Disorder dooms design

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Design flaws distract. With the proper art direction, an ad can convey not only a message but a sense of competence and efficiency, not disorder and ineptitude. We had no trouble finding ads that were undone by poor design.

Microsoft Corp. in its ad for Exchange Server 2007 attempts to make the distinction between communicating in the corner office back at headquarters versus communicating half a world away. But the two separate photos divided by a narrow ribbon of white come off looking as if they are a single image—and a very busy one at that. The reverse-type headlines that appear in each photo are designed to work as a single unit, but that only compounds the problem of creating the impression of a single, overly complicated image.

The clutter and confusion will hardly drive readers into a 50-word patch of copy in the bottom right. If the art director fails to escort the reader to that critical element of the ad, the odds of registering a brand or product message are seriously diminished.

APC, which protects companies against data loss and down time, offers a useful message in its headline: "We just spent almost $90 million researching solutions to tomorrow's server problems … Why not spend a few minutes with us?" But the design centers on a tic-tac-toe image of a series of white papers that creates the impression that the ad is for a huge sale on paper at an office supply store. Granted, the boxes are to represent the free white papers on solutions to server problems, but there was too much of a disconnect between the headline and the primary image to efficiently move readers into the copy block.

The risk of intentionally using a box of clutter to underscore a solution is that the ad itself looks cluttered. That was the case for an ad for Equivalent Data, which is attempting to offer a one-stop software solution. Even lamer than the design was the headline: "We cook with .msg and all other file types." The headline is apparently playing off .msg, a file type for e-mail, and MSG or monosodium glutamate, a food additive often found in Asian cuisine. Maybe that explains the chop sticks and the fortune cookies.

Good design is often uncomplicated and relies on a simple formula: dominant visual, a headline that pairs logically and visually with the image, and a block of copy that's in the path of the natural direction the reader's eye will take en route to the logo, Web address or other identifier.

Here are a couple of ads that we liked:

The compelling image of a woman in the heart of a big city looking into a FedEx box, as if it were a blue letter box or a TV screen, dominates the ad. The reader had no doubt as to where he or she should begin the journey. Next stop is the headline, which pairs beautifully with the image. The headline says: "Your future customers in Beijing are closer than you think." The reader's eye then falls into the copy below, which succinctly describes the advantages of international shipping with FedEx. This is design that works.

A final example is from Dell. Diverging from the standard formula, the design drives the reader's eye up the page of this case study-style ad with the intriguing visual of ascending cases of Unilever consumer products. Astride the top of the visual is the headline: "By partnering with Dell, Unilever's customer satisfaction keeps going in the right direction. Up." That's a strong visual-headline pairing. In the copy, Dell explains how it has made life easier for Unilever.

To absorb the copy, the eye must descend the page in the direction of the logo, Web address and toll-free number. But there's a clear sense of navigation throughout the ad thanks to the thoughtful art direction.

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