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Billboard Monthly

March, 1st 2012

Some Basic Guidelines For Effective Billboard Design

I am still amazed when I see bad billboard designs. You would think that just about everybody in the business at this point knew the basics. But apparently not. So here’s a list of the general design guidelines that every good billboard must follow.

Contrasting colors

At makes a billboard possible to read? A good starting spot is contrast. Essentially a dark color on a light color – or vice versa. You cannot read black letters on a black background. You cannot read white letters on a white background. You cannot read dark blue letters on a dark green background. You would think it’s good common sense, but all billboards must begin with either dark letters on a light background or light letters on a dark background. There’s no exception.

Big letters

Have trouble reading the fine print on a contract? Then don’t put it on a billboard. There’s a general rule that no copy should be smaller than 18” character height. Others say 24”. Obviously, it’s definitely not 6” – yet I’ve seen that done before. Wording must be large.

Just a few words

A by-product of big letters is few words. The general rule is not more than 7 words on a billboard. Does that mean that you can’t have 8 words and still have a successful billboard? No, but it means that 24 is definitely out.

A great graphic

With the advent of vinyl printing, you can now put photos up as big as the entire sign. So why are people not using the media to its full advantage? In the old days – when signs were hand-painted – you had to keep graphics to a minimum because they were super expensive and hard to produce. Those days are over. Straight-copy billboards (with no graphics) should never be seen today. And the graphics should be bold and beautiful. If you’re selling a restaurant, I want to see a great looking photo of food on a table. In a world of digital cameras and photoshop, there’s absolutely no excuse for anything less.

The words “exit now”

Harvard University’s Business School has a marketing textbook that says that the two most important words on a billboard are “Exit Now”. Of course, not all billboard have exit now orientation. But if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Only billboards offer point-of-purchase marketing. Use it.

Don’t re-invent the wheel

Look on-line or buy a book on the greatest billboard designs of all time. You’ll see the same general layouts and designs in all of them. Follow those examples. There’s no rule against copying good design – just plagiarism.

Don’t be afraid to seek help

There are many vinyl-printers who also offer design services as well as printing. Formetco and Lindmark are just two of the vinyl companies that offer reasonably-priced design services. With so much at stake, you should not scrimp on the ad design. A bad design will result in a failed ad, an unhappy client, poor collections, and no renewal.


There’s no excuse to make bad ads. But there’s plenty of them out there. Do your part to end this trend. The result will be happy advertisers, continual renewal and more customers wanting to share in the sales they see happening.

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Memo From Frank

It looks like the recession may already be ending for outdoor billboard sales. Lamar just released their fourth quarter 2011 numbers, and they exceeded analyst expectations. Lamar earned $6.3 million on revenues of $288.2 million, as opposed to the fourth quarter 2010 numbers, which were a loss of $7.2 million on revenues of $275.5 million. While it’s too early to celebrate – and certainly the gains are not staggering – it’s a clear indication that ad revenues may have already bottomed out and are going back up. In fact, in my market in Missouri, billboard vacancy is significantly lower than it was for the past several years.

As long as the internet keeps destroying radio, television and newspaper advertising, and commute times grow longer and slower – which I don’t think will ever change -- billboards should do just fine.

A Billboard Story

Years ago, Foster & Kleiser had a 30-sheet unit in San Francisco that the lease came up for renewal on. The landowner would not back down on demanding a ridiculous amount of rent. So Foster & Kleiser terminated the lease, and went out to take the sign down. The sign was a wall-mount – it was attached to the wall of the building. The building was extremely old and made out of wood. The crew unbolted the sign from the wall, while holding up its weight with a crane. When they let the sign down, they found there was no wall – and the people in the house were looking out at them as their stuff was blowing out of the room. The sign had been so old, that the building and sign were actually built together, and without the sign there was no building. So much for lease negotiating.

Did You Know...

The largest outdoor advertising sign in history was the Eiffel Tower. For a period of time in the 1920’s, the Eiffel Tower was used as the world’s biggest billboard, advertising such products as Citroën. Even though it was not a traditional billboard as we know it, it turned a big pile of metal into a giant salesman.

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