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Design 101 | Successful Design: Who’s in Charge Here?

Several hands holding onto a small golden trophy cup

To design a page that’s easy to understand, you have to discriminate.

That’s right: I’m advocating information discrimination. Deciding on a hierarchy for your information – from most important to least important – will help you decide how to place things, how large, bold or colorful they should be, and where you should put them on your screen or page.

brand strategy includes focusing on key information, not emphasizing everythingImagine this scenario

Let’s say you have a big sale coming up on blue widgets. The new “in” color is orange, and you need to move the blue ones out of your warehouse to make room for new merchandise. Time to mark them down, and publicize the sale.

These are top-quality widgets and you’ve never before offered them at such a low price, so you decide to emphasize the low price in your ad.

You also need to tell people the sale ends next Monday, supplies are limited, first-come first-served, your address, phone, and web site. For those who aren’t familiar with your product you should probably include a short description of it. Oh yes, and it must fit in a quarter page newspaper ad.

The usual approach

The usual approach to designing this ad is above. Have you seen an ad like this in your local newspaper? I know I have! This is what most of them look like. Readers tend to look away and move on to something more engaging.

Why is it bad? Let us count the ways:

  • Too much text in all capital letters and uneven word spacing makes it hard to read
  • What is it selling? It looks like it’s selling a sale (not a product)
  • The ad is so crowded, there’s no room for the phone number

The better approach: Create hierarchy

To create an effective and inviting ad, use information discrimination, and create a hierarchy of importance:

  1. Most important information: Price
  2. Next most important information: Description; sale ends Monday; where to buy
  3. Least important information: Limited quantities; first-come, first-served

brand stretegy includes establishing a visual hierarchy of your information

The next step is to design your visual presentation to represent this hierarchy.

Here’s a second approach to this ad. There’s a clear hierarchy to the way the information is presented. The design uses plenty of white space (read more about white space here). White space makes the ad more inviting, especially on a crowded newspaper page.

This approach can be used for web pages, advertising and any print material (not just ads). Before you put text or images on a page, use information discrimination to design a hierarchy of importance. Once you do this, you’ll know how to present things visually so that your design informs, motivates and sells.

Design 101

This is the eighth in a series of ten lessons called “Design 101.”

The next lesson will cover photography and illustration, and give you some tips for choosing, using and making the most of both.

Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson is the Chief Marketing Officer at DCS. She’s the creator of the Offer Accelerator Program. Learn more about Pamela’s content marketing books, and read reviews of the tools used to run this site.
Pamela Wilson coaches people in midlife to build profitable online businesses
I’m Pamela Wilson

In 2010, at the age of 45, I started this site and grew it into a business that offers freedom, flexibility — and consistent revenue.

18 thoughts on “Design 101 | Successful Design: Who’s in Charge Here?”

  1. It’s amazing to me that the top approach is what I see most often. It totally looks like verbal diarrhea spilled out onto the page.

    Why do people think they have to fill every available square inch of a space with text? I guess that’s why you’re here, to administer the Pepto and teach us all a better way.

    Thanks for sharing your expertise, which shines through in every post.

  2. The illustrations are really helpful here. White space, clarity, and you bring my eye to what’s most important. I can think of quite a few people who need to use this approach when they’re working on their own websites. It’s such a natural tendency to jam everything in without stopping to categorize the information in a hierarchy.

  3. Thanks for the side-by-side comparison! It’s one thing to “tell” people how to design better layouts but seeing the same event advertised in the “good” way and the “bad” way really brings the message home. What a great lesson!

  4. I’d also add that your text should be broken up into “chunks” to make it more easy to scan. Too much condensed text in several paragraphs tends to tire the eyes easily, and people only skim ads first anyway 🙂

  5. Getting balance and proportion right in anything is key. Trouble is unless you have had some form of design training it’s really hard to know what to do. So thanks for all the tips, I’m looking forward to learning more from you!

  6. Thanks Pamela,

    I found this strategy also useful when you are creating presentation slides.
    Decide what is important and make it stand out compare to other information.
    This will help audience comprehend the information better.

    • Yes, Muhammad: this is a basic design principle that applies to everything design related, even interior design and fashion!

      You’re right that it’s an important concept for slides. They pass by one after the other, and if the main message isn’t clear the audience gets lost.

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