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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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.

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Custom Printing: Samples of the Fine Art of Advertising

I have been absolutely intrigued by the art of advertising for the better part of my life, perhaps because it usually blends visual art, writing, humor, psychology, and storytelling.

First of all, I want to draw a (minor) distinction between advertising and marketing. I consider advertising to be more targeted, directly selling a specific product or service rather than just nurturing a favorable image of a company (public relations) or increasing public awareness of a company (marketing). But really, they’re all the same in that the purpose is to make people aware of what you’re offering (either a service or a product) and to convince them to buy something.

Another way to say this is that, in both print and broadcast advertising, you use words and images to initiate and develop an ongoing relationship with a potential customer.

I have had the opportunity during my 44 years in graphic design, publications, and commercial printing to create many print products that fit this general category. These have included print ads, brochures, posters, banners, invitations to various events, and catalogs. What I have learned is that everything is an ad. If you are a graphic designer, even the business card you design to hand out to clients is an ad because you use it to promote your business.

Another way to say this is that your daily business goal, before you do anything else, is to build your brand. Your brand is your “avatar” in the business world. Everything you do and every piece of commercial printing material you hand out or mail either builds or detracts from your brand image.

Promotional vs. Editorial

Let’s lump advertising, public relations, and marketing under a general umbrella, which we will call promotions, or promotional custom printing materials. If you’re a graphic designer creating materials for the Internet, you’re still producing promotional products. This might include email marketing, social media marketing, or even blogging (or video blogging). The common element is that you are presenting your business, yourself, and your product or service in their best light and encouraging your prospective clients to buy.

This is different, in many ways, from the design, writing, and production of editorial materials. In the case of editorial matter, you’re writing and designing something in order to educate and inform your clients. That said, if you are really honest, there is still a fair amount of marketing involved in editorial writing because you or your company still has to position itself as an expert in the field. You have to convince your reader to commit time to reading your editorial material. You have to convince her or him that you know what you’re talking about, that you’re telling the truth, and that you are providing valuable information they cannot get elsewhere.

Elements of Advertising

First and foremost, effective advertising tells a story. More often than not, it challenges the reader’s mind with facts and information, but it also touches the reader’s emotions, often with humor or the element of surprise. A reader who feels you are talking directly to her or him on a personal and emotional level will more likely become a loyal customer than one with whom you only connect in an abstract, cerebral way.

And the best way to do this is to tell a story with words and images. A story complete with concrete details and an emotional appeal helps the reader connect in a personal way with the essence of the particular company.

Another key component is humor, which is usually based on surprise or the unexpected. Humor catches the reader’s attention and transports her/him from the myriad details of day-to-day life into a lighter, magical, and creative realm.

An Example

Here’s an example, which I found in Creative Strategy in Advertising, written by Bonnie Drewniany and A. Jerome Jewler. The book showcases a series of three billboards for Chick-fil-a. Here is a description of the billboards and my interpretation of why they enhance the Chick-fil-a brand.

Each of the three billboards includes two cows. (I’m not sure from the photos whether they are three-dimensional or just silhouetted.) They appear to be real because they are outside the “frame” of the rectangular billboard. In addition, the cows in all three billboards interact with one another in some way. In two of the billboards they are looking at each other. They have their two forefeet hanging over the front of the billboard as though they’re keeping themselves from falling behind the structure.

In one billboard, one cow is holding onto a roller (like what you would use to roll down the paper or vinyl of the large format print to the billboard support structure). Earlier, I mentioned the power of “the story.” Here it is again, because you can assume that the two cows just finished installing the display right before you drove past the sign.

The third billboard includes the two silhouetted (or 3D) cows painting on the billboard. One is sitting on the other’s back to get up higher on the billboard. She has a paintbrush and is painting the words, which seem to be streaking as the ink runs down the face of the billboard. Her tail is draped over the side of the other cow as she sits on her back and paints.

The three taglines for the billboards are as follows: “Eat chikin or weer toast,” “Eat mor chikin,” and “Vote chikin. Itz not right wing or left.” Underneath these words is the Chik-fil-a logo, prominently displayed.

So in all three cases we have a story: the cows just installed the print signage. We have the unexpected: the cows are separate from the rectangular-format billboard (either silhouetted or 3D). The cows can’t spell very well (i.e., the humor that captures the reader’s attention in a landscape otherwise cluttered with more billboards).

What you get out of all three images is name recognition. The more times you see the same “chikin” vs. cows ad campaign paired with the Chick-fil-a logo, presumably the more likely you will be to buy the product.

The overall message is that Chick-fil-a is smart, fun, and edgy. This impression will promote name recognition. (You’ll recognize the logo when you pass the restaurant, and hopefully you’ll be willing to try the food.)

The Take-Away

Broadcast advertising can be equally captivating. Think about the Progressive, Liberty, and GEICO TV ads for insurance. Personally, I love these because they have quirky characters and they’re funny. Each one has a “story” of some kind. This captures my attention and distracts me from other competing activities.

Regardness, the humor (particularly if it’s edgy and quirky) and the storyline appeal to the emotions. People buy from companies they like, and they remember advertisements that are funny.

If you’re a graphic designer, how can you use this information?

    1. Study advertising. Find ads you like, and deconstruct them. Articulate the goals of the ads, and note how the elements of design and writing support these goals.


    1. Copy what you see until you’re good enough to do it yourself. (Not word for word/design for design, but the general approach, layout grid, use of typefaces, etc.)


    1. Study the ways in which good imagery (usually photography) and succinct copywriting work together to make an ad effective. Extend yourself beyond graphic design to an appreciation of effective word usage.


    1. Study humor. (It’s not random. There are usually rules and structures for humor based on challenging the reader’s or hearer’s automatic assumptions or expectations.)


    1. Train yourself to notice ads everywhere: business cards, billboards, brochures, posters. Become aware that every example of commercial printing is an ad. Either it helps the brand, or it hurts it.


  1. Study psychology, advertising, marketing, and consumer behavior. Thrift stores have a wealth of textbooks on these topics.

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