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Never Underestimate the Will to Avoid Reading: A Case for Strong Design

Audiences excel at ignoring our words. To earn their readership, we have to weigh design as much as we weigh writing.

As someone who studied writing at three universities—and subsequently taught writing at three universities—it pains me to say this, but there’s no denying people will go to great lengths to avoid reading. 

Segments of my former students avoided it by means of SparkNotes. Others, by means of simply sleeping in or praying for snow (or, during final exam time, for plagues of blood and locusts). I wish I could say I only observed such allergies among students confirmed to be “academically at-risk,” but I can’t. 

While my students who went on to complete graduate work in the Ivy Leagues might not have avoided reading altogether, they certainly worked to minimize it (sometimes out of necessity, sometimes for reasons less admirable). And what eventually becomes of these students? They go to work, they realize they now have even less reading time than they had in undergrad, and they spend the next twenty years being marketed to as the prized 25-45 demographic (while copywriters and content marketers wonder why messaging goes ignored).

The result leads us—or those of us seeking attention by means other than irrelevant swimsuit models and covert product placements—to a crossroads.

Do we roll over and accept the low conversion rates facilitated by reluctant readership? Or do we heed the signs the newspaper industry largely ignored—and start modernizing our words and marketing content with proper design?

(Good) Design Is Everyone’s Friend

When the going got tough, the Chicago Sun-Times (among others) opted to spend less money on images. A lot less money. While I can sympathize with their budgetary challenges, I’m not so sure I’d have bet on reducing visuals as a means of rekindling an audience that’s increasingly favoring more vibrant multimedia alternatives.

There are enough studies confirming the affects of visuals in marketing as to make citing them redundant. However, there’s far less content focused on the quality of these visuals. Creating epic content by way of strong writing is important (it’s how I earn a living as a freelance copywriter and content marketing consultant)—but even the best content can’t undo the effects of poor design and graphics that essentially say “don’t read me.”

Good design isn’t everything, and it certainly doesn’t negate the need to create strong copy. However, bad design can negate even the strongest copywriting in its entirety.  

Are your images amateur and pixelated? You might as well include a caption broadcasting a habit of cutting corners in sacrifice of quality. 

Are your headlines painfully bright and typeset in unsightly capitals?Making reading more challenging probably isn’t the invite your marketing audience has been waiting for.

Are your design cues scattered and inconsistent? Why should prospects assume the nature of your product or service will be any different?

Strong copy and concepts will keep people reading, but only if strong visuals convince them to start in the first place. In the aggregate, an allocated design budget plays as much a role in your marketing campaign’s success as does your budget for a copywriter.

An investment in one without the other is an investment unlikely to yield returns.

*Fast Company published an abbreviated version of this post here: Never Underestimate Your Audience’s Will to Avoid Reading.