Why the Best Billboards Emphasize Visuals


The best out-of-home advertising (OOH) efforts leverage visual imagery for maximum impact. With the right image, your billboard ad will convey a “big” message (see what we did there?), while having little to “say.”

Let’s look at how the best outdoor advertising campaigns focus on telling a story visually.

Why Visual Messages Are Most Effective for Billboards

Have you ever been sitting in a parked car when the vehicle next to you starts moving slowly, and you feel like you’re the one moving? Your eyes make you feel something that’s not happening because vision overrules all the other senses. Vision is powerful!

We’re Wired for Visuals

We’re hardwired to process information in pictures. In fact, our brains can recognize and process images in just 13 milliseconds, and we will keep processing an image after we’re no longer looking at it.

GIF of actor blinking
For context, the blink of an eye takes 300 milliseconds

Why do you think we love sending each other memes, emojis, and GIFs so much? It’s because we can express so much more with a visual, and indicates that we process images 60,000 times faster than text. It’s efficient, and it’s emotional.

“Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us. Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time.” – John Medina, Brain Rules  

Given that drivers have an average of 5 to 10 seconds to notice OOH media, that 13 milliseconds fact is music to our ears. By using images, we can convey a lot of information in a (very!) small amount of time.


via Gfycat

We’re Also Wired for…

…symbols, stories, metaphors, analogies, idioms, and other figures of speech – all the “shortcuts” to making sense of our world.

Think about how widely known certain symbols are. Basic, everyday symbols like hearts, moons, and peace signs are almost universally recognizable. And who doesn’t instantly recognize famous brand logos like those from Nike, McDonald’s, and Starbucks?

The same goes for many metaphors, analogies, and stories. A picture of three pigs and a wolf instantly conveys the story of the three little pigs and reminds us of the moral that hard work pays off. Consider how quickly images representing metaphors like “tip of the iceberg” or “money down the drain” are understood.

Put the brain’s talent for processing images together with its understanding of these shortcuts, and it’s clear why images rule for billboards. Select an image that tells a recognizable story or metaphor, and your out-of-home advertising easily captures viewers’ imagination.

Drivers Are Moving – Fast

Okay, let’s step away from the psychology and neurology of it all and talk practically. Our brains work really fast, but outdoor advertising has to work at the speed of traffic, as well.

Billboard design wisdom suggests no more than seven words in your message. (And less can be more!) It should be clear why seven or fewer, but let’s spell it out for good measure:

  1. Your words need to be about three feet high in order for people to see them from afar, as they drive by your OOH media. And, although billboards are huge, you only have so much space to work with.
  2. Remember those 5-10 seconds drivers will have their eyes on your out-of-home advertising? There’s not enough time to read more than a short phrase.

Given how little we can read in 5-10 seconds (while moving) and how much we can process from pictures in less than a blink of an eye, the answer’s obvious. Make your OOH ads impactful with the visual.

How to Leverage Visuals in Your Billboard Ad

There are a few rules for selecting the right visual for your out-of-home advertising campaign. But the #1 rule involves the power of one.

Why a Big Picture’s Best for Your Business “Big Picture”

When it comes to promoting your business, you have to laser focus on the big picture, right? The best marketing highlights what makes you unique – the one, big problem you solve for your customers.

When it comes to promoting your business with outdoor advertising, you also need to focus on “the big picture.” The one, big visual that’s going to tell your brand story and grab the attention of your target audience as they drive by your billboard.

Though we can process images at lightning speed, one, bold visual works much better on a billboard ad than a collection of images. Multiple images compete for drivers’ attention and muddy the story. Select one, large, dynamic image to tell your brand tale.

Additional Tips for Billboard Visuals

Sticking to one image is the most important rule, but here are a few more recommendations to ensure your out-of-home advertising campaign knocks your potential customers’ socks off. (That’s an idiom!)

  • The “white space” rule doesn’t apply. In other forms of advertising (e.g., direct mail) designers include white space to help people absorb the information. Billboard advertising is the one exception. The image and the few other elements of your design (e.g., logo) should fill the space.*
  • Human faces are good. Oh, did we forget to mention that we’re also wired to recognize faces? Including people in action or people with vivid expressions is always a good option. 
  • Show people from the chest up. Speaking of people, if you’re including them in your image, crop the picture at the chest. But be sure to include their shoulders. Include full-body shots only when they’re capturing some sort of action. For example, a person surfing or a ballerina leaping.
  • Use the “shortcuts.” If you find yourself talking about your business using any kind of analogy, metaphor, story, etc., use it. There’s probably an image to represent the comparison or story you use. Does your car dealership leave the competition “in the dust”? Does your gym specialize in reforming “couch potatoes”? Get creative!

*(Okay, okay, there are exceptions to the exception. Sometimes the white space can be used to help tell the story, as in this billboard ad for the YMCA.)

Are Your Sold on Visuals for Your Billboard?

We hope we’ve convinced you that focusing on creating a compelling visual message for your out-of-home advertising campaign will maximize your impact.

GIF of woman expressing she's convinced

We also hope that learning about the effectiveness of images comes as a relief. Now you can worry less about what you have to “say” to your potential customers. You don’t have to agonize over using the exact right words on your billboard. Limit your words and let your visual do the talking!

After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. (Another idiom!). And the right billboard picture can also be worth some serious advertising ROI.

Need help? Give us a call and our team will help you design a captivating billboard campaign. Let’s make all the world your stage. (That’s a metaphor!)

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Penneco Outdoor Advertising
Address: 6608 Rte 22, Ste 307, Delmont, PA 15626
Phone: 724-461-1041
Hours: Monday-Friday: 8:30 – 5:00

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