Stopping power: why good design matters

This blog post is 9 years old. Please, when reading this, be mindful of its age.

All unions, progressive organisations and political parties produce advertisements (or collateral) — whether posters, brochures, leaflets, billboards and so on. We can easily measure whether the collateral has been successful by whether the intended audience actually stops and consumes the ad. “Where the eye stops, the sale begins” is an old advertising maxim.

With unions under pressure to compete for workers’ attention in an increasingly “noisy” space (workplaces, public areas, television, etc), and relying on limited resources, it is important that their collateral (posters, brochures, etc) are as effective as possible. New research by Rik Pieters, Michel Wedel, & Rajeev Batra into the effectiveness of ads should be of interest to union communicators and progressive designers. Decision makers — union secretaries, lead organisers, campaign managers and marketing managers — can also refer to this research to understand why it is important to invest in good design.

In their article, The Stopping Power of Advertising, in the Journal of Marketing, Pieters, Wedel and Batra distinguish between two elements of design: “feature complexity” and “design complexity”, and the two approaches to design in advertising: simplicity and complexity. They argue that feature and design complexity have different effects on attention and attitude towards the ad.

Feature complexity is defined as:

Advertisements that contain more detail and variation in their basic visual features, color, luminance, and edges are more complex… Researchers have examined this in computer and vision science under the general labels of “visual complexity” (Donderi 2006; Huhmann 2003) or “visual clutter” (Rosenholz, Li, and Nakano 2007).

Images that are high in feature complexity are “visually cluttered” which hinders people in understanding the purpose of the ad:

Advertisements high in feature complexity divert people from carefully looking at the brand, which reduces
attention to the advertisement as a whole… Because the brand receives less attention, people cannot easily determine what the advertisement is for and thus like it less. In general, the processing load caused by high levels of visual clutter should be liked less because consumers’ motivation and ability to process information are low under normal ad-viewing conditions.

Design complexity is very differently defined:

Alternatively, advertisements with more elaborate designs in terms of the shapes, objects, and patterns they contain are also more complex. Whereas feature complexity taps the unstructured variation in the visual features of image pixels, design complexity taps the structured variation in terms of specific shapes, objects, and their arrangements in the advertisement. Researchers have previously examined this under the general label of “complexity” or “structural complexity” (Arnheim 1954; Berlyne 1958; Cox and Cox 1988). Because it resides in the advertisement’s creative design, we call it “design complexity.” Decisions about design complexity are fundamental in ad development and under direct control of advertisers and ad agencies.

The design complexity is purposeful and engaging — and actually aids in the comprehension of the ad’s purpose by the viewer, and can help with the “glueing” process (that is, the stickiness of the ad).

Because the design complexity of advertisements mostly resides in the pictorial rather than in the brand or text, people should pay more attention to the pictorial, which will raise attention to the advertisement as a whole. Because the complex pictorial is more engaging, people are also expected to like the advertisement more.

Similarly, because design complexity “evokes midlevel perceptual processes” and “does not raise visual clutter”, a complex design does not necessarily make it harder for viewers to understand the ad.

The entire article is interesting — and filled with examples of ads with feature complexity and design complexity — but the takeaway is this:

Feature complexity is the density of visual detail in the advertisement in terms of color, luminance, and edges. It hurts brand attention and attitude toward the ad. Design complexity is the intricacy of the creative design of the advertisement in terms of its shapes, objects, and organization. It helps attention to the pictorial and to the advertisement as a whole, ad comprehensibility, and attitude toward the ad. These findings are important because design complexity is under direct control of advertising creatives, agencies, and advertisers. In addition, we proposed and found that visual complexity is distinct from brand identifiability (i.e., the difficulty or ease of identifying the advertised brand). Increased difficulty of identifying the advertised brand harmed ad comprehensibility. Jointly, this reveals that complex advertisements need not be complicated and that the question whether visual complexity harms or helps advertising performance critically depends on where the complexity resides: the features or the design of the advertisement. Feature complexity harms and design complexity helps ad performance.

Design matters. Stuffing your posters, leaflets, brochures, websites, etc, with visual details is actively counterproductive. Visual clutter in your marketing collateral makes it harder for people to understand what the ad is all about and to take away the information contained in the ad.

Having creative designs — designs that tell a story, are creative or aesthetic — actively makes the ad more effective. People look at the ad longer, the message is more “sticky”, has greater comprehensibility and attitudes are more positive.

I completely agree with Pieters, Wedel and Batra, who conclude by recommending that marketers invest in good design. Unions have limited resources at their disposal, and it makes sense to invest in a good designer, rather than waste money distributing poorly designed material that does not achieve its purposes or actively does damage.

This blog post is 9 years old. Please, when reading this, be mindful of its age.