How to Design Effective Out-of-Home Ads

OOH advertising can take your creativity to a whole new level because you’ve got a massive canvas to work with. But that comes with challenges, too. So to help you create eye-catching, attention-grabbing, and supremely effective out-of-home ads, we’ve laid out our top design tips.

How to Design Effective Out-of-Home Ads

Our top design tips for ensuring your OOH ads always make a splash  

Designing ads can be a lot of fun. Out-of-home advertising can take that creativity to a whole new level because, in many cases, you’ve got a massive canvas to work with. But that comes with its own creative, strategic, and production-oriented challenges, too. In all honesty, your approach for designing out-of-home ads needs to be a little bit different than how you might go about designing other advertising placements. So to help you create eye-catching, attention-grabbing, and, most importantly, supremely effective out-of-home ads, we thought we’d lay out our top design tips. Now, let’s get the creative juices flowing!  

The two pillars of out-of-home design strategy

Before we dive into the nitty gritty of OOH ad design, there are two, what we might call, strategic design considerations that need to be addressed before you unleash your creativity.

1. Design for your goal

This might seem obvious, but when designing OOH ads, you need to be crystal clear about the goal you’re trying to achieve. Just because you have a big creative canvas to work with doesn’t mean you can simply clutter it up with a bunch of creative elements. OOH ads need to drive a specific—and immediate—action to be effective. In other words, your creative needs to promote only one thing and shine a spotlight on a single call-to-action.

For example, if you want the people who see your ad to visit your brand’s website, make sure your website URL is prominently displayed and easy to read. On the other hand, if you’re using out-of-home placements in a directional way—as in, “Get off at the next exit for hot coffee”—just be sure nothing else in the ad would get in the way of people actually doing that.

Sometimes you don’t necessarily need people to do anything by seeing your ad, other than simply recognizing your brand in the moment. In those cases when OOH ads become a beautiful canvas for brand marketing, just be sure your logo, products, and other design elements—that drive an immediate brand awareness connection with consumers—are up, front, and center.

Whatever you do, just remember this: Your OOH ad needs to have a single purpose. If you find yourself asking people to do too many things or consume too much information in a single ad, one that they’ll likely only see for a couple of seconds anyway, you need to scale back a bit.

2. Design for the context

OOH ads can blend in seamlessly, in terms of design or message, with its surrounding environment, making out-of-home advertising the ultimate contextual medium within a brand’s marketing toolkit. Making your out-of-home creative contextually relevant can be a powerful hook for capturing consumer attention, even when they’re in drive-by mode.

A great example of this is a campaign that the Santa Clara County local government put together to encourage mask-wearing and other safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic. And tipping its hat to the fact that the Bay Area is home to an incredibly diverse population, the billboards were developed in multiple languages, including English, Spanish, and Tagalog. But the creativity didn’t stop there: The billboards placed in and around San Francisco were laid out in javascript, as a wink to the region’s tech community.

Santa Clara County launched an OOH billboard campaign that spoke directly to the local tech community in a language it could easily understand and appreciate.
Pro-Tip: AdQuick’s interactive map-based platform makes it easy to view the immediate surroundings of any OOH ad unit, helping you to build more contextually relevant creative.

Other out-of-home design best practices to keep in mind

Now, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty. We’ve learned a thing or two about what makes the most effective OOH ads so effective—as well as what design elements do more harm than good. So, be sure to include the following tips in the brief you share with your creative team:

Keep it simple

To build upon what we said above: If you feel like there’s too much going on in your OOH ad, the likelihood is that there probably is. This is a perfect opportunity to take a step back and think about what the single purpose of your ad is. As a general best practice, keeping OOH ads short, sweet, and to-the-point is always a winning strategy. As is making sure that the key takeaway or overarching message is super easy to understand.

Many OOH ad formats experience low “dwell times,” meaning that people are viewing them in passing, sometimes at speeds greater than 65 miles per hour. That only leaves a few seconds for someone to see your ad, digest it, and, if it piques their interest, make a mental note to take action on it later. In more cases than not, if your ad has more than seven words of copy on it, you should figure out a way to whittle it down.

Make it legible

This is an offshoot of “keeping it simple.” Because people might be viewing your OOH ad in passing or at a reasonable distance, it shouldn’t be cluttered with busy or complex design elements. This includes fancy, script-like typefaces that can be hard to read from afar. When in doubt, and of course, depending on the OOH format you’re designing for, be sure to use large, bold, and highly legible typefaces. And if you have to write in all CAPS for any reason, consider using title case (versus all uppercase) to improve legibility.

Aim for high contrast

This won’t come as a surprise, but the color combinations you choose can make a big difference on how well people can see and consume your ad from variable distances or speeds. Generally speaking, the more (color) contrast you have between your typeface, backgrounds, and other design elements, the easier your OOH ad will be to see. This can be a hard hurdle to overcome if you have rather subdued brand guidelines to follow. But remember, designing for out-of-home is not the same as designing for other advertising formats; you need to make sure your brand can adapt to all advertising scenarios.

Designing for print vs. digital creative

Finally, it’s important to note that building out-of-home creative for (large format) print and digital are two separate beasts (cue: all graphic designers rolling their eyes). Although the most seasoned designers know the respective limitations of each medium, here are a couple important things to keep in mind as you develop print and digital creative:

Designing for (large) print

Not to sound like “Graphic Design for Dummies” or anything of that sort, but when designing for print, be sure all files are built using CMYK color at 300 dpi. When building a working file, the 1:1 rule is usually a good place to start. This basically means that every inch of your working file roughly equates to one foot at actual size. So, if your final OOH billboard will end up being 14’ x 48’, then the working file should be built to 14” x 48” (including at least six inches of bleed on all sides).

Obviously, once it comes time to build the final mechanical, that’s when you need to build your layout to spec, using high-res imagery and other design elements that will reproduce clearly when blown up to the final, large format size.

Designing for digital

As opposed to print, designing digital OOH ads must be done in RGB color. Because digital displays are not always accurately color calibrated, it’s always a good idea to avoid solid white backgrounds for your ads, as those can sometimes take on an unpleasant tint caused by the screen’s inherent color calibration issues.

Additionally, be sure to pay attention to the media specs provided to ensure that the files are built to the right resolution. Some digital OOH ad formats work perfectly fine in standard definition while others require high definition at 1080p or more. Similarly, as resolution increases, so does an ad’s file size. Be sure to take note of any size limitations early on to avoid coming up with an elaborate design that’s too large to publish.

It’s time to design the most amazing out-of-home ads imaginable

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the do’s and don'ts for creating effective OOH ads. But these are the basics—and if you get these right, there’s a much greater chance that your ad creative will achieve whatever goal you need it to achieve. All you need to do is go into the design process with a clear and focused strategy. These tips will certainly help you do just that.

Although we’ve provided some “guardrails” to keep the creative development process from going off in too many directions, be sure to have some fun with this, too. Out-of-home advertising lends itself to some of the most impactful creative ideas imaginable. And there’s no reason why an effective OOH ad can’t be out-of-this-world creative, too.

To learn more about how to launch successful and super creative out-of-home advertising campaigns, reach out to our team today.