Printing and Design Tips: June 2019, Issue #215

Design Tips: Eye Movement within an Ad

A famous Pop Artist, Andy Warhol, once said, "Art is anything you can get away with." I'm sure you've also heard people say, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like."

To a great extent, quality in art is a subjective experience. This is true whether we're talking about fine art or graphic design, but over the past 40+ years of my life as a fine artist, graphic artist, art director, and production manager, I have come to believe that the "rules" of design are worth knowing and applying but that they can be successfully broken in order to achieve a particular visual effect. Fundamentals are key. Know the rules, and then break them wisely.

I was reading through Design Basics Index by Jim Krause the other day. This is my go-to book on graphic design, and even after 40+ years I'm still studying the fundamentals, much as a basketball player keeps practicing dribbling and lay-ups. I always learn something new.

So not only do I strongly encourage all of you who design anything (print materials, websites, packaging, or even products themselves) to continue studying and learning throughout your career, but I also have picked out a few points of design to share with you from my most recent reading of this book.

Eye Movement (or Flow)

I randomly wound up on a section called "flow" in Jim Krause's book. It discusses eye movement around a print advertisement. How the reader's eye travels around a page (or through an entire book) is very relevant to whether the reader absorbs anything from the book or even continues to read it. For an advertisement, this holds true as well. In fact, if the reader does not know how to navigate the page, the opportunity to sell the product advertised will be lost. Pure and simple. No sale. (All of this is just as true for fine art as well, including both representational art—like a painting of flowers—or abstract art; even if you don't know what it is, a painting can be exciting if the viewer knows where to look first, second, and third.)

Design Basics Index includes several versions of the same single-page ad (on pages 112 and 113) for The Purity Project. It is called "Water and We." The ad includes a photo of what looks like a bay of water, the headline for the ad, body copy, and three or four water utility photos (including a fire hydrant).

You may say that such an ad would not be very interesting. I would disagree. Like all other ads, it has a visual focus, a direction for the reader's eye to travel, body copy to transmit the content, or marketing message, a color scheme, and white space to allow the reader's eye to rest periodically. And I'm sure there are more elements I'm missing, such as the typeface (and the emotional qualities the reader associates with the typeface).

Such an ad could be in a foreign language you or I don't understand, and it still could grip our attention based entirely on the expert use of the rules of design (or in this case eye movement or flow, which is one of the elements of graphic design).

Composition of the Ad

Back to the ad. A photo of the bay takes up slightly more than the top third of the 8.5" x 11" ad. It bleeds off the top, right, and left. The designer's choice to bleed the photo gives the image a more expansive feel than it would have had without the bleed. This technique supports the goal of the ad. The image of the bay is expansive, and it makes the reader feel calm.

At the top right of the photo is the sun, and below this is the flickering reflection of the sun caught in the ripples and waves of the bay. This vertical line brings the reader's eye downward, from the sun to the water to the type.

And the first word of the headline, "Water," is reversed out of the water in the photo in a Modern serif typeface with graceful strokes in its letterforms. The words are set in initial capital letters (the "W" in "Water" and "We") and then small capitals for the remainder of each word. This highlights the flow of the letterforms (presumably more than if the designer had chosen initial capitals and followed these with lowercase letters).

The baseline of the word "Water" rests on the bottom edge of the photo. The tops of the letters in the word "and" on the second line of type, set in small capital letters, have been raised. The top of the word "and" abuts to the horizontal line that is the bottom boundary of the photo. And the "W" of "We" has been lowered (i.e., the baseline of the "W" in "We" drops below the baseline of the other small caps in the line of type).

And both of the words "and" and "We" on the second line of type are printed in a blue color that matches the predominant hue of the actual water in the photo of the bay, in contrast to the white of the reversed word "Water."

So the photo and the words of the headline all nestle together. They work as a single unit and attract the reader's eye to the top of the page.

You may ask why the baseline of the photo (where the two lines of type abut) is neither exactly one third nor one half of the way down the ad vertically. Because this would be boring. One rule of design is to never put something exactly in the middle of the page, either horizontally or vertically. If you break this rule, have a very good reason for doing so.

Alternate Versions of the Ad

Another version of this same ad in Design Basics Index has the entire unit of type ("Water and We") in blue, with just the tops of the ascenders in the letter "W" (i.e., the serifs at the top left and right of the letter "W") breaking into the photo of the bay (reversed to white for contrast and readability).

All three of the sample versions of this ad in Design Basics Index help the eye transition to the supplemental text (the ad copy). In all three cases there is either an image at the beginning of the text (a square photo) or an initial capital letter to start the paragraph of body copy. After the reader's eye takes in the image of the bay and the large headline, it knows where to go next.

That is, the designer has given the reader a road map. The designer has shown the reader precisely how to travel through the ad.

Two of the three sample versions of the ad have the body copy set in two columns with a ragged right-hand margin (ragged-right type is easier to read than justified type—another rule of design).

The third version has only one column of body type. However, it is narrower than the two columns of type together (in the other versions of the ad). (That is, there is more white space to the outside left and right of the ad around the body copy. In addition, the designer screened back a silhouetted photo of the water company's historic logotype and placed this behind the body copy. It bleeds off the page on the right, and it extends over a row of four photos at the bottom of the page.

These four square photos at the bottom of the page create a horizontal strip (bleeding on the right, left, and bottom) that echoes the position of the photo of the bay at the top of the page. The photos also lead the reader's eye quickly across the bottom of the page (at a faster than usual pace, since the photos are all the same size and shape, and set side to side with no white space between them).

All together, the photo of the bay, large white section in the middle containing the headline and body copy, and the horizontal strip of square photos at the bottom of the page create a unified whole. Everything hangs together. The reader's eye knows to start with the image of the bay, travel to the headline, view the current water company logo (just below the body copy, which actually does happen to be justified, presumably to help create a simple rectangular shape for the body copy), and then move downward to the four square photos.

The other two versions of the ad include three (instead of four) water company photos in a smallish format, with one of them (the fire hydrant) silhouetted.

One of the two versions positions these photos in a "V" shape. The eye goes to the first image, at the very top left of the body copy. The eye then drops to the silhouetted fire hydrant in the center bottom of the ad (with the body copy wrapped around its complex contour). The modern water company logo is positioned immediately to the bottom right of this silhouette. (This logo is an important element of the ad. Since the logo is close to the largest of the three supplemental images, the eye moves from the fire hydrant silhouette immediately to the company logo.)

The third version of the advertisement is much like the second, only all three supplemental images (everything but the photo of the bay) are in a line going from the top left to the bottom right.

If you take a red pen and look at all three ads, you can pretty much draw a line to show how the eye travels through each ad. Which one is better or worse is really up to you, but each one works in and of itself.

The Takeaway

The best thing you can take away from this discussion is the inclination to look at your own ads, book pages, posters, and brochures objectively and be able to articulate where the reader's eye will go first, second, and third—and why. What are you doing with the design grid, photos, colors, typefaces, use of white space, initial caps, and any other elements of the design to bring about this flow, this movement of the reader's eye through all the words and images on the page?

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]