Design in Crisis

I’ve been noticing lately an alarming trend of horrid design and advertising. This is more than just your typical, idiotic car dealership ad. This is permeating even the upper levels of advertising. Think about it, can you really remember a single ad from this past year’s Super Bowl that blew you away by its creativity? Hell, I can’t remember a single ad over the last three or four years, much less anything of quality. The web is especially sensitive to bad design, but othes have written about it more recently, so I won’t touch on that subject.

One area of design and advertising that’s been alarmingly bad lately is outdoor advertising, whether its billboards or vehicle. Some bad trends I’ve noticed, primarily with the latest LED billboards is the cramming of anything and everything possible into the screen. And with both print billboards and vehicles especially, the abuse of vanity numbers … where someone uses the phone numbers to spell out a word. What some people don’t seem to understand with outdoor advertising, is that your audience has somewhere between two and five seconds to pick up your message, and that’s competing heavily with environmental distractions, like traffic. Too many businesses approach outdoor advertising the same as print, thinking the same rules apply. They don’t. People have less time to take in the message, and usually have to recall it from memory. This is where vanity numbers hurt. Unless its something easy to remember, they won’t. Vanity numbers that don’t follow the standard flow of phone numbers (3-3-4), will be quickly forgotten.

Why is this becoming more and more of a problem? This is all speculation, but I think the ease of access and cost to design and multimedia software is a big part of it. Go back 10-15 years ago. A lot of design was still put together by hand (paste up, lettersetting, etc.). Design software was limited, at least compared to today, and expensive. I am in no way blaming companies like Adobe, Quark and Microsoft (alright, maybe we can blame Microsoft a bit). I’m glad they’ve produced the software they have over the years, and that its getting more and more affordable every year. In this cost-conscious era, being able to afford quality design software is one less reason to think companies can do it themselves instead of paying huge fees to agencies. That didn’t used to be an option.

What’s the solution then? Honestly, I think the burden lies on the true professional designers. We need to do a better job educating and communicating with businesses about strategy, execution, and trends, as well as the quality of good design. We need to convince businesses that even though they probably know there business better than anyone else and they can afford to do certain design and marketing themselves, going that route can do more harm than good. This is where Return On Investment (ROI) comes into play. Does the money companies save by going in-house or to the lowest bidder translate into better communication to potential customers and hence, more sales and profit? Those of us that can do this are the ones that will not only survive this crisis, but be far better for it.

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  1. You are correct. We see this all the time, as a matter of fact, I just got off the phone with a client for some simple yard signs which they wanted their logo, phone number, address, Grand Opening, and Specials all on an 18×24 yard sign to be placed on a road with a 45MPH speed limit!!! What are they thinking?!?

    Less is MORE!

    Same applies to vanity numbers. If you have one that is short and fits, then go for it, otherwise they are not a good idea. I use one, but sparingly. As more people are using PDAs with phones the vanity becomes a hurtle for a potential customer. My Trio does not have the letters on the numbers in the same way as a traditional cell or landline phone. To that end, I tend to include both the letters and numbers… if I have to pick one I use the actual number.

  2. Good point about PDAs. Another thing we need to remember is that phone companies are requiring the publishing of area codes due to geographic regions having more than one area code (New York for example) to expand phone number usage. For vanity numbers, the actual number should be below the letters (or somewhere in the vacinity) to tie the two together.

    Outdoor work needs to be simple as possible. For vehicles, you can go more on back due to it being ‘followed’ or stopped in traffic and this is the best place for the web address. Forget using the sides. That is just too much info. Phone numbers should be done as simple as possible. A trick I learned for outdoor work is to stand up a print out and walk past it quickly to see if you pick up the important elements (called READ SPEED). If you can’t, its too much.

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