The Art of the Billboard

I recently had the unfortunate experience of a 1,000+ mile road trip from Milwaukee to Orlando (dang airline prices). During those 21 grueling hours of driving I was able to witness a good chunk of American outdoor advertising, and I gotta say, 90% of it falls under the category of “total crap.” With either too many words or too many pictures, most left me thinking “huh?” And while it seems creating a billboard may be simple, it actually takes a lot of thought to create something impactful and meaningful.

So, here’s three basic guidelines important for getting the most bang for your board.

It was amazing to me how many companies were putting way too much info on something you have only seconds to see, read and process. The general rule has always been to keep the headline at seven words or less — yet I saw many with multiple headlines, bullet points, or just useless contact info (Do they really think someone is going to jot down a phone number while driving 70 mph?) That being said, there were a couple diamonds in the rough. McDonalds is the first one to come to mind. Most of the time it was a simple, to-the-point, three-word headline accompanied by a large food item. Just enough for you to see it and think, “Mmmm… fries ARE good, aren’t they?” And that’s the kind of simple emotion you want people to get from a billboard. This isn’t the medium for telling the public every aspect of your business. That’s what websites are for.

“Less is more” applies to images as well as words. Most of the boards out there that make an impact had one solid color and kept a whole lot of white space around the few elements they used. Many designers/clients might think they have a gigantic board to fill with as much stuff as they can. But in reality it’s a pretty small piece of real estate given its surroundings. Again, remember how little time people have to look at these.  The less clutter going on the more time the viewer has to process the few things that are on it. They may still be looking at the yellow “SAVINGS! SAVINGS! SAVINGS!” burst, the sappy stock photo and the cluster bomb of 15 different name brand logos before they have time to see that the outlet mall is coming up at the next exit. If it’s not absolutely necessary to get the message across, lose it.

Now this is more for campaigns with a larger media buy, but there is a big advantage in keeping billboards similar. A brand like Cracker Barrel keeps such a consistent simple look that the viewer already knows what it’s for before even being close enough to read anything. That just gave them a few more precious seconds to comprehend the message. And now even that guy who is not paying attention to all the clutter whizzing by him probably also subconsciously registered the brand without even reading a word.

Of course there’s a lot more I could get into on making a great billboard like flow, uniqueness and placement but our social marketing guru told me to keep this blog to around 500 words so that will just have to wait. So for now, I’ll keep it to these basic guidelines that, if followed, will stand out a heck of a lot more than all the other noise that’s out there right now.

Oh, and no matter what the price, fly. Four hour traffic jams suck no matter how good the surrounding billboards are.