Designing Outdoor

“Solve the creative brief on a poster and you'll have an idea that will work in virtually any medium.” - David Bernstein
Creating Award Winning Outdoor

Designing outdoor advertising is visual storytelling. The expression of an idea can surprise viewers with words or excite them with pictures. Through the use of humour or drama, outdoor designs can influence consumer decisions and sell products. However, designing for the outdoor medium is a challenging communication task that requires the expression of a concept with clarity and austere focus. When outdoor advertising is well designed, it will entertain and intrigue consumers with arresting impact. 


Express the most important idea concisely

Present dynamic or provocative messages

Limit the number of words and pictures

We dedicate this content to the excellent work by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

Outdoor designs depicting positive product or social benefits generally achieve better recall responses among viewers than designs with inaccurate or misleading product information. A call to action is an effective technique for engaging a viewer. Outdoor displays that include Internet addresses, telephone numbers and special offers can produce impressive results.

Humour is a powerful design choice for outdoor executions. Both humorous and intriguing designs require less media weight to build awareness than mundane executions. The element of surprise can grab a viewer’s attention. Sometimes a serious approach to outdoor design is appropriate and the results can be striking.

The environment where outdoor advertising appears is considerably different from that of other media, since there is usually no programming or editorial associated with the medium. It is pure advertising. That’s why innovative, aesthetic or humorous outdoor design executions are usually more memorable than literal advertising. People are intelligent, and good outdoor designs involve viewers by stimulating their imagination to solicit a response. A viewer interprets the impact of a message on three different levels: rational, emotional and cultural.


The viewer rationally interprets a message.


The viewer instinctively reacts to a message with emotion.


The viewer will determine if a message is relevant to them personally and will either accept or reject the message.


HUMOUR arouses the most favorable response among viewers. Humour often includes wit, an essential component for ensuring an effective response to intriguing or aesthetic designs.


INTRIGUE involves a viewer by using words or pictures that are not immediately comprehensible. Intrigue will often present a puzzle and solution relationship that requires mental focus. A single, intriguing design might be used to captivate a viewer. However, a message could also be conveyed using a series of related images that involve the viewer in a saga that unfolds over time.


SURPRISE stimulates a viewer using unexpected or unusual design elements. A surprised viewer will do a “double-take” and will generally experience an emotional response once the essence of the message is understood. Sometimes the message is serious, so a powerful image with a searing headline can be an effective design choice.


AESTHETIC designs present pleasurable images or ideas to a viewer. They may be soothing to observe or enjoyable to study in detail. Aesthetic designs are often more dependent on pictures than on words. Although vivid, colorful photography can aesthetically enhance outdoor designs, high quality illustrative artwork can be an even more effective design choice.


SIMPLE IDEA The outdoor viewing audience is mostly mobile. People travel swiftly in vehicles or walk at a brisk pace while they perform the activities of daily life. Mobility limits the potential viewing time of an outdoor message to only a few seconds. Because of limited exposure time, outdoor designs require a disciplined and succinct creative approach. However, high frequency is a fundamental strength of the medium and repeated exposures will ensure that a message is absorbed and retained over time. Less is more, much more when using outdoor advertising to communicate a message. The most effective designs focus on a single idea. An advertiser should consider the most important product benefit to communicate and express that message to consumers. Outdoor advertising should be a quick burst of essential information. Additional messages dilute the essence of the primary benefit and reduce the impact of the advertising. It is equally important to limit design elements. Too many elements may confuse a viewer or make them work too hard to understand the meaning of the message.





Less than 7 words. 
Less than 3 elements. 
Less is more. 
KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid.
Brand positioning is an important consideration and can affect product recall.The bottom right is a good location for horizonal outdoor units. 
Don’t be confined by the boundaries of a frame. Crop generously and extend the elements of design beyond the physical restraints of an outdoor unit. 

COLOUR The spectrum of full colour, vividly and faithfully reproduced, is one of outdoor advertising’s distinct advantages. Designs bursting with brilliant colour can evoke emotional responses that will inspire lasting impressions.


A standard colour wheel clearly illustrates the importance of contrast in hue and value. Opposite colours on the wheel are complementary. An example is red and green. They represent a good contrast in hue, but their values are similar. It is difficult for the cones and rods of the human eye to process the wavelength variations associated with complementary colours. Therefore, a quivering or optical distortion is sometimes detected when two complementary colours are used in tandem.

Adjacent colours, such as blue and green, make especially poor combinations since their contrast is similar in both hue and value. As a result, adjacent colours create contrast that is hard to discern.

Alternating colours, such as blue and yellow, produce the best combinations since they have good contrast in both hue and value. Black contrasts well with any colour of light value and white is a good contrast with colours of dark value. For example, yellow and black are dissimilar in the contrast of both hue and value. White and blue are also a good colour combination.


FONTS selected for outdoor designs must be easy to read from variable distances. Adequate spacing between letters, words and lines will enhance visibility. The relative size of letter characters is also an important consideration. Words comprised of both upper and lower characters are generally easier to read than words constructed solely of capital letters.


TACTICAL DESIGN The world is a hectic and busy place. Outdoor advertising reaches people whenever and wherever they travel outside of their homes. Over time, outdoor advertising can consistently reinforce a message with crisp immediacy.


RECENCY Outdoor advertising is a frequency medium that provides multiple exposures to a message throughout the full duration of a campaign period. Recency is another important factor. Defined in the book, "When Ads Work," by John Philip Jones, recency reminds people who are already in the marketplace that a brand, store or service is a good choice. Consistent and repeated exposure to an outdoor message over an extended period of time will maintain high levels of advertising awareness and recall. To avoid memory decline, multiple design executions for a campaign can be implemented simultaneously or introduced at appropriate intervals during the campaign period.


LOCATION Outdoor advertising conveys the right message, to the right audience, at the right time, in the right place. Understanding the dynamics of the marketplace is essential for designing effective outdoor campaigns. In the case of Apple computer, the side of a bus was the only logical place to feature an image of civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Finding the relevant and hidden relationships between the message and the environment makes the advertising smart.

Although many outdoor panels have a horizontal format, some displays are vertical. The physical orientation of an outdoor unit will significantly affect the placement of design elements such as product identity and the headline. Orientation will also affect the overall balance of a design. It is important to remember that geography, demography and the orientation of a display are all necessary considerations when designing for the outdoor medium.

Another important factor is distance. The impact that an outdoor unit will produce is relative to the distance from where it is viewed. A transit shelter display, when positioned curbside and in close proximity to vehicular traffic and pedestrians, can have the same impact as a bulletin.

Time is a factor. It is important to consider the amount of time required for a viewer to fully perceive an outdoor message. The actual viewing time for a specific outdoor unit will vary by location and media format. A subway station poster design might contain a complex message, since viewers may have several minutes to reflect on the message while they wait for or ride on a train. Mobile advertisements should generally use fewer design elements than stationary outdoor units.


“You know you’ve achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.” 

- Antoine de Saint Exupery, Artist