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Design Thoughts

If everything shouts, nothing gets heard. So, prioritise!

In big brand advertising there’s usually one, simple, strong message. The advertiser, probably already widely known, also has a well-known reputation for something specific. They can leave a lot unsaid, so their aim will be to grab your attention and get something to stick in your mind. Sometimes it’s hard to later recall what that annoying thing in your mind was actually advertising, but that’s another matter. Besides, they’ve got the budget to keep at it until you do remember.

When you’re a smaller business or individual with a lot to say, it’s hard to prioritise. You don’t want to leave anything out in case what you leave out could win you customers. You’ve probably got a limited budget and therefore limited opportunities to get your messages across.

Prioritise you must, though, and here’s why

One of my interests is creating and recording music. In 1997 the Beach Boys singer, writer and producer Brian Wilson released backing and vocal tracks for their 1966 album Pet Sounds. Hearing the elements separately like this was a revelation. I found it fascinating to hear how the musicians built up the many instrumental parts during the sessions.

However, in a song the words and melody reign supreme, so those have to be prioritised above all else. Wilson had to push back the instrumental backing somewhat in order for the vocals to stand out clearly in the final mix. The necessity of mixing down to mono for the record would further limit space in the mix.

A similar scenario applies to the production of marketing and informational materials. Your chosen medium will have limited space, and the time your target audience views it will be limited too. You have difficult choices to make. If you don’t prioritise your messages you’ll end up with a confusing cacophony. With no focus, nothing will stand out and the eye will have nowhere to go. This could leave your potential customers struggling to understand your offering. Worse still, they might switch off and go elsewhere.

There will probably be a particular response you want from each person reading your material. Your task, then, is to do what you need to do to get that response. Pique their interest, give them the information they need, prompt a response and provide a simple mechanism to respond with.

There are other benefits to prioritising

Your message isn’t the only thing that will benefit from the clarity that prioritisation creates. Your design’s quality and attractiveness will also improve, hence your image will too.

A crowded, unfocussed design is hard for the viewer to process and is off-putting. A simpler design with clear points of focus and a logical order to it will draw someone in and lead them around it. The experience will be more of a pleasure and less of a chore, so you’re more likely to retain someone’s attention. You’ll also give your message a much more solid, accomplished and trustworthy foundation.

Ways to prioritise

The first thing to do is to decide what the main purpose of your communication is, and any subsidiary points. You can place the relative emphasis on these through the use of style, size, colour and position. You need to take care not to overdo things—the most effective design will be a strong and clear one. The aim should be to draw the eye to the most important elements first.


In text, you can emphasise using bolder type, italic or a different typeface entirely. For layout, devices such as boxes and rules can help you make elements stand out.


It stands to reason that larger text will be read first. That will only be the case, however, if there is a relatively small amount of it.


Whether and how to use colour will depend on the medium, the subject and any existing branding that needs following. Consider how splashes of colour not used elsewhere can draw the eye to important content.


The direction in which one reads western-style multi-page documents dictates that right-hand pages are seen first. That’s why advertising space on right-hand pages is more valuable. In Arabic or Hebrew media, for example, the opposite is of course the case. You need to think about to how the medium you’re using will be viewed, and how to position elements to best effect. Good use of positioning in a layout can help lead the eye around it, dictating reading priority. Also, positioning an element outside the flow of the main content can make it stand out effectively.

Plan for priority

When planning an item with promotional or informational content, think about picking one main point to get across. Prioritise that and weave the rest of your content around it to give a logical reading order. That order won’t necessarily be top to bottom or left to right! You have to give sufficient information whilst not drowning your audience in a sea of words. Visually, you want points of focus around which you expand with detail, rather than giving equal weight to everything. It can be a hard balance to achieve, but will pay you back with more engagement and better results.

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