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How To Create Winning Billboard Artwork


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Billboard artwork is a combination of simple concepts steeped in decades of research. As long as you follow these basic, time-proven steps, you will always deliver your client a billboard that is attractive and effective. And if you fail to utilize this information, brought to you by billboard company research beginning in the 1920s, your client's billboard may be illegible and ineffective.

Keep It Simple
You should not put more than a few words on a billboard. Why? Two reasons. First, you can't grasp more than a few words while reading and driving at 55 mph. Secondly, the size of the words is very important - you want to keep the main copy at approximately 36" character height - so the fewer the words, the larger the type and the better the visibility. To make this happen, you have to distill the advertiser's message down to its simplest form. This is one of your key goals in creating great artwork - what is the key message and how can you express it in the fewest possible words?

Legible Typestyles
There are a lot of typestyles out there - and most of them should never be used on a billboard. The typestyles you use must be easy to read. Those include simple styles such as times roman and universe. Always use styles that have very bold, thick strokes - they are easier to read at far distances. Most of the highly stylized typestyles that are popular in print advertising are completely inappropriate in billboards, although many graphic designers refuse to acknowledge this. If the viewer can't read your copy, what it the point of the billboard?

High Contrast
The Outdoor Advertising Association of America in 1928, published their findings of exhaustive research into what color combinations are the most legible on a billboard. The best colors, in order of success, more maximum contrast are:

1)black on yellow

2)black on white

3)yellow on black

4)white on black

5)blue on white

6)white on blue

7)white on green

8) green on white

9)red on white

10)white on red.

When the words and background on a billboard have little contrast, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to read the message. And it you cannot read the message, the ad is a total waste.

Graphic Must Convey
If you are going to put a picture in the ad (and you probably should) make sure that it compliments and helps tell the story. For example, a restaurant might want to show a plate of appetizing food as the graphic - not a leprechaun looking at a four leaf clover. The graphic should help sell the product or service, and make the ad memorable enough that you can remember the name of the company (such as the gecho for Geico).

Test and Re-test
Once you have a design that meets these criteria, you have to test it on some sample consumers to see if it works. These may be, in the simplest form, some of your co-workers. Tape the finished artwork to a distant wall, and then have the guinea pig walk toward the wall and tell you when they can see it clearly and what it means (try as best as you can to replicate the distance and size that the billboard will be seen). Be sure to use color artwork, so you don't cheat with the simple, high-contrast black and white version. A winning piece of art will have good visibility at a distance so far that most of the copy is illegible - yet just the headline grabs the viewer's attention and makes them want to read the balance of the ad.

There is no magic to producing great billboard ad copy. In fact, when you get away from the simple, time-proven roots of great copy is when you fail in your mission. You may be tempted to stray from these logical benchmarks to create “breakthrough" advertising - but instead all you will create is an embarrassment. Due to the difficulty in reading an ad at 55 mph from 1,000', a lot of the creative things that work in print ads just don't apply here.

So if you want to be known for having happy customers with ads that really sell, you need to stick to the points outlined above.

Frank Rolfe is the author of the book; Big Bucks From Big Signs and just recently finished a new series on how to succeed and make money in the Billboard Business. A series of 6 one hour tele-seminars to teach you about the Outdoor Advertising Industry is available on our site.

Rolfe started his billboard empire from his coffee table, as a fresh graduate from Stanford University. It began as a resume builder for graduate school applications, and ended with a sale to a public company 14 years later.

Using unique strategies he developed from desperate competition with much larger adversaries, Rolfe eventually owned more billboard units than any private individual in Dallas/Ft. Worth. Along the way, he fine-tuned the techniques to find billboard locations, rent advertising space, and sell signs and leases.


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