7 Tips For Effective Visual Motifs in Print Ads
  by:  |  Jul 25, 2017

It’s hard to overstate how important visual motifs are for advertising. The vast majority of us use our eyes more than anything else to learn about the world around us. If you’re running a marketing campaign, it pays to dig deep into the role visual motifs have.

Here are a few cool facts about vision from the Visual Teaching Alliance:

Vision facts graphic - effective visual motifs

  • 13 milliseconds — the time images need to last for our brains to perceive them. That’s 1/76th of a second
  • 36,000 — the number of visual messages our eyes is able to register every hour.
  • 1/10 of a second — the time it takes for us to understand a scene based on visual context
  • 90% – the proportion of information the brain receives visually compared to how much is received from the other senses.
  • 60,000x — how much faster our brains process visual information compared to text.
  • 40% — the proportion of our body’s nerve fibers linked to our retinas.

You probably didn’t need anyone to tell you how important your eyes are. But if you’re interested in creating print materials, it’s an idea worth revisiting. Even more so, given how much our brains are wired with a strong bias for sight, and given how slow our brains process text compared to images.

Here are a few tips for more effective visual motifs in your print ads.

1.) Use consistent repetition.

effective visual motif repetition

Repeating patterns will help reinforce visual information by helping your brain realize that something is meant to be seen or noticed. Use calculated amounts of repetition depending on what you want your message to be.

All motifs are repeated, though not always within a single work or design element. They may be repeated in different works over a period of time. When you build a brand or create a visual advertisement, you will have to repeat different motifs if you want to give them power.

On a smaller scale, repetition could be used to add interest or balance to a design. Many classic logos rely on repetition. Mitsubishi, Adidas, and Microsoft Windows are examples of huge brands with strong elements of repetition.

2.) Understand rhythm.

rhythmic zigzag pattern

Repetition alone would make for a poor visual motif. Like good music, effective visuals need to have a rhythm. Repetition without rhythm isn’t much more than visual clutter. Knowing how to group patterns so that the whole message radiates a specific mood is something that may take some practice but is ultimately worthwhile.

Knowing how rhythm works also means knowing when to leave negative space so your work can breathe and speak with more clarity. We discussed negative space in depth in an article titled How Thoughtful Negative Space Design Works.

3.) Learn how rhythmic marks work.

poster rhythmic mark visual motif

Sometimes it’s not so much what is actually in the image that matters, but rather how it is presented that counts. A good designer can use this principle to communicate with their audience. A visual technique used by many artists over the centuries is to show off their strokes rather than hiding them to suggest movement. In artwork, you see rhythmic marks to denote dynamics. In photos, strategic blurring can denote the same.

4.) Understand focal points.

Brochure focal point

When we look at images, our eyes are instinctively compelled to follow any clear lines. Designers can take advantage of this to tell us what to look at. Photographers similarly can play with depth of field to blur out things they don’t want us to look at and make us focus on things they want us to. The spaces between objects can also help define focal points.

When creating an ad, your focal points should be your main motifs, which can be your brand and your call-to-action. Not clearly defining focal points for your ad can ultimately make them less effective by muddying your message.

5.) Apply formal principles of balance.

This can get very complex, but anyone who wants to design even basic advertisements on any visual medium needs to understand the basics of balance. Any composition, especially one intended to have a message as obvious as an ad, has to have deliberate clarity. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your ads and visual motifs have to be symmetrical. On the contrary, asymmetrical visual balance can be leveraged to make your visuals motifs more exciting. At the very least it should be understood that how an image is composed can affect the message.

6.) Use the rule of thirds.

If you only learn one thing about creating a workable composition, understanding the rule of thirds will get you the most mileage. The rule of thirds involves breaking down a scene into nine parts, arranged kind of like a tic-tac-toe board. Then you can use the sections and borders to more aesthetically align subjects off-center. As a general rule, placing the subject where the lines intersect works best.

Virtually every visual advertisement or professionally created work of art will either apply this rule or deliberately appear to break it in a calculated way. You can use the grid to better place your subjects, rhythmic marks, and focal points (such as logos and calls to action) as well. This guideline will help you compose anything from a business card to a poster or billboard.

It’s more of a guideline than a rule, but it works so well that today, even some cameras have a “rule of thirds mode” for aiding photographers with compositions.

Rule of thirds

Wikimedia Commons

7.) Understand how and why symbolism works.

Save Water - Symbolism

Any motif you choose is a symbol. Symbols don’t really have any meaning apart from what we give them, yet they are still powerful because we believe so. When we build a brand, it’s because we want to create a symbol that sends a specific message and create the desired emotion. Valuable brands can, in turn command influence in their market and beyond.

We are surrounded by symbols every single day of our lives. And we’re not just talking about brands either. Traffic lights, phone and computer icons, religious signs, and even the euphemisms we share with friends and family are all symbols — ‘things that stand in for other things’. Even written language is at its core a series of symbols.

When creating visual motifs, we don’t necessarily have to explain everything. We can often just let our work speak for itself, or use symbols already understood by the audience. And these symbols can be something as basic as colors, or simple shapes. Even rhythms and patterns can be symbolic. For instance, stripes give off a different vibe from polka dots.

There’s a reason old-fashioned advertisements with paragraphs of copy became passe. The walls of text were not only condescending, they wasted time. You don’t want to waste your customer’s time either, by explaining every little detail. Neither do you want to treat them like they don’t know anything. Always try to show with your visual motifs rather than tell with a wall of text.

Watch and share this video recap:

What other tips can you share? Comment below.