Display Design Techniques

Display Design Techniques

Whether it’s a display ad for a magazine with lots of copy in 8-point Arial type, or a giant wall display at the airport using 12" tall serif fonts, the same design disciplines apply. However, for us in the sign industry, we are concerned with maintaining readability, flow and clarity of the objective because most of the time our work is viewed at a distance. If you design a display that’s to be viewed from 20' or farther away, you must follow certain design disciplines. If your design is to be viewed at arms-length, there is a completely different discipline to follow or else your display design becomes nothing more than an art project. Here are some things to consider when designing any sort of display that must convey multiple ideas, yet deliver a clear, unified message.

First let me clarify that not every “display” asks the viewer to take an action, or feel an emotion. Many displays are simply informational in nature, such as an organizational flow chart or an illustration on the benefits of hand washing. These are not the types of “Display Designs” I am referring to. I am talking about displays that include multiply thoughts, ideas and information that is arranged in such a way as to spark an emotion that moves the viewer into action.

Yes, a hand washing sign can move you to wash your hands more thoroughly; however, it’s not a display as it conveys only a single thought or idea.

This represents what the client has provided us for this project; the parts and pieces that we will bring together to create the display.

Additionally, there is a plethora of information out there on the psychology of imagery and color as it relates to the overall effectiveness of a design. This information is important if you have been assigned the task of creating or selecting the graphic elements, colors, fonts and photos for the project. In fact, it’s so important that to cover it properly requires that it be covered in its own article at a later date.

For this article, let’s assume you have been provided the colors, artwork and fonts by the customer and your job is to assemble the parts and pieces into a design that effectively conveys the client’s message to the viewer.

Print Vs. Outdoor

When I refer to print media, I mean anything designed for production on paper or other substrate that is to be viewed at an arms-length distance. Outdoor utilizes some of the same design disciplines as print, however when the viewing distance moves from 18" out to 20 feet or more, the techniques change. One rule of thumb to remember is the greater the viewing distance, the less you can say effectively.

Have you ever noticed newspaper ads that seem to cram minute details into every square centimeter of available white-space? Those types of ads are usually overlooked by the viewer because there is no visual cue to find the “open door” for the viewer to enter the design. Their eyes can’t easily move through the ad in the traditional backwards “S” flow pattern so in a lot of cases, the information is lost in confusion.

A good study example of a print media “display” would be a fold-out magazine illustration. For this example I will use this tongue-in-cheek concept: “The transitional path and history of man in relationship to his environment and how a candy-corn diet can improve the digestive absorption rate of essential amino acids that have proven to reduce the effects of aging.” Wow, that’s a lot of information to convey on 11" x 17" layout. In a case such as this, we must first identify the main message that the client is trying to convey. Is it “Man’s history in his environment” or is it “Amino acid absorption” or is it “Eat candy corn and avoid aging?” You would be surprised at how many of your clients may not understand this concept because they are so close to their industry that they don’t see what the real message should be in order to capture the viewers’ attention. What one thought, graphic or idea will inspire the viewer to stop texting and take a minute to look at the display?

Clients who are not visual or are not experienced with using graphic elements to create a mood or feeling may struggle with this perceptional concept. They will be looking to you for an effective design that works.

Designing for Outdoor Displays

An outdoor display requires a much different design discipline in order to maintain readability and flow because of the increased viewing distance. I have explained to my customers that the size of the display area has less to do with effective design than the viewing distance. The farther away the viewer is from the display, the less information the design should try to convey. When you add movement into this equation, visibility and readability factors change. Outdoor design disciplines (such as with outdoor billboard displays) are designed around viewing time, not just readability or graphic flow. Most outdoor billboard companies place their displays strategically for the longest “read time” possible. They are typically thrilled to have as much as a 3 second viewing time, so cleaver layout and design is even more critical for a billboards overall readability and effectiveness.

Here I illustrate how the text must balance with the space allowed. Keep in mind that is designed to be a printed piece at 11”x17” so fonts must remain in the 10pt range for easy reading.  The layout is tighter with less vacant space because the reader is viewing this within 18”.  It also warranted a solid band of color at the top to help the text pop.  I chose to eliminate the candy corn colors in the font for an easier read.

Things to Consider when Creating Display Designs

I like to approach design by “gathering” all of the facts, graphics and emotional trigger details that are to be considered for the display. (Notice that I did not say “included”—I will address this in a moment) The intangible elements of the emotional triggers are sometimes overlooked and or get buried amongst a sea of graphic or body-text elements that the customer wants included in the display. Including everything the client gives you might be an absolute requirement for the display, however, the amount of content may cripple the layout’s flow. Finding answers to the following questions may help you determine the best way to establish the visual hook for the display.

I start out by asking the following questions:

1. What are the minimum and maximum viewing distances of the finished display?

2. What is the overall message that the owner is trying to convey to the viewer?

3. Who is the intended viewer? (age, demographic, lifestyle, etc.)

4. What event would bring them to this place to see this display? (is it a Trade Show for physicians where every viewer is probably a doctor or nurse, or an open public area where the audience is not proprietary, such as an airport? This can prove to be one of the most important facts you will work with in your design direction.

5. What are the essential graphic elements to be included?

6. What are the printed messages and text details that need to be included?

7. What are the size parameters of the display?

8. What production methods will be used for producing the display?

9. How much time will the display be at its location for viewing?

10. What would the logical order of importance be for the information that must be conveyed and why?

Without a solid grasp on this information, you will struggle to design a display that actually works like it should.

I wanted to get a perspective on this from a print & digital media designer, so I’ve asked the very talented Elisa St. John of Elisa St. John Parker Graphic Design to chime in with her viewpoint on Display Design. Elisa states: “I’ve come to realize that the old saying “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” definitely holds true for a lot of design projects. If there is space on the page, the client will want to fill it up. The task given to the designer is to be able to extrapolate the key message that the client is trying to convey and then visually translate that message into as few words/images as possible while still encouraging the intended audience to take action. Another old saying definitely applies to this concept and that is “Less is more.”

The design shouldn’t be overly-complicated or cluttered. In fact, because we are always so inundated with constant visual stimulation, when something catches our attention it is usually something simple, clean and concise. Again, less is more. Leave them wanting more”.

So in closing, remember that there should be a primary message that is intended to grab the reader’s attention. The message should be short and easy to grasp. There should be an order to the importance of the elements and information, and avoid including every single word until the overall design is established. In many cases, copy can be condensed to fit the space available which may be critical for making everything fit. Ask in advance if copy editing is an option and in not, do your best to maintain a visual flow by minimizing font sizes and increasing negative space.

Keeping it simple will do more for the effectiveness of a display design than any graphic or visual icon ever could. Just always remember to repeat to yourself… Less says more, less says more.