the average person doesn’t know, and it’s up to designers, developers, copywriters, and everyone else involved to shine a light into the darkness for clients.

        • I always try to sell a customer on efficiency. I’ll say “You’re the expert at what you do, but I’m the expert at what I do. If you let me set the course efficiently, it will save you money in the long term.”

          I am also very clear to customers that they are a part of the team. The project can’t work without them. So they need to not only invest money, but time as well.

        • Amy, to your point that “the average person doesn’t know” you are quite right. I’m sometimes amazed at what people don’t know or what they *think* they know. Like Ralph says, they are not the experts at what we do, so it’s understandable. I recently had a conversation with someone who was completely misunderstanding my use of the word “copy” and “copy writing”. He thought I was talking about “copyright” and had no idea that the actual WORDS on a page are called copy. Needless to say, that was one confusing conversation until I figured out what was happening! The process is always an education.

          • Amy says:

            Yes, a learning experience indeed. Fortunately over time  you start to learn ways to explain things like “copy” and “copywriting.” Then you just hope it sticks. 🙂

  • Adrienne says:

    Hi Ralph,

    Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a clue about design.  All I have for my marketing is my blog and some simple capture pages.  I think the simpler the better.

    Now I know everyone says you have to think of your audience but although you may know who your target audience is, let’s face it, they all probably have different tastes. So my preference is the simple clean look.  I think so far my blog has been well received in the “design” aspect of it.  Doing testing with capture pages the simple look always seems to win.

    I appreciate you pointing these tips out and I have no doubt they will be extremely helpful for those who have a lot of marketing material out there in front of their target audience.  I just do my best to take the advice of those already having success and follow along with their suggestions.  So far so good I might add.

    Have a wonderful day and thanks again.


  • simonswills says:

    There is something about “uglying up” a nice mail that really gets your leads interest. The thoughts you have offered here are easy but efficient.