Designing an ad campaign

Designers have to wear a lot of hats these days.

You might create a website one day, a brochure the next, and an ad campaign for print or social media after that.

Designing ad campaigns can be tricky if you haven’t done a lot of it. The canvas is often small and doesn’t give you a lot of room for error. You get just one chance to hook a user with design and information. Here’s how to do it.

Write a killer headline

Never underestimate the power of a few key words, no matter the size spacing you are working with. The best headlines are simple, short, and involve some kind of call to action.

One example of a headline that grabs attention is one by Pantene, a shampoo company. The ad starts with “don’t wash your hair,” leaving users scratching their heads until they read the message following it.

The headline  can be powerful and firm, soft and empathetic or questioning and thought-provoking. At the very least, it should be somewhat memorable. Many people have to interact with a brand as many as 20 times before it can be recognizable. 

Also remember continuity between ads. Using the same headline throughout the campaign helps to establish that, but there is room to play with the visuals, as long as continuity is still there.

Establish a visual story

An ad campaign should tell a story. It can happen all at once with multiple ads at one time, or over a specified time frame with a series of ads that are released one by one.

Again, continuity is key. There should be a consistent color and typography palette so keep the story connected through ads. 

A common mistake is to cram in too much information, so keep the story focused. Even with large-scale designs, there isn’t a lot of room to work with if you want users to see your information at a glance. Images and text need to be understood in just a couple seconds. 

Show the unexpected

The best ads do something that users don’t expect to see, as it will help grab their attention. It can be in the form of an interesting or surprising visual, text or combination of elements.

What’s different about your business or brand? The best way to find a solution is to start with an open brainstorming session where nothing is off limits; see what ideas come out of it and go from there.

Create an immersive experience

The digital ad format, in particular, gives designs a lot of freedom to create campaigns that seem less like ads and more like experiences through interactivity.

Engage the senses with strong visuals, sound, motion and plenty of imagery that creates an emotional connection. Consider social media. The most engaging posts are those that help users do something, from sharing hashtags to clicking “like,” and an ad campaign can work in the same manner to spark engagement.

Give users something to do. Show them that lots of other people are doing it. Make your experience something that people feel like they must be a part of.

Leave users wanting more

A good ad leaves users wanting to know more or feel the need to act, whether it be making a purchase or supporting a cause or even visiting your website.

A campaign is good for as long as this holds true. Consider Flo, the Progressive spokesperson. She’s been a long-standing character for the insurance carrier with a line of ads built around her. She’s still being used because users like the character and want to see more of her. Some ads have even expanding into showing Flo’s family.

You don’t have a lot of room or time to capture someone with an ad. It should be quick, interesting and indicate and action to take. That last part is important. With online ads in particular, users expect to click for more information, but sometimes you still need to tell them “click here to learn more” or “click for 10% off.”


This approach is the same as if you are designing any other content. Use whitespace well, tell a story and let the content dictate the design. The big difference is in ensuring that users are left with something to do to conclude the ad interaction experience.

If you are new to building ads, approach them like the above-the-scroll section of a homepage. It’s the same concept. You have a limited amount of space to sell the user on something and get him or her to complete an action. Ads don’t really have to look different than other types of content; they should be well-designed and easy on the eyes.