Creating and Designing Your Own Print Ads Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Creating and Designing Your Own Print Ads

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There are many reasons why you would want to create your own advertisements.

  • You will be in control of the content.

  • You cannot always rely upon an agency or design department to get it right.

  • You can maintain consistency between the different kinds of print media, because your advertisements will be done by you, instead of by several different designers.

  • And, best of all, you will have creative control over how your advertisement looks - all the time, every time.

With the wide availability of computers and design programs, it is now possible to be your own design agency. With attention to detail you, too, can produce your own professional-looking advertisements.

Getting Started

Publishing Programs

Whether you have a Macintosh or a PC, you will need a publishing program to put your advertisements together. Quark is the most powerful desktop publishing program available, and is manufactured for use on both Macintosh and the PC. It retails at $8991 (US) because it is meant for professionals, but it is worth the price. A cheaper-priced competitor, InDesign by Adobe, is only $699 (US). What makes InDesign most attractive is its ability to export Adobe PDFs, which have become essential in the field of desktop publishing, because they work well across all platforms. Aldus Pagemaker is the cheapest of the three, at only $499 (US). It is best used when creating brochures and newsletters. It is not a very powerful program but, for someone who is just starting out, it is better than nothing at all.

It is hard to judge whether you will need to invest in an art program. It depends upon how much actual design you want to do. Programs such as Photoshop are intended to create a wide range of graphics and are priced for professionals. One useful aspect of Photoshop is its combination of vector paths and raster graphics, which allow users to create clipping paths. Illustrator, Corel Draw, Painter and others are excellent vector programs, and also do great text effects. If you feel comfortable with computers, invest in an art program to create the graphics that you need. If you are not interested in being that creative, use one of the many excellent stock art websites available. They provide everything - photographs, clip art, great backgrounds, and even ideas for your advertisement.

Choosing Your Media: Who, What, When, Where, Why

Before you commit to advertising ask yourself some specific questions. Advertising is an investment that does not always pay off, so be sure to spend your money wisely.

  • Why do you need advertising?

    This may seem like a simple question, but asking this of yourself will help you decide how you want to advertise. Instead of purchasing space in a newspaper, you might be better off hiring a teenager to stand in front of your store in a gorilla suit. It is important to decide if the expense of advertising will be worth the increase in business and, conversely, if your business can handle the increase in sales. There is nothing more frustrating than a store full of customers and not enough product to satisfy their needs.

  • What are you selling? Who are your customers, and where do they live?

    If you want to expand your customer base, first ask yourself what you are selling, and who needs it. You have probably heard the old saying 'He could sell refrigerators to the Eskimos'. Obviously, Eskimos do not need refrigerators. Likewise, snow chains will not be a big seller in the desert. So it might be time for a little market research for your business. Find out what your customers want and where they live. Then look for those types of people - called a demographic - in your area. Perhaps they are scattered about and an advertisement in a newspaper or magazine will reach them best. Perhaps they are in specific economic areas. Many newspapers and printers produce coupon books, handouts and flyers, which are sometimes inserted into the regular paper or else distributed door to door or in the mail. These can be tailored to the needs of the advertiser. Advertisers can reach customers specifically, rather than blanket the area and waste paper on people who will never need their services.

  • When do you need to advertise?

    If you have a high turnover in stock or special offers that change every day, this will make a difference in the choice of media. Some publications, like magazines, require the advertising materials two weeks in advance. With newspapers you can keep the advertisements more up-to-date, because their deadline for advertising material is usually two or three days before the publication date.

  • What do you want to say?

    Advertising is your message to the customer. It is a hook to get the customer into the store. Do not make the mistake of cramming everything you sell into the advertisement. You will do yourself a disservice and the space you spent good money on will be ignored because the eye naturally skims over small type. Keep your advertisement simple, big, and bold. Decide what your most popular product or service is and feature it. Choose your advertising media well. With precise marketing, you can bring your message to your potential customers with a minimum of expense on your part.

Technical Terms

Printing has a language of its own. It has developed over the years, from the invention of the very first printing press and moveable type, to today's high-speed computers and electronic output of film. Here are some brief descriptions of technical terms that you will need to know in order to work with the printing industry.

Raster and Vector Images

These two terms are a complicated way to describe image file formats. Raster images use pixels. The more pixels per inch, the better the resolution. This is known as DPI, or dots per inch2. A 1" sized graphic with 1 DPI would be a solid colour - the colour of the one pixel. Each pixel is coloured a different shade - in 'grayscale', each pixel is a different shade of black. With colour, each pixel is coloured a certain percentage of a colour range. Programs like Photoshop create raster images. Vector images use BeziƩr curves, points and lines. With enough of these curves, an almost photographic image can be created. Vector images have the advantage of being easily resizable.

85 and 133 Line Screen

Line screen refers to the way photographs were traditionally half-toned for print. Photographs are what the printing industry calls 'continuous tone'. This means that each colour or shade in a photograph is a separate colour. Printing presses cannot print a continuous tone photograph. If you look at a black and white picture in a magazine closely, you will see that it is made up of tiny little dots. In a process colour picture, these dots are cyan, yellow, magenta and black, while a black and white picture is composed of larger and smaller black dots. To create a screened photograph in the past, an actual screen marked with 85 or 133 lines per inch was laid over the photograph and a duplicate of the photograph was shot, creating a halftone. Today we use the computer, but the effect is the same. If a photograph is to print at a certain line screen, the resolution should be double the line screen. 170 to 200 DPI is recommended for 85 line; for 133 line printing, 266 to 300 is best.

Process Colour, RGB and Grayscale

Process colour, or CMYK, is so-named because it uses four inks - cyan, yellow, magenta, and black. These four inks, in various combinations, can produce any colour. All graphics in a process colour advertisement have to be either CMYK or grayscale. RGB is best when used for web graphics and when adjusting photographs to print in colour. A grayscale picture is a black and white picture that uses many tones of black. Whether the picture looks black and white has nothing to do with whether it is grayscale or process. A process black has 100% black ink, and 0% cyan, magenta, and yellow inks. Grayscale uses only black ink, in varying percentages for each pixel.

Spot Colour

This is a way for newspapers and other publications to give their advertisers colour at a discounted rate. An advertiser can have as many as two spot colours in addition to the black ink, which will print on the page anyway3. Spot colours are so-named because the printer has to set up the page to print with coloured ink in that particular spot. This can be a great way to create an eye-catching visual at a cheap price. Check with your media to see if there is an option for spot colours, and what your choices are.


There are a few file formats that are designed specifically for the printing industry. A tiff - Tag Image File Format - file stores image data for grayscale and process colour pictures. An EPS - Encapsulated Postscript File - incorporates vector graphics; an EPS might be a graphic outputted from a vector program, or it could be from a raster program and saved with a clipping path.

Clipping Paths, Duotones and Bitmaps

What do you do when you have a great picture of something, but the background is unacceptable? That is when you use a little technique called a 'clipping path'. These are also known as 'saveouts'. In the early days of printing, this was a tedious process that took a couple of hours4, but today this only takes a few minutes in Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop includes vector paths for the creation of saveouts. An artist can apply a clipping path around the graphic, save it as a Photoshop EPS, and achieve the same effect as an old-style graphic artist with a knife and an amberlith - except ten times faster. For those more advanced in Photoshop and other art program techniques, a duotone is a way of including two inks in an image. A spot colour can be applied to a raster image, so that it separates in two plates - the spot colour and the black plate. A bitmap is a black and white tiff that contains only black and white. A grayscale image contains many shades of black, while a bitmap only has one - pure black. Bitmaps are transparent, so they can be put on colour backgrounds and, in Quark Xpress, can be printed in any colour, whether spot or process. Bitmaps should be high resolution, preferably 1016 DPI to 2000 DPI. This may seem excessive but, because the art program does not have to store information for the CMY plates, it ends up being a small file.

Graphic Design

Graphic design is a unique style of communication. It is more than just type and pictures assembled together. Graphic design presents information in a form that is easy to absorb. A good graphic design flows from one point to another, so that the eye naturally travels through the design. A good design does not have to be complicated, or in process colour, for it to be attention-getting. It should not make the reader feel cramped, or uncomfortable - unless that is the designer's intention. All this is possible with the use of contrast, balance and space.

When you are creating your own advertisements, it is difficult to be objective about your design. If you have taken the time to write your own text, it is hard to cut some of it out, because you have spent effort on it. The same goes for any graphics you have created. Remember to keep it simple, first. Make the most of your space, but do not crowd it. Your advertisement will be in the middle of a sea of words, so make it a hook that draws your potential customer's eye.


A typical advertisement consists of a headline, a graphic, body copy, the advertiser's logo, and contact information. Not all advertisements have to have all of these elements, but the advertiser's name and the contact information are essential. Now that you have decided what product you want to feature, and what media you want to advertise in, it is time to pull together your elements.

  • Headline - The headline should bring all the elements in the advertisement together. This is especially important if you decide to go without a graphic, because then the headline becomes the draw for your advertisement. The best headlines are short and easy to understand - big enough to catch the eye and interesting enough to get the potential customer to read more.

  • Graphic - This is the icing on the cake. A good graphic can say more about you than a headline can. It does not always have to illustrate what you are selling - it can tie in cleverly with the headline.

  • Body Copy - How much body copy you include depends upon what you are selling. Customers like to be informed about expensive services, like roofing or surgical procedures. If your product is best sold as an impulse buy, keep the body copy short and sweet.

  • Contact Information - One of the most consistent errors new designers make is forgetting to include the contact information in the advertisement. Ask yourself what your preferred method of contact is and only put that information in the advertisement. You can confuse your customers with too much information.


When you have all your elements together, it is time to arrange them into an attention-getting advertisement. Traditionally the headline goes at the top, but do not be bound by tradition - some of the best advertisements are unconventional. Proper use of your graphic elements can bring this advertisement together and make it a powerful selling tool.


This is a great way to convey a message without words. Warm colours tend to be 'hungry' colours; in other words, food looks better when placed next to a warm colour. Blues tend to be 'clean' and relaxing. Soft greens make people think of plants while pale green can be antiseptic in appearance. Bright yellow is the most attention-getting colour, but it is also hard on the eyes. Red, yellow, and blue are your primary colours. For more interest, use your colour opposites. To find a colour opposite, look at a simple colour wheel. If you do not have one available, imagine a circle, cut into thirds. One third is coloured red, one yellow, and one blue. Take the colour blue - its opposite two colours are red and yellow. Mix those two together to get orange; therefore the colour opposite of blue is orange. For a shocking combination, try orange type on a blue background, or yellow on purple.


The best way to illustrate balance is to take a sheet of paper, fold it in half, and make a large black circle on one half of the sheet of paper. Unfold it, and look at the paper. Your eye will be drawn towards the circle. If you put a circle on the other half of the paper, then your eye will be restless, switching back and forth between the two circles. If, instead of making two circles, you had placed a large circle in the exact centre of the page, then your eye would be comfortable, and the page would be balanced. Elements in an advertisement require balance to flow from one to another. Imagine the elements as having weight. If there is a large object on one side of the page, place another large object on the other side of the page. Keep them from being symmetrical by staggering the items. Your eye naturally travels from one object to the next, making the advertisement flow. Overlap elements, such as the headline and the graphic. Use rules and guides to line the elements of your advertisement internally with each other, and with the edge of your document - this keeps it looking nice and neat.

White Space

Allow white space to act as a balancer between bold elements, and keep your white space consistent. There should be the same amount of space between all objects. There are few things more powerful than one graphic element in a full-sized page of nothing; the negative space draws your eye toward the graphic. White space is your friend.


An aspiring graphic designer with a brand new font package may be tempted to use all of those cool fonts, all at once. This is a bad idea. Too many fonts will not only trash up your advertisement, it will cause printing problems. Most printers cannot handle more than about fifty fonts in a single advertisement. It is best to use no more than two font families, and keep your styles different. In other words, if you are using a sans serif typeface for your header, use a serif typeface for your body copy5. Font families refer to a single font, like Futura, that has several different weights ranging from 'Extra Bold' to 'Light.' These are available with the better Postscript font packages from Adobe, but aren't always included with True Type fonts.

The Final Stage - Is Your Advertisement Ready For Print?

You have spent a lot of time putting your advertisement together. You've made sure it looks just the way you want it. Now it is time to get your advertisement ready for print.


If you are not careful, a technical error can ruin a perfectly good advertisement. Some simple routines, such as using spellcheck and always printing colour separations, can save you quite a bit of stress. Make sure that your graphics are at the right resolution and in the right formats so that, when they print, they won't appear muddy. Different media require different graphic formats. Be sure to check with your media of choice to find out what formats they need the files in before beginning. It is important when creating a print advertisement that all files are set to print at the proper resolution, otherwise the advertisement won't look the way you expect. One disadvantage of creating your own advertisements for the print media is that, if the advertisement does not look the way you planned, it won't be their fault - it will be yours.

Checking Your Files

One common error beginner designers make is to save their art files at the wrong size and the wrong resolution. Always check to see that the graphics are being used at 100% of image size in your advertisement and that they are set to print at the proper line screen. Graphics that are too high in resolution or too low can look muddy when they print and, if your art files are too large, it can cause printing problems. Make sure all raster graphics are in CMYK, in grayscale, or bitmap format. There are only two file formats acceptable in printing: the tiff file format and the EPS. Always get as much information as you can on file formats and printing resolution from your printer before releasing the advertisement.

Colour, Contrast and Oversaturation

Colour monitors are rarely colour correct. Don't rely on your eyes. If you want a specific colour you will need to purchase a colour book or use the library of colours provided with your desktop publishing program. Many have Pantone and TruMatch libraries which install with the program. Unless you are experienced in treating colour photographs, send them to a studio that specializes in preparing photographs for print. They will make sure that the photograph does not oversaturate the paper, and that it has enough contrast. If you are working in black and white, a studio is unnecessary. If the photograph looks good on the screen, chances are that it will look fine when it prints. This is not always true and, for a really nice magazine advertisement, it is worth your while to have the photograph worked by a studio.

Process and Spot Colour

When working with your images in your art program, make sure that you save them as process, or CMYK. What this means is that the art program saves information for each plate to print. If the image is in RGB, then there will be no information on the CMY plates and it will print in black and white. Spot colour advertisements tend to be accident prone, especially if the designer has neglected to check the advertisement thoroughly. For example, let us say you have decided to run a spot colour advertisement and you have chosen the colours green and black. The art that you have created in a vector program uses Pantone Green CVU. You have built the advertisement in a graphic design program and used Pantone 337 for the text. When the advertisement separates for printing, there will actually be three plates - Pantone Green CVU, Pantone 337, and the black plate. If the person running the press is not paying attention, your advertisement will print and run with an element missing because they will only run two of the three plates. So be very careful, and always print separations to your home printer before releasing the advertisement to a printer.

Delivering Your Advertisement To The Media

There are several different ways to get your advertisement where it needs to go. If the final destination is in town, burning a CD or putting the advertisement on a portable disk, like a ZIP, is perfectly acceptable. Make sure that you include all files needed for print and all the fonts that you have used in your advertisement. If you have no other alternative, and if your printer is capable of 1016 DPI output, then the easiest thing to do is print the advertisement and have it delivered. This is not recommended if you are running an advertisement in colour. Even if it is in black and white, it is best to send it digitally - first-generation materials are always best6.

Another way to get your advertisement delivered is to invest in Acrobat. Acrobat creates files called PDFs. A PDF - Portable Document Format - is a cross-platform file format created by Adobe. This is an excellent way of sending advertisements to the media of your choice. It embeds all graphics so that there is no need to send the images along and, when used with Quark Xpress and the Xtension Font Wizard, will even embed the fonts so that the fonts do not need to be sent either. With the file in a PDF format, there is no way to change it, which can be both good and bad. If there is a last minute change to the advertisement, it means that the art department won't be able to fix it - it will be your problem. It also means that the advertisement will be exactly as you sent it, eliminating any accidents with elements being moved.

Depending upon how many advertisements you intend to produce, it might be advisable to invest in membership of AdSend. This is an online advertisement delivery service that will give you a pre-print check to confirm that it will print as intended and will notify you that it has arrived at its location safely. It will also send it to multiple locations. If your volume of advertising is not quite that large, online FTP programs are a better idea. FTP sites are servers set up by printers, newspapers, and magazines to provide a service to their advertisers. With a username and password given to you by the owner of the server, you can log on and upload your files to their site. Fetch is one of the better FTP server managers, but there are several other freeware programs available.

Great Advertising

You have gone through a difficult process to create your own advertisements. Picking out a medium, selecting your graphic elements, putting your advertisement together and troubleshooting any potential problems - it can seem very daunting. Remember that an advertisement does not have to look cool, modern, or retro to be successful. The best definition of great graphic design is an advertisement that works. Seeing it in print is very rewarding, but the real reward comes when you see your new customers walk into the shop.

1Prices are estimates at the time of writing.2This is actually the number of pixels used per inch in a raster graphic.3Three spot colours and black ink would be four inks total - which is the equivalent of CMYK.4It took 15 to 20 minutes for the graphic artist to cut the amberlith. Amberlith is a sheet of acetate that has been layered with a thin, flexible orange plastic. With a knife, an artist could cut the orange plastic away, leaving a clear window for the part of the photograph that they wanted visible. The orange would reproduce as black, so it would mask the rest of the photograph. Then it took 15 to 20 more minutes for the people operating the camera to shoot the halftone with the amberlith applied, then ten more minutes for the film to be developed. After about an hour (at best) the graphic would be ready for use.5Sans serif and serif refer to the style of font. A font like Helvetica or Futura has no 'feet', meaning the small tags at the bottoms of each letter. Serif fonts, like Times, or Garamond, have serifs at the base of the letters.6First-generation refers to the steps away from the original. In other words, a second-generation graphic would be a scan of the original advertisement. This allows dirt and other cosmetic problems to show up on the scan. Third-generation would be a scan of the scan, and so on.

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