Loading ...

In a time when targets are pounded by three to four thousand messages per day, design is a vital tool to get someone’s attention. Editorial must show value; advertising must show benefit; books must be clear and effortless. If an ad lacks stopping power, it is because its creativity has been reduced to the familiar. Its message has become skippable.

Tear out all the full-page ads in an issue of a magazine and pin them on the wall. Take a look: Display typography in advertising is often bland. It might even be called “mere typesetting.” Legibility is the preferred goal, as if getting targets to first look at the ad is insignificant. Of the three elements art directors use—type, image and space—one is neutered, one is given maximum attention and one is ignored. Use abstraction, the three overlapping areas where type and image, type and space and image and space merge, to make a message noticeable (Fig. 1).

Pictures and words get the super-ginormous share of attention. And it has been ever thus: The Egyptians almost always placed their hieroglyphics (“sacred writing”) near images, like lengthy captions, so the words and pictures would work together for clearest communication. It makes as much sense today as it did four thousand years ago.

There are three truths about words and pictures:

Words and pictures are teammates and should be working toward a single purpose, helping each other make a single point. They shouldn’t duplicate each other, and if one does all the work, the other should either get useful or sit this ad out.

Words and pictures have a flexible relationship. It is expected that words and pictures together convey advertising messages. What is not expected is to have them in an unusual relationship together (Fig. 2). Shake it up a little: Can a picture replace words? Or can words replace the picture? One must dominate the other. Images usually take prominence over type. Try reversing their importance. Try telling the story without one of them.

Fig. 1: A message becomes noticeable and design becomes interesting when it uses abstraction developed in the areas where the three design elements overlap.

Words and pictures can be abstracted to maximize their attention-getting capacities. The first job of an ad is to stop the viewer. Display material and space are the tools to do it. How much of a word or picture of an object must be there for it to be understandable? Legibility is not important in attention-getting display type. It is essential in target-retaining text.


Type and image can either be related to each other by exploiting visible characteristics or chopped and fit into divided space—that is, using a grid.

Internal structure: Materials have their own inherent structure. A picture of a product from above, say, is exploitable in a wholly different way than a picture of the same product photographed from the front. These differences come built in, but it takes sensitivity to recognize the interconnectedness between slightly differing parts. This is “organic design.”

External structure: A grid divides space so parts of a design can be fitted into it. The essence of having a grid is abiding by its dimensions: Elements can start and stop only on grid lines. There is no sense in having a grid and then breaking it more than a single time, for the focal point only, to make it stand out from its surroundings.


Type and image are fundamentally different languages. The challenge is to develop similarities so that two or three different pieces look like one single piece. Anyone can design a thing, but to design a good thing takes the ability to find and exploit relationships.

Fig. 2: This chart shows the organization of interaction of form between type and imagery, distinct from their arrangement on the page. Fig 3: The Ayers No. 1 layout presents information in the most logical order: image, headline, subhead, text, sponsor’s logo. Fig. 4: Unify the image and headline by placing some of the type into the image.

Decide whether the type or the image will be dominant. The image, as a default “non-decision,” is usually dominant. Dominance ordinarily refers to quantity: One element dominates when it is the largest thing in a design. But dominance can also occur when one element imposes itself on another element. For example, type almost always imposes itself on space, that is, type is ordinarily in front of space. Putting space in front of type makes it dominate over type, and makes the type subordinate.

Design the parts so they look like they belong together. There are three basic relationships, with an infinite number of ways to execute them:

Relate by position or proximity. Things that are closer look more related than things that are further apart. The ultimate nearness is on top of, so layering is an ultimate expression of proximity. Image on top of type makes the image look more real by adding implied depth (if too much type is covered, it makes the type hard to read). Type on top of image is much less persuasive (it negates the reality of the image and makes small type hard or impossible to read).

Relate by size or alignment. When the height, width or starting and ending positions of the image is equal to the type, they are unified. Coincidental agreement is not as persuasive as cutting off part of the type to make it match the size of an image.

Relate by shared form or characteristic treatment, direction, color, texture or idea. This is a huge category. One example may suffice: If the headline and visual are centered, red and sideways, they are unified.


Form is another word for anatomy, appearance, arrangement, configuration, fashion, guise, manifestation, shape, species, style or structure. From these myriad (from the Greek for ten thousand) choices, when we talk about type and image sharing form, we’re talking about getting them to have the same shape.

Shape can be defined as bringing design treatment, direction, color, texture, idea or one of dozens of additional attributes into agreement.

Treatment: Whatever you do to the headline you do to the image. Bend both. Put one into the other. Rather than letting them look like they just happen to be on the same page—with maybe a nice alignment to make them look designed—type and image should be caused to relate.

Type may be placed on a surface in the image, they may share a shape, or the image may be altering the type.

Direction: Direction is inherently dynamic. Emphasizing one direction over any others avoids static balance.

Our natural tendency is to look from top to bottom and from left to right. Working with direction in any other way is fine, so long as you anticipate a subconscious barrier from your readers. Make your atypical directions apparent and worthwhile.

Fig. 5: Unify the image and headline by bringing the image down into the type area as a silhouette. Fig. 6: An upside down Ayers No. 1 works a bit harder at being more noticeable by targets. Fig. 7: An unexpected contrast in orientation adds noticeability to Ayers No. 1.

Direction may be vertical, horizontal or diagonal in two or three dimensions.

Color can be extracted from the image and applied to the primary type, making them unified. Or color can be contrasted to create relationship. The most natural color contrasts are complementary colors, colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel.

Texture is a surface that is described by touch. In two dimensional design, a feelable surface must be translated into a visual description. Such a translation of texture is often mistaken for pattern, which is a repeated decorative design. Actual texture is so uncommon in advertising that it alone, as on an insert or package, demands attention.

Idea is by far the most interesting way to create design unity. The opportunities for making the message its most potent are greatest through concept. However, the results are dependent on the thorough blending of visual materials.

Design transparency. Ayers No. 1 is the simplest, most transparent form to give an advertising message. It shows a picture, a headline and the lesser elements in their naturally descending order (Fig. 3). Ayers No. 1 is as invisible a presentation as possible.

Another benefit of Ayers No. 1 is that readers are used to it, so they look through it to the content.

The weakness of this format is, of course, that it makes your ad look very much like everybody else’s Ayers No. 1 ads. The remedy is to give the ad a twist:

• Run the headline into the image so it acts as a bridge between the picture and type areas (Fig. 4).
• Cut the image off in a silhouette rather than a horizontal line (Fig. 5). Overlapping the image in front of the type adds dimensionality and realism.
• Make the type asymmetrical or leave most of the bottom area empty.
• Put a secondary image in the type area.
• Relate the image to the headline by shared treatment.
• Put a texture from the image into the type area or ghost the primary picture and put it behind the type area.
• Make an upside down Ayers No. 1 with the headline and text at the top and the image at the bottom. It works nearly as well as right-side-up (Fig. 6).
• Put the headline and text sideways in the type area (Fig. 7). This is especially effective when the image has two meanings: one horizontal and one vertical.

Just about anything can be done without harming the Ayers No. 1 format. The most defendable decision you can make is, naturally, the design treatment that furthers the existing branding style. Ayers No. 1 is so versatile, it’s like vanilla ice cream: You can pour anything on it and it’ll still be great.

Other formats draw attention in their own idiosyncratic ways, but Ayers No. 1 will be around forever, transparently allowing the idea to shine through—winning awards for copywriters and photographers, but only incidentally for art directors. ca

Alex W. White is an award-winning designer and consultant who has shaped the look of magazines and identity programs. He is the author of The Elements of Graphic Design: Space, Unity, Page Architecture, and Type (Allworth Press) and the Typography column is adapted from his forthcoming book, Thinking in Type: The Practical Philosophy of Typography (Allworth Press).


With a free Commarts account, you can enjoy 50% more free content
Create an Account
Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber or have a Commarts account?
Sign In

Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber?
Sign In