Create Posters and Fliers That Stop Prospects In Their Tracks

Learn to create posters and fliers that achieve powerful marketing results.

Design Principles

A good visual piece, whether it's a business card, flier, display ad, or even a direct mail letter, should grab the reader, and be easy to look at. Don't make it too busy and jumpy, unless you're selling heavy metal music or electro-convulsive therapy. And let the tone of the visuals reinforce your message:

  • Lead with your most important point, in a large headline
  • Restate the point early in the body copy
  • Consider using a secondary headline, either immediately next to the main headline or in a different part of the ad
  • Use white space as a graphic element
  • Choose graphics (if the piece uses them) that your readers will want to look at, but that are also closely related to your message
  • Frame a partial page with a border (otherwise, your ad will float off visually into editorial matter-or worse, into someone else's ad!)
  • Break up large areas of text with subheads or graphic elements
  • Use a slogan, logo, and/or typeface to project a unified image

Posters and Fliers

A flier is a piece of paper that you hand to someone, post for people to see, insert in a newspaper, or deliver to someone's mailbox or fax machine. It can be any size, and any range of slickness. It has a headline, body copy, and possibly graphics. It may include tear-offs or an order form.

A poster is a large flier, usually at least tabloid size and often much larger, designed especially to be put up on a wall or in a store window. Often, posters are on thicker stock (sometimes even on cardboard). And they tend, by and large, to be professionally designed and polished in appearance.


Making Effective Fliers

The most important decision you will make about a flier is whether or not you will post it: on walls, in windows, and/or on bulletin boards. If the answer is yes, you need to make sure your flier is clearly visible on a crowded bulletin board, and able to attract attention from people walking by on their way to something else. If you're not sure whether you'll be posting your flier, it may make sense to do two different versions: one for bulletin boards, and another to distribute individually. That way you'll be able to concentrate each version on the strengths of its distribution medium.


Posted Fliers

Typically, a posted flier will be seen only briefly, as people walk past. And if you live in an area like mine, with a large number of fliers and a small number of bulletin boards, your flier will be posted on a busy stairway in a shopping mall or in a crowded corridor of a university building, jammed up against a dozen other fliers-and papered over within a few days.

A successful posted flier stops passers-by in their tracks, but doesn't keep them very long. A large, bold headline is essential, and a graphic is helpful in getting someone to stop and look. The main text should be restricted to just a few points, and again, the type should be pretty large.


Tear-Offs and Other Take-Aways

A final consideration in putting together a posted flier is what kind of response you want from the flier's reader. You may just want to bring the reader to an event, or announce the availability of a product at your store. In that case, you may not need to leave the reader with a concrete action step.

But the best fliers incorporate a next step for the reader: something to take away. If you're trying to sell a product, it's nearly essential. That way, someone can grab your number while walking past and call you later, when they aren't in such a rush. Just make sure your take-away has useful information. A phone number by itself is not enough; you need a couple of words to remind your prospect of what your offer is. Otherwise, when your prospects empty their bags, wallets, and pockets days or weeks later, they'll come across a scrap of paper with your number, and say, "What's this doing in my pocket? I don't remember anything about it." It goes into the trash and you've lost your chance to hook an interested prospect.

There are several ways to provide this action step: tear-offs at the bottom of or all the way around the flier; a stack of cards or order forms in a pocket or attached by a nail, to name a few possibilities.

Placing your fliers is easy: use a staple gun or thumbtacks for bulletin boards, and transparent tape for windows, walls, and lamp posts. Don't paper the walls with your flier or cover up others-it's rude (but do take down expired ones to make room). But if you have 30 feet of bulletin board in a corridor, you can safely put up 3-5 copies of your flier. Run off your flier on several different colors of paper. That way, when you come across a bulletin board dominated by yellow and pink fliers, you can put up a blue or green one for extra visibility. Vary your placement-put some high, some low, and some in the middle, so people of different heights can easily find your flier. Also vary the fliers you put them next to.


Nonposted Fliers

A flier that you design to hand to someone, or to appear as the reader opens an envelope, doesn't need to scream so loudly for attention; you don't have to worry so much about making it eye-catching and can concentrate on giving a more detailed, informative sales pitch.

You also don't need any kind of tear-off or response form right on the flier. Include an address and/or phone number in the body of the flier, but enclose your response form as a separate piece of paper.

Thus, you have a lot more room for your real message, and can have a smaller headline and considerably more body copy. Instead of three or four points in a bulleted list, you might include three paragraphs of your strongest sales message.


Design and Cost Considerations

You can pay three cents per flier for high-volume photocopies from a handwritten or computer-generated master copy in black ink. Or you can pay $50 per poster for a small-run, four-color job that cost several hundred dollars for design work and an equal amount for printing.

In general, with any visual material, I suggest you make the product look professional. But don't spend a lot of money on the design if you can do it for less. You probably don't need four-color printing, halftone photos, ink bleeds, die cuts, foil embossing or a lot of the other fancy tricks that jack up the price. But attractively designed type done on a laser printer is cheap, professional, and effective; in most situations, it's an excellent way to go.

Of course, you have to match your product to your audience. If you're putting something up on bulletin boards in an elementary school, aimed at the students rather than the teachers, you may actually want to scrawl something out by hand with a magic marker-you'll be meeting your prospects on their own design level, and it will look familiar and feel like it was created by one of their peers. But if you're marketing a luxury product to the very wealthy, you'll want to pull out all the stops, using full color, a professional designer, and the highest resolution typesetting you can find (2400 dots per inch or more).

In most cases, a computerized laser-printed flier provides a comfortable and affordable middle ground. But do remember that in large quantities, the extra cost per piece of fancy design work diminishes; you're amortizing the cost of the designer and the extra press work across the entire run.

There are five principal design elements in any flier: type, graphics, color, texture, and size/shape.

Type

Type is the character of the letters you use: their shape, intensity, and quality. We'll look first at quality.

In our technological age, there's no excuse for a sloppy product. While even a few years ago, you could get away with handwritten fliers, or a mixture of handwriting, typing, and rub-on headlines, the computer revolution has raised people's standards. It's also made it absurdly easy to produce professional work in a matter of minutes, and at almost no cost.

Note, though, that the computer revolution has also made it easy to generate incredible ugliness. Don't use more than two-or, at the very most, three-typeface families in any one flier. And make sure your typefaces complement each other; it's all-too-easy for them to clash. Also, avoid the currently popular "ransom note" style, where every letter is a different size and weight; it's almost impossible to read. In nearly all cases, I recommend that you do your fliers on a computer, using a laser printer--or, at the least, a good near-letter quality printer with scalable fonts and a smoothing algorithm such as Adobe Type Manager. When you want your flier to look even better, you can bring your disk to a service bureau and get it typeset cheaply.


Graphics

Your choices in graphics run the gamut. Many successful fliers don't use graphics at all--just a headline.

Remember that the text itself can work graphically. Use elements such as italic and bold, various sizes and weights of type to create a graphic effect, or arrange the type into a visual shape. Specialty fonts can also incorporate graphic elements.

Of course, if you have a logo, it should be on your fliers. But a small logo down at the bottom may not be enough graphic impact for the task at hand. So either use a large version of your logo, or else incorporate a large graphic to catch attention and a small logo to reinforce your unified image.

The next step up in complexity is clip art--camera-ready art in the public domain (in other words, unhindered by copyright restrictions), which you can plug into your fliers. Clip art is available either in printed scrapbooks or on computer disks; the latter allows you to manipulate an image if it's close but not quite right. Look for high contrast and avoid pictures with lots of detail, if you want to be able to print your flier cheaply.

If you want to use original art, your best bet is a line drawing. Make the lines thick enough to be seen easily. Again, avoid elaborate shading in favor of high contrast.

Finally, there are more complex graphics, including photos and professional illustrations. Complex drawings will require more care in printing. For instance, you will not be able to use a high-speed copier for your final result if you include a photograph, which requires halftones and offset printing to reproduce properly. Neither of these steps are difficult, but they do require proper preparation, and they aren't useful for small print runs (under 50 copies). So think about whether your project really requires you to sacrifice the flexibility of printing choices. If the answer is yes and you have a graphic that will add significantly to the strength of your message, go ahead.


Color

Black ink on white paper may be fine, but always consider whether your piece can benefit from color. What are the advantages of color?

  • It makes your flier stand out more on a crowded bulletin board
  • It can draw attention to a part of your offer that you particularly want to highlight
  • It increases visual appeal, and thus reader interest
  • Color can clarify and help explain-for instance, in a chart of sales revenues, different colors can show the relative strengths of different items at a glance, or an exploded parts diagram can be much clearer if different kinds of parts are in different colors
  • For some items, full color is the only way to demonstrate the product-if, for instance, you design packaging for retail merchandise

There are two ways to get color into a document: with ink and with paper. In both cases, the range of options is immense.

Let's talk for a moment about how a document gets reproduced. At present, the three most common techniques are: 1] offset printing; 2] photocopying; and 3] multiple originals from a computer and laser printer.

For simple documents--black ink, simple graphics that reproduce well--high speed photocopying is a perfectly good way to make copies. You can do as many or as few as you need. If you have your own equipment, black-and-white copying may be cost-competitive with printing services at surprisingly large quantities.

With photocopying, color has been pretty much restricted to the choice of paper stock, until recently. Color copying does exist, but it is expensive--typically $1-$2 per page, at this writing-and generally impractical for large print runs.

However, recent strides in technology are about to make spot color practical and economical, even on short runs. A whole new class of copiers provides extensive graphics and color manipulation-and these machines will start appearing in local copy shops. The Canon NP4080, for instance, has a list price of $10,000 (easily within the budget of a high-volume copy shop, or even a fairly busy in-house production department). It can:

  • Change the color of black- or red-ink original--or even change different sections of the same original into different colors
  • Highlight or black out any elements of the page, by circling the area with a marker
  • Fill in an outline to generate shaded areas or reverse type
  • Add a notation as if you were using yellow sticky-pads
  • Pump out high quality copies at up to 40 per minute

What will they think of next? Expect to pay somewhere between 10 and 50 cents per page for this kind of capability.

Printing originals from a laser printer makes sense for print runs up to about 100 or so; quality is higher than from photocopies, and shaded art will reproduce well. High quality color output from computers is rapidly evolving, but slow print times and high cost make this method unsatisfactory for most jobs. Still, as the technologies improve, color photocopying and computer printing may become viable; keep your eyes on what's available.

That leaves offset printing as the only real choice for generating large amounts of a document with color ink. In offset printing, a mask is made from a photographic image of the page, and the mask is used to press the ink onto paper. Ink colors are made up of blends from four primary colors: blue, yellow, red, and black. Printers and graphic artists often define colors either by where they fall on the CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) scale, or by their Pantone number. Pantone is a widely used system for shading inks; go into any offset print shop and ask to see swatches if you want a sense of what's out there.

Each of the four colors requires a separate mask and a separate run through the presses. Each run must be precisely aligned with all the others, or else both the colors and the graphics will be skewed. It calls for skill and precision, as well as extra labor to clean the press between colors. Four-color magazine- or brochure-quality printing can therefore be quite expensive. Think about what's involved the next time you see an ad or flier where the ink starts in one color at one end of the page, and blends subtly to a completely different color at the other end.

REMINDER: Printing quality, prices, and turnaround times vary widely. Get at least four estimates on any print job, and ask for work samples and references before making your decision.

Here are some ways to gain a few of the benefits of color while keeping expense down:


Colored paper

You can get solid colors in almost any imaginable hue: somber brown, fluorescent pink, deep red... Most copy shops keep a good selection on hand. You can also get specialty paper, with borders, subliminal graphics, full blown abstract or landscape designs, preprinted spot color, color blends, graduated fills, and various other special effects. Ask for catalogs from Desktop Impressions in Milwaukee [(800) 545-4628], Quill in Palatine, Illinois [(800) 789-1331},and Paper Direct in Lyndhurst, New Jersey [(800) 272-7377]. Desktop Impressions is less expensive but has a much smaller selection than Paper Direct. Use a color that's both appropriate to your message and easy to read with your flier on it.


Single color ink

While it does cost more than black ink, using a different ink color is not costly. Using a different color may add $10-30 to the cost of the same job in black ink, but if you're doing hundreds or thousands of fliers, the extra charge will only add a few cents per sheet. Choose an ink that has high contrast against the color of paper you're using; bright reds and blues are often good choices for visibility. Avoid mushy colors like brown or pink.


Spot color

Better still is using spot color-using a colored ink for just a few graphic elements, while keeping the rest in black. This technique dramatically increases visibility, but only requires two runs through the printing press. A bright red or blue might be effective: on a headline, to emphasize a word like "Free," to highlight an offer's expiration date, or to provide a visually interesting break between sections with a horizontal or vertical rule.


Gang runs

If you're a patient person, you can save on color printing by asking your printer to gang your job with another one of the same color. The press doesn't have to be cleaned again between the other customer's order and yours, so you save the cleaning charge. But before you commit to this, get some sense of how long the wait will be. Alternately, if you bring several jobs in the same colors in at once, you will pay less than if you bring them in one at a time.


Texture

Much of what we said about color is also applicable to texture. It adds interest to your flier, and can provide any of a number of images. With the exception of raised-letter printing (used for business cards, invitations, etc.), the principal way to change texture is by switching paper stocks. Papers are available with fine and coarse, smooth and bumpy textures. Formal documents are often created on paper with a "laid," linen, or parchment finish. You can get glossy paper that shines, flat paper that absorbs light. You can get a thick stock with flecks in it that looks unprocessed or recycled.

You can also create textures through printing tricks, but of course they do add to the cost. Die-cuts, which are carefully designed cuts in the paper during printing, allow part of the following page to show through, provide a nice tear-off edge for a coupon, or create an unusual shape. Foil or acetate overlays give texture to a small part of your flier, through a small piece of metal foil or plastic cut-out. Large sweepstakes mailings often use foil stickers. Embossing raises letters in a part of the text. In general, however, I'd stay away from all this kind of thing. It's overkill, and you'd spend the money more effectively by putting out more copies of a flier that's simple and to the point.


Extra Visual Impact

A flier has to draw attention on a crowded bulletin board. Let yours jump out at the reader. Try a few of these tricks: borders and rules (thick or decorative ones will be more visible); sunbursts or balloons; reverse type; bold print; boxed pull quotes; fills and bleeds; boxed off sections within the main text; sidebars; eye-catching display type; type manipulated and distorted with special effects; text wrapped around graphics; text used as a graphic; type set at an angle, around a curve, or in a vertical line (as long as it's still easy to read); spot color (in a single-color page such as most newspapers); a coupon with a thick border and noticeable type


Size/shape

The final element in making a flier distinctive is the size and shape. Paper is usually sold in standard sizes: 8-1/2x11, 8-1/2x14, 11x17. Your flier can stand out by trimming from one of these standard sizes to something unusual--but be certain, if you plan to mail your flier, that you can get envelopes to fit! Trimming also allows you to get a "bleed" effect-ink running off the edge of the paper-without having to limit yourself to a printer who can do bleeds on full sized paper. Simply trim off the uninked margin and you have your bleed. For added distinction, trim your paper at an angle; since virtually every flier is a rectangle, yours will stand out with its odd shape, particularly if you're using a striking and uncommon paper color. For instance, with one cut you can do two fliers: one on a triangle pointing up, and one on a triangle pointing down.

For more marketing advice see: the marketing page.

By Shel Horowitz, marketing/frugality consultant and author of Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World, Marketing Without Megabucks: How to Sell Anything on a Shoestring, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and other books. Visit Shel's 350+ page Website, http://www.frugalfun.com, for free advice and monthly tipsheets on frugal marketing and frugal fun, as well as Global Arts Review, Global Travel review, and Down to Business magazines.


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