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How to design headlines... or Fred Showker's tried and proven tips for designing good visual headlines...

Headline Design Tips & Tricks Tutorial

If you've been following our series on typography, hopefully you've already digested Alex White's Design's Function & Typography article and it's continued pages. In those pages we learn a number of very important rules about display type and how it can make or break a good visual communication.

Graphic designs with dynamic images and effective typography, married harmoniously with compelling, well written body text can be the advertising or editorial department's dream come true. The three go together to help each other grab the reader's attention, pull them into the message, and then compel them to act. If any one of these three ingredients is somehow lacking, you're still running a pretty good chance your client will enjoy some measurable degree of success. So, most designers feel pretty comfortable with themselves, relying on chance to make them a success. The difference between the amateurs and the real pros however, is making all three elements so good that any one could stand on its own.

I'm not going to spoon-feed you to the realities of designing good visual communications. I know that at least some of you can already design good visuals, and that many others are doing perfectly okay designing mediocre visuals. But if mediocre or good is really not good enough for you, keep reading.

When there is type present in the "window of approach¹" of any graphic design, then the display type becomes the most important part of the communication. There are studies galore, but most authorities will agree that as many as 75% to 80% of all who read your visual will read only the headline. That's rather disturbing news to most designers. You work your butt off to get a good photo or illustration but a poorly crafted headline kills it. Leaf through any popular magazine and 25% of the ads will have poor headlines, and you'll skip them. Newspapers are worse yet -- in fact, they're professionals at mediocre headlines. No matter what the vehicle is, be it brochure, billboard, poster, magazine ad, book cover or what ever, the display type, title or headline is of paramount importance.

Focusing audience attention

Three things come into play in crafting effective display type:

1. What it says: This is what the actual words are, how they speak the message, and how rapidly they are read and easily interpreted into understanding by the reader. This includes selection of words, punctuation (or implied punctuation) line breaks and voice. Another 33% bonus or penalty.

2. Relative Position: This is where it appears in the window of approach, and how it affects the other elements. This also relates to where it begins, and where it ends, as well as its posture. You can have a simply dynamite headline, with absolutely killer type, but if you put it in the wrong place -- another 33% penalty.

3. Relative Size: This is how big the type is in relation to the other elements on the page. Don't believe for a moment that mere size makes a difference -- it doesn't. It has to do with how big the type is and how the sizing affects the window of approach. You can have a simply dynamite headline, with absolutely killer type, but if it is too big or too small, deduct 30% of its effectiveness.

I could fill a page on each of the above, telling you what to do and what not to do. You would retain it for about ten minutes. To see these three elements working harmoniously together, lets take a look at some display type in advertisements that have proven highly effective. And, perhaps some that have not.

Thinking Small

Think Small VW AdIt is a matter of fact that visual images -- graphics -- communicate ideas and concepts far more quickly and far more effectively than words. However it is their relationship to the message that drives home the point and makes memorable, communications. Remember the famous Volkswagen ad "Think Small". It took a very small image of the VW Beetle, and floated it in a sea of white space in magazine ads.

The wizard of Madison Avenue, Bill Bernbach² and his highly skilled team of designers broke new ground in the ad business and set benchmarks that graphic designers live by to this very day -- whether they know it or not. This ad was brilliant because it didn't have to shout. The undeniable point was made instantly through the crafty use of the headline, its position, and its relationship to the other three elements of the ad.

The huge expanse of white space effectively forced the readers to immediately be drawn to the headline like a moth to a flame. It was Mark Twain who once said: "If you want people to listen, speak softly." So it's true in this ad. Setting the image apart from anything else drew monumental attention to the photo of the VW, and the sea of white made the headline as important as if it were 72 point. By centering it, Bill knew his readers would associate the idea of thinking small with the VW logo -- even for those who don't read the body copy. (Remember that 70%!)

Now draw a line and connect the three visual elements in the ad... the car, the headline and the logo -- and you'll understand why he put the logo LEFT in the column of text rather than right. Where will your eye go immediately upon hitting the period in the headline? He inherently knew that "skimmers", or those who don't read body copy would jump --- bam, bam, bam -- through the ad, arriving at the logo. He also knew through studies that this would happen in the first moment or two upon arrival at the window of approach.

Within months of that famous ad campaign hundreds of thousands of VW Beetles began appearing on streets all over the world. Soon after it became one of the most popular automobiles of all times.

In her important book "Information Graphics and Visual Clues," Ronnie Lipton quotes the slogan of Tim Kenney Marketing Partners* in metro Washington DC:

"Be seen, be heard, be noticed, be remembered," calling it
"...the goal of every graphic designer approaching every project:
      not just to send a message, but to have it received, absorbed, recalled."

The "Think Small" ad raised the bar in the advertising business at that time. All the other design firms and ad agencies began to zero-in on giving the relationships between layout elements real purpose. If they put it there -- it had to be for a darn good reason, beyond looking good or the designer's self-indulgence.

Let's now analyze another ground-breaking ad in its day, and ask if the designers thought of everything....

Continue with "Design is Simple"


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