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Design Bloopers | Would You Donate to an Unreadable Cause?

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This piece came in the mail a while back and I saved it to my design bloopers folder to share with you.

I am sad to say it was soliciting donations for a college design program. (Details have been obscured to protect the innocent).

Maybe they’re using reverse psychology. When they sent out a piece like this, maybe what they were really trying to say is, “support our design program, because clearly we have a lot to learn.”

(In fairness, I think the piece was done by a student. I would be embarrassed to share some of my student work. I’ve created plenty of bloopers over the years, too. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way!)

In the spirit of learning, let’s talk about why it doesn’t work.

Type Should “Hang Together”

One of the goals of good typesetting is to group information in a way that makes it easy to understand. The most glaring mistake in this design was the decision to separate each sentence into a white box and place the white boxes on a dark ground.

The effect of this treatment is to stop the reader at the end of each line and send them hunting for the next box. Inside the box they have to find the line they’re supposed to read next.

This is way too much work to expect of your audience. They’re being asked to donate, and shouldn’t have to work so hard to extract that message.

The Ransom Note Effect

Even worse, the overall feel of the piece is one of a ransom note, and this is an unfortunate treatment to use for a solicitation for donations. Donors want to know:

  • Am I appreciated?
  • Will my money go to a good cause?
  • How can I participate beyond donating money?

All of that information was in the written copy, but I’ll bet many donors never got beyond the appearance of the piece to read it. Don’t let your design get in the way of your message.

Shoddy Production Values

The piece looks like it was created on a color copier. There’s no harm in that, but it wasn’t trimmed correctly, so there’s a white strip showing along the right side that shouldn’t be there.

Color copiers don’t handle large blocks of color well, and on this piece there are visible streaks where the copier didn’t print the background color evenly.

When designing something for print, you must take the limitations of the machine you’ll use to reproduce it into account.

And even if you use a lowly copier, put care into the final product. Otherwise it looks like you don’t care.

I Didn’t Donate

I’ll bet you’re not surprised to hear I didn’t donate. I didn’t want to respond to this particular piece, because institutions gauge the effectiveness of their campaigns by the response they get. If I’d donated after receiving this piece, they may have created more campaigns that looked like this, and I didn’t want that to happen!

How about you? Have you seen a design blooper lately? Created one yourself? Tell me about it in the comments!

Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson is an online educator, author, keynote speaker, and the founder of BIG Brand System. Read reviews of the tools used to run this site and business.

Pamela Wilson

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16 thoughts on “Design Bloopers | Would You Donate to an Unreadable Cause?”

  1. Nice! 🙂

    The Ransom Note Effect reminds me of supposedly professional documents containing fonts like Comic Sans. A colleague of mine use to call them “teenager fonts”. What he meant is that they are fine for children but not in business. I still chuckle at his comment to this day (and it was 10 years ago now).

    The worse design I’ve encountered lately is a poster child for poor design: an explanation of benefits (EOB) statement from our health insurance company. The blooper comes in their use of the word “explanation”. Using that word sets an expectation that when I get done reading that I will have a clue how much I owe. I swear that the first insurance company designed a really bad EOB statement and then everyone copied.

    • When it comes to the Explanation of Benefits statements, it makes you wonder if they’re intentionally hard to follow so we don’t notice all the items that won’t be covered! 😮

  2. Good design is a welcoming invitation to enjoy something, whether that’s a website or a widget. I feel that bad design is a turn off, and I’m less likely to want to look at something with bad design.

  3. Pamela, this reminds me of something I saw years ago. My car happened to be parked on the street outside my home one day, not in the garage. When I went back out to get in the car again, there was a familiar yellow paper under my windshield wiper. My first reaction was annoyance and frustration at getting a ticket because I wasn’t parked illegally. I noticed all the other cars on the street had one too.

    However when I pulled it off the windshield and looked at it, it was a print ad using paper the same colour and size as a parking ticket. I can’t even remember what the ad was for now.

    My reaction of annoyance and frustration immediately transferred to the person who had caused it. Unfair? Perhaps. But I know I crumpled it up without reading any more of it and threw it in the garbage.

    I remember thinking what a marketing mistake they had made. Did they really want the first reaction to their ad to be anger and frustration? They probably thought it would get our attention. But it just wasn’t the right kind!

    Please feel free to add this story to your bloopers.

    • That’s an excellent example of a blooper, Katherine. And it’s interesting how you realized you transferred the annoyance directly to the person who caused it. That’s not a good feeling to have about someone who wants your business. Yikes!

  4. Wow Pamela,

    I don’t even know what to say to this one. That has got to be one of the worst mailers I have ever seen. Who on earth looked at that and said; “yes, that’s the look we are going for”. And this came from a design school? WTF???

    They obviously put the white boxes in because they couldn’t figure out how to make the text stand out on that horrible background. Faux Pas #1, if you can’t figure out how to make the text legible on your background, perhaps your need a different background!

    You’re right, this was done by a student… most likely one that just got started! I think my 6 year old could do better. We have all made these mistakes, trying to be uber creative and make something complex.

    Thanks for posting this Pamela. Perhaps you should send them a response critiquing them for this hideous piece. Remind them about the simplicity of design. lol

    • I have to say, I hesitated before hitting “publish” on this one. I know there’s a real person behind this — likely more than one person — and I don’t mean to be cruel. But I went ahead and posted it because I think it’s a good example of a piece that lost its way. Someone forgot the reason for creating it, and started looking at the copy as something they should “decorate,” rather than something people were going to have to read.

      • I understand you not wanting to be cruel Pamela, but seriously… What’s worse? Letting this person think this is good graphic design and having them venture out into the world and try and earn a living from it, or helping them to see that this is just bad.

        There’s no way to sugar coat this one, it’s just bad. 🙂

  5. Ugh, that’s really awful. My son recently received a letter of recommendation on a piece of stationery that was almost a medium grey and had several color gradients on it. After he scanned it for his online submission he asked my help in making it more legible and getting the file size down to below the 1MB submission limit. A designer (who I know) came up with the header & colors (very nice), but I suspect the person took the design and then printed it on the medium grey paper.

  6. I interpret it less ‘ransom note’ and more ‘let’s see how David Carson we can be.’ Either way this is awful. Had a ll the large text made a coherent statement, it may have been seen as slightly clever though misguided.

    Definitely not something I could even read all the way through, much less would I consider donating to.

  7. I understand what they were aiming for, but someone forgot that “easy to read” should always be a requirement.

    Perhaps a case of trying to do too much all at once (which I certainly remember from my college days!) and certainly interesting from an educational standpoint.

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