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What makes a good brochure design?

Nyla Smith | Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Brochures are so much fun to design. Why? Because the creative possibilities are endless! Let's take a look at what makes an effective brochure design and review factors you'll want to consider before your next brochure project.

Let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start!) — what is a brochure? At it's core, it's... well, a marketing piece. It can take many forms — single page (bifold, trifold, gatefold) or multi-paged (saddle stitched, perfect bound); or go by different names — pamphlet, leaflet, booklet. It can be used for many purposes — a menu, a catalog, a sell sheet. The most common brochure style is a trifold or six-panel brochure, which is a single 8.5" x 11" sheet folded into thirds. But that is just the tip of the iceberg!

The most important thing to keep in mind for an effective brochure is to truly consider the experience. I enjoy designing brochures because as far as print pieces go, it's up there among the most interactive experiences you're going to get. What do I mean by that? A brochure is not like a poster that people walk by on the street. When someone looks at a brochure, they engage with it — turn it over, unfold panels, flip pages — and that provides opportunity to for you to craft that experience for your audience. Below are a few things you'll want to consider for an effective brochure.

#1: Know the purpose of your brochure and be clear on your message.

This is crucial because it informs everything else about your brochure. A common mistake people make is to try and cram too much into a single piece, just because there's room. It is better to identify a single goal for your brochure. This helps to focus everything else about it (image selection, colors, copy, layout), and in turn creates a more effective piece. What type of audience will be reading it? Is it a persuasive sales tool your sales team will hand out to warm prospects, or is it an informational or educational piece? Will it be mailed to your existing customer base? Will it be one of many on display at a retail location? Whatever the case, what is the desired action you want people to take? Your content should be based on the answers to these questions. It is important to write your copy before you even think about the design. And then, you'll want to use logical sections, concise and compelling headlines, bulleted lists to highlight main points, and short paragraphs. Consider using graphs, charts, or pullquotes to supplement your text if appropriate.

#2: Use the format of your brochure to your advantage, but don't let it restrict your design.

How do you use the format of a brochure to your advantage? For a folded brochure, think about how a user consumes the piece. Typically, they see the cover, and they open it to reveal something underneath. Then they may unfold another panel to reveal more content. Then they may turn it over and view the back. A double gatefold brochure has two outer panels that fold in, and then the piece is folded in half again. This gives your brochure three or more opportunities to present or "unfold" information to the viewer. Sometimes a little bit of surprise or something unexpected revealed can really create an interesting piece. You want to keep people engaged enough to go through the brochure and actually absorb your message.

However, while you're taking advantage of the brochure format,  don't feel as though your design has to be limited to the boundaries of a fold. It's perfectly okay for an image (and in some cases, text) to span across two or three panels. Panels provide natural boundaries, but they are by no means meant to be restrictive. You'll get a much more engaging and professional-looking design if you design, for example, a trifold brochure as though it is a single page that has three columns rather than three rigid standalone panels that happen to be adjacent to one another.

Also — this is worth reiterating — while a brochure can give you ample real estate, it's generally best to keep the message as simple as it can be (see tip number one above). Just because you have eight panels doesn't mean you have to fill every inch of them with text. Break up blocks of text with images, graphic elements, or white space. Use imagery to help communicate your message, and don't be afraid to get big and bold with them. It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, so use a few high-quality images with actual communication value (i.e. try to avoid boring generic stock photos that are obviously just placeholders), and let those images speak for you. 

#3: Consider carefully the number and size of pages (or panels)

As mentioned, a standard trifold is the most popular style of brochure. That may work for a general overview of your company or an overview of a specific service. If you need a bit more space, consider an 8.5" x 14" sheet to give you two extra panels. For more extensive brochures, you may need a multi-page brochure to showcase a range of services or products. Common sizes for a multi-page bound brochure are 5.5" x 8.5" or 8.5" x 11"; although, if you really want to be creative, you can have custom brochures of any size or shape (the only limitation is likely your budget). Regarding the number of pages, obviously you want to be as cost-effective as possible and only use enough to effectively get your message across (that's why Tip #1 is important). However, the one thing you'll need to remember is that your total number of pages needs to be a multiple of four.

#4: Be selective about paper stock for your brochure

Paper is the tactile part of the brochure experience. The quality, weight, and coating of your brochure can speak volumes in and of itself. Does your brochure call for something special? For a more substantial brochure, you'll want to use a heavier stock, and especially for the cover of a multi-page brochure. If however, your brochure requires multiple folds, a thinner paper (but not too thin!) will allow the piece to fold cleanly and remain closed flat. If your brochure is a throw-away piece (for example, information and registration for a one-time event), you don't want to spend extra money on more expensive paper. 

#5: Create a compelling cover. 

Don't kid yourself — yes, of course people judge a book by its cover. As tempting as it is to simply throw your logo and maybe a nice stock photo on the cover of your brochure, is that compelling enough to make people open it? Is it unique enough for you to differentiate yourself? Maybe, maybe not. However, don't disregard that real estate — it's prime! Consider using a catchy headline, call to action, or engaging question on the cover of your brochure. (Keep it short, though; you don't want too much clutter on your cover.) And remember that if your brochure's ultimate destination is a brochure rack, it's possible only the top third of your brochure will be visible, so that is particularly prime real estate that you'll want to pay attention to.  

So, there it is — five tips to help you create good brochures. Brochures are a fantastic marketing piece for any business to have, and if done right, can be very effective. If you've found that your brochures aren't pulling their weight, put these tips to work for you today!  

Nyla Smith is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, and Front-End Web Developer with over 11 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support to small- and medium-sized businesses that need creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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