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Just Shrink It! – It’s All About Scale

November 12, 2009

Last week I did a presentation to a group which focused heavily upon the visual designs I create as well as my take on examples of good and bad visual design. Some of the samples I used are here. It got me thinking again about what are clear cut Rules of Design (to me!) that some of my clients have a bit of trouble grasping when I stick to my guns about the design of a particular print ad and won’t do it the way they ask. Translation: the customer is wrong, I am right. You pay me for my expertise, and I won’t do it the wrong way. (Obviously the correct way to handle this situation is to explain to the client, politely, why their way would be detrimental to achieving the ad’s goals [selling the products or services] and my way is a benefit to them.)

First and foremost, when designing a display ad my first consideration is to the target audience. Are they already familiar with my client’s products and services? (Have they seen them many times before?) Or, if the audience is completely new, do I have to consider educating the audience as part of the ad’s visuals?

Second, how much space do I get to deliver my message? This is critical on many levels. If I’m getting a full page ad space, my audience is far more captive than one in which I’m sharing the page with one, two, three or half a dozen other advertisers. If it’s the latter, I know I have to plan for a way to pull the reader’s eye away from the other ads to get their attention. This is absolutely essential in executing the right design for the right space because not knowing what other advertisers may be presenting on the page can kill the most beautiful designs that are in the wrong place. It’s like competing in a cooking competition, and everyone can make whatever they want, from a breakfast item to a fancy dessert. So if my client makes the absolute, best chicken parmesan in the world, but the next guy puts out a four-tier wedding cake, guess who’s gonna get the attention?

A frequent request I get is to just “shrink down” that full page ad we did over here to fit this tiny quarter page ad space over there. It just doesn’t translate. Let’s take a look. As an example, just so I don’t offend any past and present clients, I’ll use an old holiday greeting card. Here it is:


It doesn’t have any sales headline or copy on it, but you can use your imagination, right? So let’s now take a look at it “just shrunk down” to fit that quarter page space.


Holy Hannah! It’s so tiny now! Ignoring the fact that any headline and copy would be much too small now to read, how much of the detail in the artwork can you see? This is the problem with trying to save money by “shrinking” down an existing ad to fit another space. It just doesn’t work. The ad loses impact; it’s improperly scaled for the space. Not to mention if the other advertisers do properly scale their designs to fit the space, your “shrunk down” ad may look even more poorly against the other three on the page.

If the design elements (gingerbread man, decorated trees, house and dog) all represent products for sale, do you need a magnifying glass to see them? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on just one or two products in close up to draw in the viewer? Let’s take a look at that instead:


Big improvement. We’re only focusing on two key elements. So the moral of the story is that “just shrink it” often doesn’t work. Overlooking the fact that most shrunk-down ads are not the same perspective in scale anyway (length and width), usually the elements in the composition have to be re-thought through to see if they will work in a new size and new publication. You may need to start from scratch.

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