Interactive Design: “You Need to Create a Labyrinth, Not a Maze”

What is good design when it comes to native advertising, are there any dos and don'ts? We asked Graham McDonnell, International Creative Director at the New York Times's T Brand Studio

Graham McDonnell

Coming up with a great idea to creative content is always important, but not everybody thinks about the actual design of a native ad campaign.

What is good design when it comes to native advertising, are there any dos and don’ts? We asked Graham McDonnell, International Creative Director at the New York Times’ T Brand Studio.

It should definitely be labelled and the audience should be fully aware that what they are consuming is branded content.

How much should the design of native advertising resemble that of the media?

There are two sides to this.

Number one is that whichever way you look at this, we are talking about ads. We are talking about branded content that is meant to promote a brand.

So as much as it should look like the native editorial content that it sits around, I think it’s a bad direction if you’re trying to deceive the audience into thinking that it’s native content. Because it isn’t. This is branded content.

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The other thing is that an audience comes to a particular platform to consume content of a particular taste.

The branded content, therefore, needs to resemble the content that sits around it. But it should definitely be labelled and the audience should be fully aware that what they are consuming is branded content.

You should definitely have the brand influence the content to an extent, but I’d always say that subtlety is the best approach.

And how much should the brand behind the content shine through?

You should definitely have the brand influence the content to an extent, but I’d always say that subtlety is the best approach.

If you go in heavy-handed and start plastering the logo everywhere and it’s only the brand’s colours and fonts, then straight away the audience will be fully aware that they’re being sold at and the engagement starts to fall rapidly.

Going forward, I think that we’ll see a lot more freedom in terms of merging design styles.

Which trends do you see in terms of the design itself?

I always say that it’s so important to figure out the story first before you think about how you tell it.

That said, in terms of design and where things are going aesthetically, there has been a huge shift recently from flat design into more skeuomorphic design.

Skeuomorphic design is the way that digital design replicates the real world, things like realistic lighting effect, shadows and gradients. An example would be buttons on the calculator in the early iPhone era that would look like real buttons.

RELATED: Three Macro Trends for Your Native Content to Tap Into in 2019

Then there was a real backlash against that, but the problem here is that with flat design you have no indication of how to interact with it.

Therefore, we’re now seeing that skeuomorphic and flat design a making a sort of merger together where you see subtle drop shadows that indicate that things are pressable, for example. So going forward, I think that we’ll see a lot more freedom in terms of merging design styles.

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What we found is that more simple, straightforward pieces had a lot more engagement.

What about interactive design? What are the dos and don’ts here?

In the past, the newsroom here at the New York Times and the Brand Studio would do a lot of heavy interactive pieces where you could go in and personalize the content, you could adapt it and change it. It asked a lot of the reader to go in an discover each of these features.

But what we found is that more simple, straightforward pieces had a lot more engagement. The important thing to keep in mind here is that you should create a labyrinth, not a maze.

Instead of creating a piece that has lots of different avenues and lots of different ways to interact with it, you should create a labyrinth. It might be just as long, but you’ve got one path and you guide your readers through that path.

RELATED: 9 Books Native Advertisers Need to Read – And Why

Another important thing to remember is that the more you ask the reader to do, the higher the payoff should be. If you ask the reader to do an undirected exploration of a particular piece, they’re only going to do that if the reward they’re getting at the end of it is worth it.

And even with simple actions such as scrolling and hovering, they payoff that comes from that has to be relevant to what you’re asking them to do.

There is another saying that we use design wise. That if you hide anything behind a rollover or a click, you have to assume that nobody’s going to see it. And if it’s that important to the story then you should make it visible in the first place.

You have to promote their message and the best branded content does that in a very natural way.

And besides the design of the piece, what makes good native advertising?

I would say that good native advertising is content that is relevant to the audience. It’s valuable to them and it follows the same values and authenticity as the content that sits around it from an editorial point of view.

As said, the reader comes to a particular platform to consume content of a particular style and taste so if you’re serving anything other than that, you’re doing a disservice to the audience.

RELATED: How to Hire a Core Team to Your Native Ad Studio (podcast)

Now, in branded content, there is another party that you have to satisfy. And that’s the brand. You have to promote their message and the best branded content does that in a very natural way. It weaves the branded message into the content without it feeling too disruptive or too unnatural. That’s how you get the best result.

Get more insights and know-how related to native advertising at our Native Advertising DAYS conference in Berlin this November

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