The Biology of Billboard Design

July 18, 2013

So what motivates humans?

Taken to its base-level, there are 7 human motivations: hope, love, respect, fear, desire, hunger/thirst, and pain/pain relief. These motivations, coupled with our biology and our environments, drive us toward everything from career selection to spouse selection to breakfast cereal selection. Most advertisements try to tie together at least 2 of these motivations. And it might not seem to be the case, but these same motivations are the basis for advertising…

...which brings us back (indirectly) to the apple.

Apples are, as we all know, red, green, or gold (with a few exceptions). Plants that produce fruit use this technique- bright coloring –in order to stand out. Taken together, nature itself is almost devoid of nutrients animals can use to sustain themselves; so, by using bright colors, the apple says “Hey! Eat this- I’m full of hard-to-find nutrition!” Simply put, nutrition is rare. It’s a win-win situation: the tree spreads its seeds, and the person or other animal gets some much-needed calories and nutrients. Flowers use similar techniques to attract their pollinators.

So, this is how, in a roundabout way, we come back to the question of billboard design.

Bright (yet balanced) colors and aesthetically pleasing designs create a “pop-out” effect for the human eye, much the same way an apple on a tree would to a hungry, wandering ancestor. Creating a message that ties together any 2 of the 7 motivations, along with an appropriate and creative design, are key strategies in making your message stand out. The design has to arrest the person’s vision, and the message has to capture their decision-making. Simple, clean, unique, informative, and provocative should be the goals of both.

Billboards, unlike radio, television, and print, give you an approximate 5-10 second window in which to grab potential customers’ attention- and to create a lasting impression that cuts through the daily static in their heads. This impression must not only cut through; it must stick.

This is where a biological understanding of outdoor advertising can give you a distinct advantage over the competition. Too many ads utilize mishmashes of primary colors, overly-informative text, and graphics that evoke no concrete memory association. Breaking away from common mistakes such as these works wonders in helping your ad stand out.

For example, say you’re advertising engagement rings. A typical jewelry ad of this type features a blown-up shot of the ring, pricing, and neutral colors such as whites, greys, and earthtones. It might include some slogan with the words “forever”, or “eternity”.

Let’s redo this ad, taking into account human motivation. Change the graphic to a muted black-and-white photograph with striking features, such as lighting and specific color points. Set it against a slate background. Using a newly-engaged couple in the shot, to establish a human connection, instantly creates memory association (either fond past memories, or hopeful future ones). Have the point of view over his shoulder, so his masculinity is defined; but from the back, so he’s not the center of attention. Perhaps he’s in a suit. The focus of the shot is the woman; her red dress highlighted as a color point. The ring on her hand is the main focus of the shot; it sparkles and dazzles. Her eyes are also brought out, the irises highlighted as she looks adoringly at him. Add a slogan that goes past convention; something like “Beyond I Do”. Give the name of the business, website, and not much else. Instead of pricing, say “Financing Available” and leave it at that.

Now, obviously this isn’t going to target as broad of a demographic as the original ad; but the example serves to illustrate the point. The new version is arresting, it creates an instant emotional punch, and it lets anyone put themselves in the role of the models in the photograph. Best of all, given the bold, classic background with a simple primary color, all you’re doing is mimicking the “pop-out” effect of an apple on a tree.

Remember, if you want your billboard to stand out:

1) Find the motivation(s) in your product
2) Create a pop-out effect
3) Use both to deliver an emotional punch

Hopefully, you’ll start seeing results in no time.

About Conrad’s Big “C” Signs

Ours is a full-service Black Hills sign shop specializing in outdoor and indoor signage. Our main areas of business are manufacturing, installation, rentals, maintenance, and repair. We've made many of the Rapid City signs you see every day. Call us today at (605) 348-8744, or stop by our main location at 1740 East North Street, Rapid City, SD 57701.

Last Modified: 07-18-2013-14:01:10