Wednesday, December 14, 2011

If they can't read it, they won't buy

Pardon me while I rant. One of my pet peeves is Un-Readability. (What do you feed a pet peeve?)

I have already written about the need to write readable, simple copy. (See "No Nonsense Copywriting." Also read copywriter Ryan McGrath's interview with me. For geeky information on analyzing text readability, see Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula.)

But even if you write compelling copy, misguided design can make it impossible to read. And if they can't read it, they can't respond.

I've had pitched battles with brilliant graphic artists over layout and typography. I am not being sarcastic. In fact, the more brilliant and creative the designer, the more likely I am to have an issue. They tend to see words as design elements—rather than their design supporting the meaning of the words. 

I come from a tradition based on the word, not on images.

I have nothing against pretty. But as direct marketing consultant Paul Goldberg used to say about beautiful ads, "Pretty is as pretty does."

What really rankles me is when some graphic genius takes my carefully crafted copy, words I sweated over a hot keyboard for—to entice and influence—and makes them unreadable by using reverse type, or all caps, or some exquisite typeface that is lovely to look at, but impossible to decipher. (Remember the 1960's undulating psychedelic posters of Wes Wilson? Just reading them was a trip!)

Seeing my copy trapped in illegible type, I'd rant and fume, waving a copy of David Ogilvy's rules of typography. Sometimes I'd win. The problem was that Ogilvy's rules were based on ad results, not Art awards. We live in a world where Pepsi Cola spent over $1,000,000.00 for a logo redesign that looks barely different from their old one. Pepsi  declared the new logo "breathtaking" (I guess they were talking about the million dollars). In this atmosphere, any talk of ROI reeks of crass materialism. (I don't know anything about art. But I know what sells!)

Enter designer/typographer and journalist Colin Wheildon. In 1995, Wheildon published a study: Type & Layout: How Typography and Design Can Get Your Message Across—Or Get in the Way. Ogilvy was so impressed with the hard-nosed statistics backing his biases, that he wrote a foreword to the book:
If you write advertisements for a living, as I do, it is a matter of life and death that what you write should be read by potential customers. It’s the headline and copy that do the selling....The tragedy is that the average advertisement is read by only four per cent of people on their way through the publication it appears in. Most of the time, this is the fault of the so-called "art director" who designs advertisements. If he is an aesthete at heart—and most of them are—he doesn't care a damn whether anybody reads the words. He regards them as mere elements in his pretty design. In many cases he blows away half the readers by choosing the wrong type.
 In 2005, Wheildon published a new edition, with practical advice. Type & Layout: are you communicating of just making pretty shapes?

Get smart. Read the book. Look good. But sell.

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