[How to] Design Online Ads That People Care About

Let’s start with the facts – I’m not a designer or anything that is remotely close to having good taste. Really. Even if the most brilliant design in the world will hit me in the face I will probably not notice it.

I’m 100% marketer – online marketer to be precise and not, well… a designer with a natural instinct for visuals (unfortunately!). And as I know a thing or two about online marketing – an environment where brands need to create massive amount of artworks and visuals for many different marketing channels – I’ve gained much knowledge about designing successfully for online.

In this article I’m going to share with you some of these insights and hopefully help out with better understanding the user behind the screen.

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“The user”

Because everything we do – on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google, Email… reaches users and we can know how many of them saw our ads, clicked on it, converted, we tend to forget that these users are not just numbers displayed on a monthly report. They’re REAL PEOPLE.

I realize that the last sentence sounds obvious but the truth is that it isn’t.

If it was, the same artwork that was designed for print, wouldn’t simply be re-sized once for Facebook and then resized 10 more times as banners for the Google Display Network.

If it was obvious, you wouldn’t see as many elements and as much text as it appears on a full-page ad transformed into an Instagram post.

If it was obvious, you wouldn’t see food menus (complete menus!), brochures and flyers that were designed for print on your Facebook feed.

Real people get annoyed with having to zoom in on your image to understand what it’s all about. They get annoyed if they can’t read what’s written on the artwork. Real people use their mobile more than any other device – and what is good for desktop or tablet isn’t good for their beloved small screen.

And when users, i.e. people get annoyed, they simply aren’t interested with your content anymore. They move on to the next best thing – and as there are so many other options out there – it’s not so hard to move on.

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The “users” are real people, who use the small screen more than anything.

When you design for online, you design for people, who use different devices, in different times of the day, on different platforms.

The platforms

Another common behavior is to take the same design and use it across platforms.

People come to different platforms for different reasons. The reason people login to Instagram is to see beautiful images. The reason people login to Facebook is to be kept updated. So, whereas on Facebook a tagline on an image would work excellent, on Instagram it might not be necessary. LinkedIn is the largest professional network on the Internet. People login to it to connect with other professionals, find a job and generate leads for their business. A “fun-cute-social-joke” design for Facebook isn’t relevant for LinkedIn. Don’t get me wrong – you might get some likes, but is it coherent with the platform you’re communicating on?

Would you go to the beach with your gown dress or your tie suit and vice versa – would you go to a business meeting with your swimsuit?

If you do choose to use the same artwork (which sometimes can work!) – make sure to re-size it in the right dimensions – what’s visible properly on Facebook won’t fit LinkedIn and definitely won’t be well seen on your newsletter.

Don't mix between different platforms and the reason people login to them.

Don’t mix between different platforms and the reason people login to them.

It matters. When you design for a specific platform, you must think in its context – why do people login to it? Why do people open a promotional email? What brought them to read your blog article?

And when the context is clear – then you can start creating your artworks.


The word artwork includes a very powerful word in it – art. And designers are indeed, artists.

But whereas they can design a brochure for a month, and serving their client for 1-2 years, in online the picture is completely different. An average post lives on social media for a few days in the best case scenario and 24-48 hours in the most common scenario. An email campaign will be opened maybe once and then probably never again.

That should make a difference – not, by any means – in the quality of the work you do but definitely in the efforts you put into it. If we go a few paragraphs back – probably the reason why so many brands simply resize their print ad (without “breaking” the layout) is that they worked so hard on this one layout that to completely break it and start from scratch for the 5-6 other channels it needs to go on, can be a very frustrating experience.

Different screens, ad types and online platforms demand different artworks.

Different screens, ad types and online platforms demand different artworks.

Keep in mind that your artworks are (very) temporary in the online context when coming to design for online and work around that. One of the ways to not only be coherent online, which is a “must-do” in itself, but also to be more efficient in the efforts you put in is to create themes for your digital channels. These themes should have design templates to come along with them.


Going back to the person behind the screen to understand what kind of templates you should build – here is one fact to consider:

(1) Most people consume the information from the feed and not from your brand’s page.

That means that the place they see your ad is very noisy and busy.

On top of that, you probably already know that our attention span is decreasing with the years and nowadays it’s measured to a few seconds only.

Don’t believe me? Think how you react when you see a video on the feed and you realize it’s 11 minutes – “11 minutes!!!” you say to yourself – “that’s forever and I don’t have forever for this – I need to keep scrolling the feed to feed my addiction and stay updated with as many people and pages as possible!”

Ok. Maybe you don’t say that last part exactly like I phrased it but you probably have an idea what I’m talking about.

As our attention span is so short – you have hundredths of seconds to grab the person’s attention. If you didn’t do that, well, she/he scrolled down…

Here is a second fact to consider:

(2) Most people who scroll, don’t read text, they look at the visual first. Sounds obvious but most people I meet in work context assume the logical thing – people read from top to bottom therefore you first read the text and then you look at the visual on the feed.

Understanding it’s exactly the opposite can be a game changer for your designs.

Use tricks in your artworks to draw attention on disrupted feeds.

Use tricks in your artworks to draw attention on disrupted feeds.

Here are a few quick tips:

  • Place a super strong message/tease the reader – on the artwork itself.
  • Place a (short!) tagline on your visual.
  • Create visuals with movement.
  • Use “tricks” to draw attention – for example – if the artwork includes a person on the image (which is recommended, if it’s relevant for your brand guidelines) – place your tagline or an important object you don’t want the users to miss in the place the person on the image is looking at.
  • Design artworks that will be coherent with the context.

The context

Further to the fact there are many online platforms your brand operates on, each platform has its own rules for the different type of ads it enables.

Post ad, the simplest form of an ad is an easy one to manage.

But there are some other forms of ads.

  • Link ad: an ad that transfers the user to an external link once he/she clicks on it (v/s once clicking on the image it simply opens the image in bigger dimension). This type of ad is usually smaller on the height and therefore enables even less space for elements and text. It also includes text in the link and can make the tagline redundant at times.
  • Carousel ad: a type of ad that sends to multiple links. Each part of the carousel can and should be designed differently – whether you design multiple square artworks or crop one long horizontal image to create a nice continuous visual effect.
  • Lead generation ad: this type is quite different from a “simple” brand awareness ad. The objective is conversions and as such, the design should be adjusted to send out a strong call to action.
  • And some others – like photo albums, GIFs, 360° images and let’s not forget one of the most important ad types – videos. As it’s not really the subject of this article, I’ll have to skip it this time.

Whereas in offline once you send your artwork it goes to print and there’s no turning back, in the online environment you can experiment to understand what works best with your audience. 


Finally, my best advice for any brand out there is to experiment. A/B testing is among the most important tools that online enables. Here are a few ideas:

  • Create different artworks with the same marketing message in 2-3 design directions and check what’s working best. Some of the platforms (Facebook for example) have a built-in tool for A/B testing.
  • If one theme worked well so far but lately started to drive far less engagement, make a small change and see the impact.
  • Create 2-3 layouts for the same email campaign and check which one made users click more.

The reality is that you have access to your results at any given time and that gives you much control – over your budget, human resources and time.

And in a disrupted world like we live in – is there anything more valuable than these?


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