What is visual design? And how can you grasp some basics to help you become a better marketer? Make sure to go through this guide before you dive into your next campaign!
Few people inhabiting our green(ish) Earth are as self-centered as writers (🙋♀️). Without any doubt, we’re a crucial part of marketing. Yet, many of us, copywriters, content writers, account managers, and the like, forget about the power of visuals.
So, here’s a quick reminder in numbers!
- Social media posts with images deliver a 650% higher engagement than text-only posts (Red Website Design).
- People read only about 25% of the content on a web page. (Nielsen)
- Most marketers (60.8%) claim visuals are imperative for the success of their marketing strategy (Red Website Design).
- A majority of marketers today use custom graphics over stock photos. Original graphics also outperform stock photos by over 30% (Venngage).
So, not only is design a critical component of marketing, but it also makes it much more effective. And yet, by and large, marketers still have a very limited understanding of this field.
What does visual design entail? What does a visual designer do? Can you or should you design your marketing materials as a digital marketer?
Let’s answer all your budding questions!
What is visual design?
Although we may use the terms visual design and graphic design interchangeably throughout this text, the two are different.
Graphic design is the art of communicating through visual elements and text. This includes anything from prints on t-shirts to social media posts.
On the other hand, visual design is limited to digital media. So, it’s the most important area of graphic design that modern marketers should know about.
When we talk about visual communication design, the focus is usually on the “big picture.” For example, developing a brand’s visual identity that will inform every subsequent piece of design.
Visual design basics
Before diving into the all-important application of visual design, we must cover some basic visual design principles and elements you should know about.
Visual design elements
If you want to be able to tell good design apart from bad, you need to start with the basics. Here are the most basic design elements used in virtually every graphic.
Everything starts from the line. Whether straight or curved, thin or thick, full or dotted, lines are often the foundation of any piece of design. They are used to make connections between different elements or to place focus (e.g., frames).
The study of color is divided into two branches: color theory and color psychology. Color theory is concerned with how colors are paired and mixed. It’s based on the color wheel and makes a distinction between different groups of colors: primary, secondary, tertiary, contrasting, and analogous.
Color psychology is a developing field that studies universal reactions to colors. Although these findings depend on the context, it’s helpful to know them. For example, red is often associated with passion, danger, love, or fear (all powerful emotions). On the other hand, blue is a calming color that often represents mindfulness, trustworthiness, and professionalism (hence, why it’s the most commonly used logo color).
Shape is the natural extension of the line. Similar to lines, shapes are also used as “building blocks” of a piece of design. Like every other design element, they can prompt different reactions and bring different qualities to the table.
For example, organic, fluid shapes often suggest natural qualities, while sharp rectangular shapes show that something is artificial.
Although you can’t touch visual design, that doesn’t mean you can’t evoke their tactile sense. This is where texture comes into play. A combination of lines, shapes, and color, texture adds depth and visual interest. It can also be used to bring attention to specific details.
What does a visual designer do? In a nutshell, visual communication design is all about delivering particular messages. The most straightforward way to do that is through text.
The creation of fonts and typefaces is a critical component of visual designing. The main types of fonts are serifs, sans serifs, and script fonts. Choosing typography carefully is imperative as it can completely alter the look and feel of a piece of design. Just imagine the Coca-Cola logo in a geometric sans serif typeface!
Visual design principles
Now that you know about the essential components of design let’s look at some fundamental principles or rules on how to arrange these elements and achieve the desired effect.
Out of all the visual design principles, this is the most significant one. The principle of balance suggests that each element should be crucial in a piece of design, and the design shouldn’t work or have the same effect if any element were removed or altered.
Rather than being selected randomly, this principle ensures that each element contributes to the design’s purpose. In marketing, this purpose can be either to strengthen the brand image, prompt an action, evoke a feeling, or all of those.
Not to be confused with texture, pattern is the regular repetition of design elements (although texture is sometimes achieved through repetition, it’s not necessarily regular). Patterns are often used to create a more dynamic background. However, it’s advised that non-designers use them sparingly since patterns can easily create overcrowded designs and jeopardize user-friendliness.
Contrast is yet another vital principle that you’re probably familiar with. It’s probably the most effective way to place focus on a specific element or add visual interest to a design. Contrast can be achieved by pairing two opposing elements together. For example, cold colors and warm ones, big and small shapes, thick and thin lines, sans serif and script fonts, etc.
This principle is especially important in visual communication design, as it helps ensure the message is clear. If you think of a web landing page as an example, you can see how hierarchy is vital to ensure a good user experience.
For example, the hero section usually has larger text and big images, while other critical sections will be blocked off. The information and design elements are usually placed in an order that leads to the call to action button.
While you may have heard about most of these visual design principles, this is the one you’re most likely to ignore. Non-designers often assume that the absence of design is simply a sign of a designer’s laziness, but in fact, it’s usually a sign of great skill.
Negative space (or white space) is needed to ensure balance and hierarchy. It’s also often used to create contrast and place focus on the most significant elements. In short, it’s the one principle that’s often a prerequisite for every other vital consideration of a piece of design.
Humans naturally tend to group things and “fill in” the missing pieces. Placing elements near or far ensures balance and provides an aesthetic appeal to designs. It also helps enforce the message since the items placed nearby are perceived as having the same quality.
How does design impact marketing?
We don’t need to tell you that design is vital to any marketing effort. You’re well aware that every Instagram post needs a visual, and you probably have a hunch that lengthy blog articles need breaking down with a few graphics.
But how important is visual design in marketing? Incredibly. Here are the main reasons why you need to invest time and effort into quality graphics.
Design drives conversions
Words and copywriting give users enough information to complete an action – great design prompts them to do it.
One compelling survey was performed by Hubspot in which a simple change in the color of the CTA button from green to red increased conversions by 21%!
But of course, there’s much more to design than colors. Excellent web design ensures visitors become leads and, later, customers. There are numerous ways and tips to do this, and here are just a few.
- Create an eye-catching hero section with a clear CTA button.
This is the section where you should include one sentence on your value proposition and a CTA button that prompts visitors to act. Every other design element (color, images, lines, etc.) are used to indirectly communicate to your target audience that they’re in the right place, i.e., that you’re a business targeting them.
- Don’t forget about white space.
Busy, overcrowded designs will overwhelm people and make them close the tab before they’ve even had a chance to take a decent look at your offer. White space is necessary for a positive user experience and for helping viewers absorb the necessary information.
- Choose the right colors.
Psychological studies suggest that the choice of color can account for 60% of acceptance/rejection of a product. Since people form impressions of a website in the first 50 milliseconds, you can’t afford to get the color wrong.
Here’s an example. Everyone associates Coca-Cola with the vibrant, red shade used in their logo. But imagine if their website was covered in this color alone? It would be pretty straining to look at. Instead, they make very clever use of colors that pair well with their signature shade, whether green (a contrasting color) or purple and pink (analogous colors). With plenty of white space, of course.
There’s no content marketing without design
When you think about content marketing, what comes to mind? Most likely SEO and blogging strategies.
However, you should know by now that few people will read everything you write. And refined Google algorithms also consider this when ranking your content in search results.
Say you’ve got a long-form piece that’s informative and well-researched with lots of links to relevant content. You’ve also included all the right keywords and ensured your metadata is complete. So, you’ve ticked all the SEO boxes, and your piece is sure to rank high on Google, right?
I’m sorry to say that all your efforts might be in vain without visual design. You probably know from experience that people skim rather than read online. If a visual prompt doesn’t help them grasp the essence of the text quickly, they might leave the page immediately. This impacts your bounce rates and, of course, your search engine ranking.
Moreover, design is vital for repurposing content. Creating a quality piece of written content takes time and effort. Once you have it, you should “milk it” to its total capacity. That means transforming your content into different formats, such as an infographic or engaging social media visuals (graphs, microblogs, quizzes, etc.).
A terrific example to learn from is Hubspot’s Instagram. Everybody knows the company as the “marketer’s Bible” thanks to their high-quality blog, jam-packed with insightful data and findings. They use some of this knowledge to create eye-catching visuals with actionable tips and eye-opening data for their social media. It’s engaging, beautiful, and perfectly aligned with their knowledge-sharing brand mission.
Design helps you deliver your message
Why do corporations spend thousands of dollars paying marketing agencies to develop a short campaign tagline? Because saying “our product is the best” can’t attract modern consumers anymore.
Digital marketing has allowed businesses of all sizes and from all niches to reach exactly the right audience. However, this also goes for their competitors. To market anything online these days, you must ensure that your communication is clear and aimed at the right people.
As a marketer, you must know about certain technicalities that help with this. For example, using detailed targeting with Facebook Ads and setting up the right keywords in Google Ads. On the other hand, as a (copy)writer, you also probably have a pretty good grasp of how to manipulate the tone of voice and style to appeal to a specific target audience.
Still, this isn’t enough. People process images 60,000 times faster than text and remember images much better. In marketing terms, 60% of people are more likely to consider local search results that include images, while 68% of marketers consider visuals a top priority in their marketing strategy.
So, if you want to communicate in a way that helps people understand and remember your message, design is the way to go.
Visual design marketing tips
We’ve promised a comprehensive guide, right? So, now that we’ve covered the basics, it’s time to give you some actionable tips on how to design marketing materials that perform well. Here are 4 golden rules.
Keep it simple
If you google the word KISS as an acronym, you’ll discover that it stands for “Keep it simple, stupid.” This slightly rude maxim is a crucial principle of design coined by the US Navy in 1960. It’s the most vital design principle for product development, as simplicity and ease of use are vital for a positive user experience.
However, the KISS principle also applies to visual design. We’ve already said it a few times, but here’s another reminder to let the message sink. As a visual designer, your job is to relay a message, not impress people with your superb skills. A design that’s stunning and intricate but fails to deliver the message is not doing its job right.
This ad is basically the cannon of minimalism in ad design. It ticks all the boxes of effective visual design:
- It’s true to the brand.
- The message is clear.
- It grabs attention and appeals to the senses.
Don’t use too many fonts
This is a pitfall numerous digital marketers fall into. With thousands of gorgeous fonts available online, many free, it’s easy to go overboard with funky font combinations.
Too many fonts can often jeopardize readability. Still, even with the most legible fonts, using too many will harm your brand image and dilute your message.
Stick to the brand guidelines
Marketing design can tick every other box and still fall flat for one reason. It doesn’t align with the brand identity.
Searching for new, creative routes, marketers often forget that the ultimate goal is to build a lasting brand image. This can only be achieved through repeated use of the same visual cues and consistent messaging.
Does that mean you have to always use the same colors, typography, and images in every single piece of marketing material? Nope. But remember that visual design is about the “big idea” and how graphics reflect that.
Here’s a superb example. Spotify is known for its funny and (painfully) relatable copy. But the thing that makes their advertising efforts even more compelling is the diversity of design.
They use a range of colors, different layouts, photos, and illustrations. These ads still have consistency and perfectly capture what the brand is all about and who it’s for
Follow visual design principles
The final tip we’ll give you is to apply what you’ve learned today. Observing basic design principles distinguishes a total rookie from someone with at least a bit of a grasp on professional design.
Here’s a quick reminder on the most significant principles to follow and what they bring to the table:
- Balance: ensures that the design delivers the right message and all the elements work together.
- Pattern: enforces the presence of a specific element, such as a logo, in branding design.
- Contrast: helps to bring focus to certain elements and ensures balance or visual interest.
- Proximity: allows viewers to take in chunks of information, groups elements logically, and adds order to the design.
- Hierarchy: creates an order in which information is presented to ensure clarity or ease of use.
- Negative space: allows the design to “breathe” and enables users to focus on key elements and messages.
So, you’re a visual design expert now. Not so fast…
You’ve learned the basics and noted down the tips. This must mean you’re ready to design visuals that are both stunning and effective in your marketing strategy!
While the basic visual design principles and considerations outlined here are a perfect starting point, that still doesn’t make you a visual designer. There’s a reason why people study to become designers and spend years before they can claim to be experts or seniors in the field.
If you work for a marketing agency or manage one, you want to be able to offer the very best to your clients. I’m sorry to say that this probably won’t be possible with limited knowledge of visual design.
You might be able to design pretty decent marketing campaigns with the help of numerous online tools. Perhaps you’ve even learned the basics of professional design software.
But going the extra mile, delivering truly groundbreaking and original work, requires a little more. Hiring a professional designer for your agency comes with a hefty price tag (around 60k annually). Moreover, there’s a good chance that a single designer won’t be able to cover all the types of design needed for your clients.
Luckily, there’s a terrific alternative waiting at your fingertips!