You’re a savvy customer—most people are these days. Whenever you visit a new website or experience new marketing or advertising, you scroll through a subconscious list of criteria that helps you make buying decisions. You ask yourself, is this company trustworthy? Do I feel comfortable giving them my money? You make lightning fast judgments about the marketing you see.

But how fast is fast?

Dr. Gitte Lindgaard at Carleton University wanted to find the answer to that question, so she ran a study. She flashed web pages in front of users for 1/20th of a second. Then she had the participants rate the web pages they saw.

Wrist watch
First impressions are formed in milliseconds. Design by CortexTheory

Her research pointed to something amazing: customers form first impressions about marketing in as little as 50 milliseconds. 50 milliseconds.

Customers make judgments about marketing before they’ve even had a chance to process what it’s trying to convey. There’s no cognitive effort involved in this first impression; it’s completely visual and based almost entirely on emotion and feeling.

More than meets the eye: quality design extends beyond typography and color

People automatically assume that marketing success is all about looks, but the visible aspects of your marketing initiatives are actually only half of the equation.

Successful marketing is a combination of tangible and intangible factors:

Tangible factors

Include anything that your customers can see. This includes visual elements of your design, like your choice of colors and fonts, and the quality of your images and message. The quality of your product or service is also a key tangible factor. If you say you’re selling diamonds, but are really selling glass, the most essential tangible factor will be in question—as will your trustworthiness.

Intangible factors

Are all about the credibility, authority, trust and expectations customers place on your company, product, or service. Your underlying marketing message is a key intangible factor.

The intangible factors of successful marketing design include:

  • Creating relatable content. We like people who are like us. With the right design elements you send a signal to your target audience that says, “Hey, I’m just like you and I can help.”
  • Meeting expectations. Customers often have unrealistic expectations of your business. You can use design to demonstrate who you are as a company and what customers can expect to receive from your services (hopefully relieving their fears and defusing their objections along the way).
  • Values and beliefs. It is essential to understand your target audience’s personal values. Including these values and beliefs in your design will help to connect to your consumers and confirm your trustworthiness.
values matter
Your design should reflect your company’s values. Are you here to help, inspire or amuse and distract (or something else?) Design by Dasocreative

When intangible and tangible design factors are used together it creates harmony in the design. Your marketing works as intended and you’re able to attract your target audience to your business. When this happens it’s a beautiful thing.

But few designers understand the nuances—and importance—of these two factors. Unfortunately, they aren’t taught in design school. And on the business side most entrepreneurs are unaware that there are two sides to design, which makes an imbalance of tangible and intangible factors difficult to address. When left unattended, design that skews more tangible or intangible can lead to some serious design mistakes that will directly influence your marketing initiatives.

In fact, these mistakes can actually increase customer resistance. When the design isn’t right, consumers can shift from a neutral “meh” to a firm “no way.” Before you know it, they’re looking elsewhere for the products and services they desire.

You can avoid losing customers by understanding some of the most common design mistakes that can negatively influence your marketing results.

Mistake #1: A tangible/intangible conflict distorts your marketing message

Imagine you see a deals-of-the-day website that’s advertising an exclusive offer on “designer shoes.” They claim the shoes are handmade in Turkey and have won many awards.

You do a Google search to confirm.

What do you find? A big fat nothing. The “designer” doesn’t have a website, there’s no information about the awards they’ve won, and there’s nothing that states the shoes are actually from Turkey.

Rugby players going at it
Are the tangible and intangible factors of your marketing clashing? Via pixabay

Would you pay a premium price for those shoes? For most savvy shoppers the answer would be “no.” How can a customer be expected to trust the advertising for this deals-of-the-day website? The intangible (marketing message) doesn’t match up with the tangible (reality).

Marketing should communicate a fluid and honest message. If you’re leaning on prestige, customers expect to see credentials, pedigree or lineage. They want credible information that validates your claim.

How do you avoid this problem?

Choose a value word or personality word to anchor your business. This word will guide your marketing messages and give customers a sense of what the business is all about.

GEICO is a really good example of a value word in action: humor. It’s caveman-themed commercial was a huge hit.


How does a personality word influence design?

It creates boundaries that a designer or marketing team must work within. At each step of the design process you must ask: does this font support our personality word? Do these colors? What about the images?

You personality word may be “reliability,” “education,” “luxury,” or “fun.” Whatever it is, be sure to support it at every stage of the design process.

Mistake #2: Your message and visuals are a mismatch

Image conflicts create doubt. When the tangible and intangible presentation factors in your business aren’t in sync customers get nervous and start asking probing questions.

“If you’re a _____ why don’t I see _____?”
“If you say you’re _____ why don’t you look like _____?”

Customers expect your marketing and value proposition to be in sync. If you’re selling a luxury car it shouldn’t look like this:

This isn’t a luxury car. Via Michael Dorausch

If you’re selling a top-of-the-line product your website shouldn’t look like this:

Outdated digital video manufacturing website
Do they look like they can take on GoPro? Via Andrew McDermott

The words and visuals that you present to the world say a lot about your business and create customer expectations. If you’re a prestigious law firm for example, customers expect you to:

  • Charge premium prices
  • Hire Ivy League graduates
  • Be headquartered in a prestigious location
  • Market and promote your business in a quality manner

All of the design elements in your business, the tangible and intangible, need to match.

How do you avoid this problem?

Start by creating a list of intangible factors. These are the associations you want customers to make when they think of your business, product or service.

Let’s say you’re selling to first-time moms. Your intangible factors could be peace-of-mind, feeling rested or safety and security. Designing your marketing materials around these factors means that using flaming skulls and lots of black in your design is pretty much out of the question.

Including intangible factors into your marketing initiatives directly influences your design decisions.

Mistake #3: You ignore customer expectations

As consumers, we expect personal trainers to be in shape, bankers and attorneys to dress well and drive nice cars, and artists to be eccentric and creative.

Customers also have expectations about your business. They arrive to your website or marketing materials believing that you will meet these expectations. They expect you to make them happy or at least satisfy their needs. When you don’t do that they become unhappy and respond negatively by either giving your competition their business or posting a terrible review on Yelp and/or their social media channels.

word of mouth can influence consumer expectations. Design by Rioningsih™

How do you avoid this problem?

You expose their expectations by first figuring out where they are coming from. When you know the origin of a customer’s expectations you will be better equipped to meet them.

Customer’s expectations can stem from:

  • Word-of-mouth. A longtime customer may have spoken highly of your business or services to a prospective new customer. If so, they’ve set the bar quite high making it easier for you to disappoint.
  • Past experiences. Has your customer been burned by one of your competitors? Has his or her overall experience in your industry been positive or negative?
  • Marketing messages. Are your competitors making outlandish promises? Are you offering more or less than what they’ve been promised?
  • Personal needs. Do your customers expect your product or service to be customized to their unique needs?

Reach out to a few customers and ask these questions. The answers may surprise you!

Mistake #4: Your design is too heavy or too light

It’s common for marketing design to be too heavy—or too light.. Often design will receive the art piece treatment, with complex or intricate visuals or there will be no visual elements at all.

Beauty without benefit

Here’s a page from a microsite that was made for Toyota.

It’s pretty isn’t it?

Toyota micro-site
What do they expect you to do here?

But the question is: what are you supposed to do on this website and why?

No idea, right?

Customers lose interest in websites like these—they’re pretty but unclear. This confusion creates resistance towards your business because nobody enjoys feeling discombobulated or out of place.

Ethos without excitement

This website is a wall of text. It’s light on design, focused almost completely on the message.

Drudge report website
This site is focused on the message alone.

Overwhelming, no?

When the design doesn’t give direction, the consumers can feel as if they’ve been hit with a ton of information. They don’t know what they should look at first and they don’t know how to navigate through all of the data that’s being presented.

How do you avoid this problem?

Your personality word is the way to avoid teetering over into marketing that overemphasizes text or overemphasizes the visual. Once you isolate your word—it could be anything from “ultimate” to “energizing” to “soothing” to “playful” to “practical”—spend some time really exploring its tangible and intangible aspects. Again, the tangible elements are things like color, typography, layout, and visuals. How do these elements represent your personality word? If your personality word is “exciting” you may want to stay away from tangible design elements that are drab, dull or safe.

logo entry for kids’ brand Bounce Patrol
The bright colors in a prospective logo for Kids’ brand Bounce Patrol says “fun” and “playful.” Design by Milena Vuckovic

You’ll then want to clarify the intangible elements of your personality word, e.g. the behavior, values, expectations and culture that are associated with the word. Your design should reflect these elements. Consider organizations such as Craigslist, The Drudge Report, Berkshire Hathaway and Plenty of Fish. Their utilitarian, no-frills design emphasizes practicality, efficiency and straightforwardness.

Craigslist homepage
Craigslist’s utilitarian look is no-frills, but effective

Would this drab look work for BMW, Loreal or Hermes? Not so much.

Quick! Before you run out of time

Customers judge your marketing in milliseconds. So make yours count. Balance the tangible and intangible factors of your marketing design and amazing results are sure to follow.

Don’t forget to consider the tangible and intangible elements of your design when you launch a design contest today!

Andrew McDermott is the co-founder of Visit the site to find out if your website is doomed to fail or destined for success.