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Four Things I Learned From Designing in-Store Advertising

In-store advertising and marketing is a unique area of design that presents an interesting set of problems. Today we’ll talk about some of the lessons that I learned from the years I spent in this area and how all designers everywhere can apply these lessons in their own work.

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How to Serve Two Masters

As a designer, you often find yourself in the role of people pleaser. You may have become a computer or art nerd because you weren’t great with people, but it turns out being a professional designer is all about communication, interaction and teamwork.

One of the biggest problems in this area arises when you have multiple parties with vested interest in a project. For instance, I worked with both the stores and the individual product brands, which was often a nightmare of conflict from a branding standpoint.

As an example, pick any item in your home with a popular brand: laundry detergent, food; anything. You can probably identify specific brand characteristics from the packaging and what you’ve seen in commercials: colors, fonts, messaging, mood, etc. Now pick a specific store and go through the same process. Target, for instance, has very specific brand guidelines and rules. Everything you design for Target has to look like it belongs in Target.

Now imagine that you had to design a single piece of advertising or marketing that made both parties happy. The product brand wants their colors, typography, stock photos and graphics, but wait, so does Target. Who wins?

“We had to find real solutions by analyzing and leveraging similarities and finding key points of compromise.”

It’s easy to throw up your hands and say that the task is impossible, but that’s not a terribly good way to keep your job. Instead, we had to find real solutions by analyzing and leveraging similarities and finding key points of compromise from both sides.

This is a skill that all designers should possess. Times will come when you face conflicting goals, they can even come from a single person! Lazy designers give up easily, strong designers step up and accept their role as an expert and search for feasible solutions.

How to Grab Someone’s Attention


Think about the way that you shop. You walk in with a list in hand and go to the aisles that you need to pick up the brands that you always buy. Occasionally, you’ll do some on the spot price comparisons if you’re not brand loyal.

My point is, you have an agenda in mind. The grocery store is very different from a shopping mall. Your intention is not to make an afternoon out of roaming around and casually browsing the selection, you want to get in, get what you want and get out.

When you walk down a specific aisle and look around, advertisers and marketers have about three seconds at the very most (often less) to grab your attention with a store sign, on-package coupon, floor graphic, etc. Combine this with the fact that you’re not the only one with such items in the aisle and you’ve got a difficult scenario to design for.

The Web is Your Store

If you’re in web design, you face the same scenario every day. Your huge store is the entire web and your aisle of similar products is a lot like a Google Search. When a potential customer is walking down the aisle (runs a search for a product), they have a lot of choices. They’ll likely open up six to eight browser tabs and then quickly look through and compare those choices.

In this scenario, someone isn’t dropping by the site to engage in an in-depth examination of the content. Instead, they glance at the open tab to see if it looks like what they want, then close it and move to the next tab if they don’t like what they see in the first two or three seconds.

So How Do You Grab Someone’s Attention?

This is a question that cuts to the very heart of design so there are many possible solutions. For in-store advertising, we use several tricks that you may find helpful.

For starters, you have to nail the messaging. First, it has to be crystal clear and concise. If I can’t look at your site’s headline and know what you’re all about in the time it takes my mouse to find the close button, you haven’t done your job. This involves not only structuring the grammar but also the look and feel of the headline. You can use tricks like these to make the message read quicker. It also has to be enticing. If I can read your headline in a second but it’s boring, generic and doesn’t pique my interest, you’ve still lost me.

Another thing to get right is attention-grabbing visual cues. Designers have long trusted pointy red star bursts to grab someone’s attention, but these started looking tacky and cheap fifteen years ago and still aren’t exactly back in style. Try putting a little more thought and tact into it.


For instance, faces are an instant attraction. We can’t help it, we see a face and we look. One of the things I often worked on was dog food ads, and instead of using majestic photos of a far away dog on a horizon, I used close-up facial portraits. The former might be a beautiful photo, but let’s face it, you simply can’t look away from cute puppy eyes. In addition to faces, get creative with colors, typography and everything else at your disposal to break through the monotony and stand out in some attractive way.

Effective Design Comes from Knowing Your Customer

I worked with an account executive who could tell us off the top of her head what the approximate redemption rate would be for a coupon for a specific store and product in Dallas (or wherever else you had in mind) during early March. Her Rainman-like abilities always astounded us.

We design guys may have known a lot about how to make something look good in a general sense, but she understood who would see it and what they were looking for. Who shops for candy in Northern Oregon at Wal-Mart around Easter? Are they males or females? Do they have families? What’s their median income? How much are they buying? How can we persuade them to buy M&M’s instead of Hershey’s?

One thing that I’m constantly droning on about on Design Shack is how web designers often give very little thought to these types of questions. You can’t apply demographic marketing to the Internet! Everyone uses it! Right?

“Wouldn’t your designs be more effective if you put some thought and research into what these people are looking for and why they make the choices that they make?”

However, if your client hired you to create a website for small business tax software, you too have a very specific market don’t you? Wouldn’t your designs be more effective if you put some thought and research into what these people are looking for and why they make the choices that they make? The great news is, your client likely knows a lot of this information already. Watch how impressed they become when you start asking about it!

Believe in the Brand

As a designer, it’s really easy to find yourself in a place where you hate the products and people that you’re designing for. This can really take a toll on the quality of work that you produce and your overall happiness with your career. Despite having a genuine love for design, you feel like you don’t even want to be a designer anymore. The problem isn’t necessarily the job however but how you feel about the people that you work with.

This is an extremely important concept that’s worth putting some time, thought and effort into. Sometimes, belief in a brand comes natural. You lucked out and get to create web pages for Apple all day and couldn’t have more faith in the product. Other times, it’s a little trickier.

As I mentioned above, I spent a lot of time designing marketing materials for dog food. This isn’t exactly a glamorous position, I don’t even own a dog! However, I felt like a rock star. I was creating materials that hundreds of thousands of people saw daily in major retail chains. Even more importantly though, I made myself believe in the brand and when that happened, I loved my work.

“If you simply can’t get behind the clients and products that you design for, then it might be time to find new work.”

I was convinced that we had the best dang dog food brand on the market. I paid attention to dog food commercials, checked my mailbox daily for dog food ads to analyze and always drove my wife nuts at grocery stores by demanding that we visit the pet food aisle. I didn’t personally use the product or have any reason to love it other than the fact that it paid my bills. That was enough to make me dedicated to doing the absolute best job I could do when I worked with that brand.

If you simply can’t get behind the clients and products that you design for, then it might be time to find new work. You don’t have to work for your favorite brand on the planet to be happy, you just have to find something that you can identify with; your dog food so to speak.


We went over four important lessons in the post above. First, designers should learn how to look out for the interests of multiple parties, even when an obvious solution doesn’t present itself. Next, a good designer can grab someone’s attention and communicate a message in less than three seconds. Also, effective design comes from knowing your customer: Who are these people? What are they looking for? How can you persuade them? Finally, believing in the products and people that you design for is a crucial element in the quest to love what you do for a living. Sometimes really loving the design that you do is natural, other times it takes some effort and in some cases you might simply need to search for new clients.

I hope you’ve found these lessons as valuable as I have. Feel free to leave a comment and let us know what you think!