How to Design an Effective Billboard | Less Is More

A Billboard Design Guide

A billboard can be a beautiful piece of work, but completely ineffective. In the same way, a less pleasing look can still be an effective billboard design if it communicates the message. But there is no reason for either of these situations.

This billboard design guide is intended for local and regional businesses, although much of the information is still applicable to national brands. The absence of photos and illustrations is intentional, as this guide represents the work to be done before embarking on design. Review each section and answer all questions in writing before you begin the design process. You won’t receive an effective design without first doing your homework.

You don’t know what you want until you write it down.

Purpose

Define success for your billboard design. What is it you want to accomplish in real terms? “Increase revenue” is not an answer. Write down the ad’s specific goal. The purpose of the ad is the compass for its design. For most, it is to either 1) spread brand recognition or 2) call the observer to action. The latter option is what many local or regional businesses utilize. They want the reader to call a phone number, visit a location, click on a website, increase foot traffic, drive ticket sales, boost brand recognition, or similar.

Strategy

It doesn’t get any easier than this. Here’s your billboard design strategy: 1) Hook the reader upon first glance, then 2) communicate the message within two seconds maximum.

Unless the ad first hooks the reader, they will look away and never notice the billboard again. They are driving at speed and scenery is constantly changing; a thousand other interesting things capture their attention. The hook should take place in about a half-second. Then, once hooked, the message and call to action need to be communicated, ideally within the next second but no more than two. There are many ways to hook the reader, but most hooks are either the ad’s message, a relevant photo, or a graphic. All three are discussed below.

Message

You get one. Not two. And definitely not three. One message in your billboard design. So, figure out what it is. Think about it as a means to hook the reader. Even if the billboard contains another element as the hook, the message should relate to and reinforce that hook. What are you offering that interests the reader? The best messages are concise and strike an emotional chord.

Ads may contain limited secondary information – a secondary message. However, understand that this information will not be recognized until after the first message is communicated, the reader is hooked, and only then upon repeated sightings of the billboard. Your readers are moving.

Call to Action (CTA)

Billboard design should contain a clear call to action, even for brand awareness ads. The CTA may be to visit a business location, call a number, or click a website. However, writing down phone numbers is awkward while driving, so I recommend the CTA being to visit a website. To do that, just list the website. Once there, the reader can get the phone number, find out where your business is located, or take any number of other actions. Plus, most websites are much easier to remember than phones, so no writing is necessary. Capitalize the first letter of each word to increase readability. If your website is not easy to remember, switch to one that is. Transferring a website from one URL to another is easy, done often, and can usually be accomplished by a call to your web host.

Language

Effective billboard design will use language the reader understands. For example, if you are a contractor that does remodels for home owners, don’t call yourself a contractor. Instead, speak in the language of your client. “Kitchen and Bath Remodeler” may sound odd to you, but your client will know exactly what it is. Better yet, avoid the ad being about you and instead strike that emotional cord with “Upgrade Your Kitchen”, “Re-make Your Space”, or “Relax in Your Remodel”. This is a point worth repeating. Avoid talking about you – focus instead on your reader.

Name

Do you need your business name on the ad? Maybe. But often times not. We recently designed a billboard advertising office space for rent where the call to action was to visit a website. The website was a memorable URL, so ad success meant the reader remembered the site and visited it. The billboard design was consistent with the website, so we didn’t distract from the message by including the name of the business. Notice the theme? By removing extraneous information, more emphasis is automatically placed upon the more important elements.

Brand

Include brand colors, fonts, and logo to create a consistent experience for the reader. When viewing your billboard, website, business card, or any other marketing materials, consistency reduces confusion and increases confidence. If these materials do not have a common look, feel, and message, the reader will associate your business with disorder, even if only subconsciously.

Hierarchy

Rank all design elements to be included on the billboard – message, call to action, etc. – according to importance. Ensure the ad design reflects this hierarchy. Typically, the message is the most important and most prominent on the ad, then the call to action, then secondary messaging (if any). A reader’s eye should be led to the primary element first, then the secondary, and so on. This does not mean the order in which they are displayed, but rather the visual importance and weight provided them in the design.

Blank Space

Don’t fill every corner of an ad. It distracts the reader, they won’t know where to focus their attention, and they will gravitate to something more interesting…such as the grass growing on the edge of the road. Blank space is a billboard design element and just as important as the message or logo. Blank space emphasizes the important elements of the ad. A cluttered ad can damage reputation by leaving the reader with a negative impression upon your business. Less is more.

Contrast

Contrast is necessary to emphasize important elements. Text on an ad should be high contrast and not monochromatic. Contrast can be utilized with photography as well to emphasize important elements and draw the eye. Low contrast can be used to deemphasize less important details.

Font

A manager within our state’s Department of Transportation once remarked to me, “There are only a few fonts that are readable at 55 miles per hour.” He was speaking of highway signs which are nothing but a utilitarian billboard. However, the point still holds truth. To read the message or call to action, it must be presented in a readable font, even if it means the font isn’t a brand font. Don’t make your reader work too hard or else they will simply glance away.

Clutter

Re-read “blank space” above. Declutter to emphasize important billboard design elements. Less is more.

Imagery

Photos are tricky with billboard design. I am a proponent of photos in marketing materials, but in billboards they should be used with the utmost of care. The incorrect use of photos in many billboards I observe reduce the effectiveness of the ad. Here’s why: Photos are amazing communicators, and our attention is drawn to them automatically. Remember that you only have a split second to hook the reader. So, unless your photo is the hook, consider getting rid of it.

But photos can be great hooks. If advertising for a symphony, a musician with a violin will undoubtedly capture your target market. Celebrity photos are also useful if you can obtain them. Images of other people bring a human element to an ad and develop a personal connection. This is why professional services such as realtors or lawyers often use them. However, if a photo of a person is used, the unimportant background should be dropped to increase contrast, declutter, and clarify. Even if your business is an outfitter and the photo is of a fly fisherman, consider dropping that beautiful river background so the reader can appreciate the more important element of the fisherman. Less is more.

A word of caution regarding photos: They can distract from your message. A billboard in our area contains a photo of Elton John, an awesome hook. I immediately recognized the celebrity and my attention was drawn to the billboard. However, though I’ve seen this billboard dozens of times, as I ponder it while writing this article, I have no idea what is being advertised. Each time I’ve seen the ad my mind transitioned to his music career or his personality or I started singing “Rocket Man”. The hook is good, but the ad never transitioned me to the message. A photo must relate to and reinforce the message, and the ad must seamlessly lead the reader from the photo to the message without effort. Photos should relate DIRECTLY to the message.

Illustrations or vector art are less powerful imagery but can still provide great value if used within your brand. I tend to gravitate toward illustrations when we need to appeal to a broader audience than is possible with a photo. A photo can be hyper-specific whereas an illustration more broad.

On To Design!

With your homework complete, you can now begin design. Whether you create the billboard yourself (not recommended) or you hire a designer (this is the way – walk therein), you now possess meaningful information to produce an effective billboard design. Remember to keep the purpose and message in focus. A competent designer will double the effectiveness of an otherwise mediocre ad.


If you are a business based on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, I’ll be happy to review your billboard design prior to production at no cost. No agenda here, other than wanting to help local businesses be more effective. I am not a designer but manage and work with them daily. Simply email your ad to [email protected]. Grow thick skin, for I will not be kind. And remember, less is more.

David McCaleb
LinkedIn

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