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

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

Ralph M. Rivera
Hi, I'm Ralph! I'm a web developer at Rahvalor Interactive, a creative marketing services company that I founded in 1999 with my wife and business partner Carol Lynn. In January 2012 we created Web.Search.Social as a branded service offering that brings enterprise-level services to small businesses in an affordable way. I'm also founder and CTO of Podcaster's Toolbox, a SaaS platform designed to help podcasters plan, produce and promote their shows. I teach web development at Manhattan College in New York City. Carol Lynn and I are home based near the Jersey shore but we're currently location independent and traveling the country for a year, working and podcasting. I'm also trying to build a flux capacitor, but that's not going as well as the other stuff I do.
Ralph M. Rivera
Ralph M. Rivera