What makes an effective billboard ad?

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Imagine driving through the city and passing by a billboard. The ad is for a local business and has all their possible information: their logo, address, website, phone number, and a list of all of their products and services. The background’s a solid color with three small pictures, while all the above information fills in the rest of the space.

And in a giant font, it reads, “$1,500!”

You’re driving roughly 30-40mph (over 65MPH on the highway!), and research shows you have less than a 50% chance to remember what you just saw. You tried to retain all the information on the ad, but it’s off the road and you need to focus on what’s in front of you. In less than ten seconds, you’re past the billboard. You can remember something about $1,500, but little idea of who or what it pertained to.

Now imagine that same ad is on a mobile billboard truck beside you in traffic.

You’re trying to gather all the information on the ad, but your lane is going faster than the billboard truck. It’s easier to see because it’s in traffic, but after several seconds of trying to glance back and forth between the billboard and the road, you’re passing it to see that it’s now displaying something different.

Once again, you’re left trying to figure out what to do with the information.

What happened?

A failure to clearly communicate a simple message.

Every ad should be easily read and understood within 3-5 seconds. In order to effectively reach as much of your target audience as possible, we’ve come up with some simple design tips you can follow to help maximize your billboard’s potential, whether it’s for a mobile or a static billboard, digital or not.

Keep It Clear And Simple

It’s a common mistake to think that an ad is simple and clear when it’s usually portraying multiple or unclear messages. How can you prevent that?

As mentioned above, a graphic should be quickly read and understood. Your message, imagery, and branding are just three of the ways to simplify it, and by doing so, people will easily be able to retain your message.

A Clear and Concise Message

While creating an ad, it’s crucial to know the one thing you want people to take away after seeing it. Maybe you want them to know about all your products or services. You might have a special promotion, or an upcoming event scheduled that you want everyone to know about.

Let’s say you want them to know about your products or services. That’s great, but there’s no need to put them all on one graphic because people won’t grasp it all. Instead, focus one ad on just a single product or service. It makes it much easier for readers to understand what you have to offer, or what problem you can solve for them. For example, a lawn care or landscaping business should make an ad devoted specifically to lawn mowing, one for hedge trimming, etc.

Focusing on one topic works for both static and mobile billboards, whether they’re digital or vinyl. But an advantage of digital is the capability to run multiple ads at once and during the same campaign, making it easier to push each message and reach its intended audience. So, if you’re using a digital billboard, mobile or static, replicate your ad for each message you’re trying to deliver.

Even though these billboards mostly increase brand awareness, someone who passes by might want to take action after seeing your ad. Although most people won’t take that step until they’re ready to, a call to action can help get things moving when the time comes.

Like the message itself, the call to action should be simple and clear, meaning every form of contact is not required. If you want them to reach out via phone, then put the number to call on there. If you want them to go online, then use the URL they need to visit.

Large and Powerful Imagery

Have you ever tried explaining something, only to end up on Google trying to find a picture of it? An image that shows what you’re talking about makes it so much easier to explain, doesn’t it? That’s because a large yet powerful image can grab someone’s attention and help them retain your message more than just text because our brains are programmed to associate images with specific information.

Let’s look at this Center For Sight ad. The big, close-up picture of an eye instantly captures your attention. It gives a visual to remember for those who saw the ad, and it relates directly to the message.

This is an ad we run for one of our clients. We were talking with a person who hadn’t been in our city for several months and asked him if he remembered the last ad he saw on our vehicles. He quickly answered, “It was the one with the giant eye… Center For Sight!”

It’s clear, that a powerful image that relates to your message can help readers remember what they saw.

Images work best when focused on one subject that’s large, easily seen, and relates directly to the message portrayed. You might think a picture looks cool, but it needs to be simple, eye-catching, and help tell the story in 3-5 seconds. Remember, people will be looking back and forth between the road and your ad, so make it easier for them.

Consistent Branding

It’s simple to recognize a brand when you see it, right? You can instantly tell when something is for AppleWalmartMcDonald’s, or most other large corporations.


Over the years, they’ve consistently built their brand to be something that consumers can easily recognize. This recognition leads to familiarity and trust. Statistics show we tend to buy from the brands we know, like, and trust.

Most every brand has a logo, but true “branding” is more than simply having a logo.

How do you want people to talk about your business when you’re not around? How do you want them to feel about your business?

That’s your brand.

There’s the visual aspect as well: your logo, color scheme, typography, language, etc. Incorporate these elements into the billboard, or really in any of your collateral, to help deliver your message more efficiently and strengthen your brand.

Let’s break it down.

Have a One Color Logo

Here’s a tip to help your logo work across more than just a light background (such as white). Most logos involve color, but every logo should be able to work in a solid color, such as black or white. Creating a one-color logo can help when working on colored backgrounds or images with poor contrast.

See ours for example:

Use Brand Colors

Colors help draw people in, whether it’s white with colorized text or a colored background with white text. Using your brand colors on your billboard makes it easier to remember your business. For example, Laura Whitney from Statefarm has used the same bright red background on all of her ads for our digital mobile billboard, and now she comes to people’s minds whenever red is on the truck.

Use your brand color(s), whether it’s for the heading or background color. Here are a few examples showing some different ways our clients have used their brand colors.

Bold and Easy-to-Read Fonts

A font communicates a lot about your brand. Are you a fun and quirky company, athletic, or high-end? The font you use helps people to quickly identify your brand and using the wrong font can hurt that.

Take a look at our name in a few different fonts:

See how they all suggest a different mood? You want to use fonts that resemble how you want people to feel about your business. Bold, sans-serif font styles, and larger font sizes allow for the highest readability in a billboard’s design.

You can also pay some attention to the spacing between the letters (known as kerning) and the space between lines of text (leading) to increase legibility even more.

Contrast Between Elements

As mentioned above, colors help grab people’s attention. But what good does that do if they still can’t read anything?

There needs to be enough contrast between your background and all of your information, for high readability. Make sure that the logo, heading, and call to action are easily readable, over the color or background chosen, within seconds.

You want it to be obvious who you are and what you offer, right?

That goes for imagery as well; An image should not blend in with the rest of the ad.

Let’s go back to the lawn care business example. Say a green content area is on the left, while an image of a fresh cut lawn occupies the right. The goal of the image is to showcase the bright green grass, right? Well, due to the similarities in color, it just blends in and doesn’t have the same effect. Maybe try for a white content area and make the text green instead, therefore connecting the image to the message even more.

Now, Let’s Put It All Together

It seems like a lot, but it’s really not. Here’s how to put it all together.

Composing all of these elements requires some basic design principles: balance, proportion and hierarchy, unity, and white space. All these principles work together to create a visually appealing graphic.

Step one is to find out how much space you have to work with. A digital mobile billboard such as ours has two screens that are different dimensions. Therefore, it’s necessary to reformat your side graphic to work for the back as well.

Visually Balance the Elements

Every element has a “weight.” But they’re not all the same, and some can appear “heavier” than others. For example, look at these two shapes, where the only difference is the size.

The larger one just looks more dominant, right? That’s because increasing the size of an element can add to its weight. Sometimes it can be obvious, such as with the size, and other times it’s not. Now look at the same shapes, both the same size, but different in color.

The darker color just looks heavier, doesn’t it? Like previously mentioned, every element has a weight, and your design should balance that weight.

See Wendy’s ad below. A photo of their breakfast sandwich occupies the right, which is matched by their logo icon big to the left. On the back, the large picture at the bottom is balanced by the logo and text filling the remaining space.

Give Readers A Clear Path

We, as humans, like a path to follow. We follow them on a daily basis, by driving on the roads we take to and from work every day. When we don’t know where we’re going, we use a map to show us the quickest path to our destination.

How does this relate to designing a billboard? Let’s find out.

The size, order, and placement of elements will create a path for the reader, and give a sense of what’s more important.

You see it practically everywhere, when there’s a big headline followed by a smaller sub-headline, sometimes with smaller and more detailed information following that. Be sure to arrange and scale your elements in the order of importance to guide readers down the path created for them.

Make Things Look Like They Go Together

Elements that look like they belong together make it so that the ad makes sense to the reader. Otherwise, readers are spending the entire time wondering why something is “out of place” when they should be getting your message.

Use two fonts (a max of three if somehow needed) that compliment each other. Don’t use multiple colors that don’t make sense and just distract readers from the message.

Use an image that suits the purpose of the ad, not one that just looks cool. Stay consistent and follow your brand.

Leave Some Breathing Room

White space, or negative space, is an area where elements are not. The space between lines of text, paragraphs, or around your logo that allows it to “breathe.”

Now, the term ‘white space’ doesn’t necessarily mean that there has to be a white background. Sure it can be white, but it has the same meaning, regardless of the background color.

Appropriate use of white space allows elements room to breathe, as mentioned above. Thus it helps the ad not to appear crowded, breaks things up, and makes it easier for readers to follow that path that you’ve created for them.

Your ad should have margins. This refers to the specific distance around the edge where certain elements (logo, headings, the call to action) shouldn’t exceed. Images are exempt from this, as your background image can extend edge-to-edge if you want, but the subject should remain within the margins.

There is not a specific margin that you have to use, but make sure to give your elements an appropriate amount of space.

Keep It Consistent

It takes someone about seven times of hearing or seeing your ad before they take action. To make it easier for you and to drive your message home a lot faster, your message and brand should be used consistently across all collateral.

Let’s say you have a stationary billboard and are running an ad in a magazine. Both should be delivering the same message and look similar in terms of colors, fonts, and imagery. This way, readers can become familiar with your brand, and they will have seen your message again.

Whatever forms of advertising you’re doing, keep it consistent, and help your readers understand what you have to offer.

While it can be quite the challenge to come up with the perfect billboard design, in the end, it’s worth it. These tips will help your billboard be more effective in reaching your target audience, as well as help in developing your brand. Hope they help!

Have any questions? How about any other tips that we may have forgotten? Let us know in the comments below!

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