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Common Design Mistakes

By: Margo Berman
Tel:(305) 949-7711
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Inexperienced creative ad majors often make the same types of mistakes in their layouts. These errors demonstrate a lack of awareness of the basic components of ad design. First, they do not have an understanding of overall composition. Second, they have a weak comprehension of the correct use and application of typography. And third, they have difficulty grasping the concepts of prominence and proportion.

Even if students are shown great ads in class or actually bring in samples of strong campaigns, they still may demonstrate a disconnect between looking at well-designed advertising materials and creating them. Even after discussing contrast, emphasis, balance and typographic treatment, they may continue to turn in creative work that reflects a lack of discernment.

In general, the most common mistakes are caused by the overall misuse and misplacement of design elements. For example, inexperienced designers often make the following errors.
They will:

  1. create layouts with no sense of flow, confusing instead of guiding the reader
  2. place elements without prioritizing them based on their importance
  3. demonstrate poor use of typography with layouts that have:
    1. too many typefaces
    2. wide copy blocks
    Here is a sentence set widely for advertising:

Newspapers are set in narrow columns, because the eye moves more easily across the page vertically than horizontally.

    In ads, brochures, articles and online, it is easier to read this sentence in a more narrow format:
    Newspapers are set in narrow columns,
    because the eye moves more
    easily across the page vertically
    than horizontally.
  1. all upper case in the body copy

  2. ALL CAPS ARE HARDER TO READ THAN upper and lower case type.
  1. novelty, script, italic or cursive fonts in the body copy
Body copy is difficult to read in a fancy font. One line is fine, as a headline or subhead, but line after line, becomes very tiresome to the reader.
  1. skinny, serif fonts set in reverse

This problem looks like this and the type can break apart when printed.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!can we change the background of this line????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  1. oversized type in the body copy, resulting in a clumsy, awkward look
  2. justified type, creating wide-open spaces in between the words like this:
    This     type      is
    justified,      but the
    students      don�t
    realize there      is a
    problem      with the
    open      spaces in
    between      some of
    the      words.
  1. widows, orphans (Orphans leave one word dangling at the end of the paragraph and widows leave one word alone at the top of a copy block.)
    This is an example of
    a paragraph with a
    one-word orphan at the
    This is an example of      block.
    a one-word widow
    that lands at the top
    of the next copy
  1. hanging first lines of paragraphs at the top or bottom of a copy block
    Here the last line      the same copy block.
    of copy will fall
    at the top of a          It hangs at the top
    new column             of the copy block.
    instead of in
  1. illegible type created by:
    1. layering type over a busy, competing background
    2. using too tiny type
    3. placing type over dark, screened areas
    centered type in the body copy, making it more difficult to read Centered type is harder to read than flush left type. Especially if it continues for many lines of copy.
    4. fail to allow for breathing space (visual silence), using:
  1. elements placed too close together
  2. tight text wrapping: type is sitting too close to visuals (rules, bars, illustration, photographs, charts, graphic elements)
  3. no margins surrounding the page
  4. narrow spacing between copy blocks
    • For some inexplicable reason This unnatural proximity makes
      students fail to notice how       it difficult for the reader to see
      close some copy blocks are    where one block stops and
      to one another.        
  5. unbalanced layouts
    5. make weak color choices and combinations, resulting in:
  1. vibrating type (when colors of the same intensity compete for attention, like bright red and brilliant blue, or hot orange and bright green)
  2. ineffective communication
  3. unattractive design
  4. competing instead of harmonious colors
    6. create designs lacking contrast
    7. choose an ordinary, rather than unexpected visual
    8. fail to develop a "shell" for consistency in a campaign

If you notice a general resistance to learning, there are several techniques that seem to facilitate the absorption of these principles. The first is to have the groups work in teams of four, with each team creating an ad (or flyer) layout for the same product. Then, have one member of each team present the layout to the class. By encouraging them to share their solutions, everyone has the opportunity to see how differently or similarly each group approached the same assignment.

The second technique is to ask the groups to create their layouts on the class computers (if the class is held in a computer lab). Usually someone in the team knows one of the design programs, so while one person creates the layout, the other members of the group can focus on the overall concept and basic layout.

While they�re working, walk around the lab and review each group�s progress. I may offer headline, layout and body copy suggestions. This way the students can see how the recommended changes quickly improve the ad (or flyer). Often, they cannot imagine the impact of a different font, a smaller typeface or another visual until they actually make the changes.

By allowing the students to create ads, flyers, brochures or other promotional materials in class, the instructor can catch the mistakes as they are being made. This can leave a deeper impression than after the work is turned in, because they are correcting problems as they occur. Although these are some of the most common problems, there are a few in particular that need special attention. One problem is the use of too many typefaces in the layout, creating confusion for the reader. To avoid this, I remind students that although they may have a lot of clothes in their closets, they wouldn�t put on everything they own on at the same time. The same dilemma applies to colors. When there are so many choices, designers may be tempted to use too many together. Often fewer colors can have a stronger impact. I suggest they think about the power of black and red against white paper. I ask them to notice how the red pops against the rich black and quiet white. Even the strongest ad conceptually can be crippled by poor execution of these elements.

The most common problem students experience when developing ad campaigns is the creation of unrelated ads in a series. Students need to understand the purpose of developing a "shell" or template with one identifiable look for the product. Showing examples of instantly recognizable ad campaigns (like the Absolut bottle and the Milk moustache) that clearly use shells sometimes does not fully explain this principle. It isn�t until the students are reminded of their failure to establish a uniform look that they fully comprehend the basics of an ad campaign.

Once students are shown specifically how their campaigns "break the shell format," they can finally digest the concept. Then, they can redo their ads and share the revised ads with the entire class so everyone can see the improvement. The revision process itself helps them understand the importance of creating and utilizing a shell.

Sometimes the layout needs to be changed from a portrait (vertical) format to a landscape (horizontal) format. For example, visuals chosen by the students may demand a different format, although they may fail to notice it.

Another problem may be the students� lack of desire to learn design programs that would facilitate their ability to execute their ideas. An absence of motivation to learn Photoshop, InDesign or QuarkXPress may coincide with their low enthusiasm to tackle challenging assignments. If I sense a lack of enthusiasm to learn graphic programs or to find imaginative design solutions, I prompt the class�s involvement by asking how committed they are to being in the creative side of advertising. I explain if they don�t give 120% on every assignment, maybe they should consider going into the account side. That may sound harsh, but it often shocks them back into reality and reminds them how competitive a career in the creative department actually is. What they need to understand is that every assignment is an opportunity to start creating a portfolio, even if it is just a beginner�s "book."

The classroom method mentioned above, which allows the instructor to guide students while they are in the process of developing solutions, has proved to be an invaluable teaching technique. The result is visible when students turn in more effective creative solutions. In addition, students learn that designing ad campaigns is a process that includes several revisions until they have fine-tuned the concept, the typography and the overall balance and composition of each ad in the series. By modifying some elements and moving others, students begin to see the relationship between ads in a campaign. They also improve their critical and judgmental skills. Gradually over time, they are better equipped to critique their own work and that of their fellow students.


Carter, Rob, Ben Day and Philip Meggs, (1993) Typographic Design: Form and Communication, 2rd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, p., 85-96.

Bivins, Thomas and William E. Ryan. (1995) How To Produce Creative Publications, Lincolnwood, IL: NTC Business Books, p., 39-57, 79-114.

Lester, Paul Martin, Linda P. (2000) Visual Communication, 2rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, p., 136-129.

Koren, Leonard and R. Wippo Meckler. (1989) Graphic Design Cookbook, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, p., 65-71.

Morton, Linda P. (2000) Public Relations Publications, 2rd ed. Norman, OK: Sultan Books, p., 12-16.

Peterson, L. Bryan. (1996) Using Design Basics to Get Creative Results, Cincinnati: How Design Books, p., 49-68.

Margo Berman, has been a Marketing Consultant for 20 years, with her own ad and PR agency - Global Impact. As a creative talent, she's won numerous regional, national and international awards, with clients like: American Express, Alamo Rent A Car, and Banana Boat.

See Ms. Berman's Profile on

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