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The Quick and Dirty Guide to Designing an Ad, for Non-Designers

5 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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The truth is, reviewing a student book is like love at first sight: it's based on sight. Sure, sure, sure...every creative says they'd take a good idea drawn on the back of a napkin over a shitty idea executed beautifully. But if you have good ideas, and the next person has good ideas, but theirs are visualized better, guess whose will be picked? It's not always fair, but it's the reality of what happens.

And so, I have solo copywriting students constantly asking me what to do. They don't have a partner to work with, but they have ideas.

Remember, the copywriter doesn't just write the headline. And the art director doesn't just build or comp the ad. They work together to come up with the idea, develop the concept, even write it together and design it together.

Well, there's no real replacement for an art director partner to ideate and execute with, but there is a way to move beyond marker roughs. So, to up your portfolio game, here's a step-by-step guide.

Caveats & Limitations

The specializations of a copywriter and art director combined remove the limitations of creating an ad. But, lose one of those specializations, and you'll have to make some compromises.

Not everything can be executed with this method. It relies heavily on pre-existing photography and templated layouts. That means you'll need to adjust your ideation. Think of headline-driven executions. Or consider developing the idea, then coming up with a way to execute it around a photo or visual you'll find. That way, you'll avoid relying upon customized visuals to communicate your idea.

Step 1 - Have an Idea

Okay, you'll have to come up with the idea. That's the hard part. And it's also not what this guide is about. Want an exercise in ideation? Challenge yourself to Ad-a-Day.

Step 2 - Think of an Execution

As a creative, you'll be judged on ideation. But as a copywriter, you'll also need to be able to write.

For the sake of this exercise, I'm going to use one of my favorite never-bought lines, written by an old partner of mine: Dan Elmslie. If you use this line without crediting him, I'll find you.

"Where taste buds become taste BFFs."

Let's say it's for my favorite local juice place, Simply O.

Step 3 - Get the Imagery

Here's where it gets complicated. There's a lot that goes into an ad, but the good news is, it's not hard to get it all.


The easiest way to find a logo for a comp is our old friend Google Image Search. Type in the name of your brand and "logo," then click on the image, drag it to your desktop, and boom.

Pro Tip: Select "Tools" from the far right, then "Transparent" from the "Color" dropdown to get a logo with transparent background. FYI, sometimes it shows up black in the search. (See below.)

I found it! And if I can find this, you can find whatever brand you're looking for.


You could use Google again to find the right image. But it involves wading through a lot of shit. And even when changing the "Size" Tool setting to "Large," they're just large pieces of shit.

I'm going to let you in on an art director's secret: It's a collection of real photos from real photographers. What it lacks in options, it more than makes up for in quality. And they're all free-to-use-for-any-reason.

Another great site is, a collection of Creative Commons Licensing (aka - use them for free) stock photos from a bunch of different places. Some are very natural photography and some even feel like high-end stock.

Okay, my line is about friends and the shop makes smoothies. Well, let's search for "smoothie" on Pexels:

Not bad, I like the left one. Let's take a look on Unsplash:

Booyah! Friends and drinks. Perfect for my ad.

Step 3 - Build the Ad

There's a free online design tool called (like "canvas" without the "s"). The learning curve is pretty minimal. Three graphic designers built it so that everyone would be able to make well-designed imagery. "Everyone" includes you.

Select a Template

After you sign up, click on the "Create a design" button. Scroll down a bit and under "Marketing Materials," there's a "Poster" template. Perfect for a print ad.

Note: Yeah, I know, we're gonna make a print ad. But they have templates for pretty much everything.

Next, find a template you like. Keep in mind the photo you chose. Most likely you'll want one with a nice headline treatment. This one looks good.

Alright, let's drop in the image and type in the headline.

Not bad, it's almost an ad. Now for the finishing touch: the logo. Place it at the bottom.

(I also used the tools to make the image a little darker so the text popped a bit more. I couldn't help myself. Feel free to play with fonts, other layouts, or whatever you want.)

Yay, we made an ad! Hit the download button and let's keep going!

Bonus Level - Put the Ad "In Situ"

This is what separates the dogs from the puppies.

"In situ" is short for "in situation," or basically, putting your ad in the environment it would be seen. Presenting your work like this is a cool move and makes it look even better in your book.

Portfolio Tip: Even if you comp your ad in-situ, separate it out as well, so we can see the details.

Don't worry, you won't need to learn Photoshop. Luckily, there are lots of free online tools that place ads in-situ for you. These are the best I've found: just pick a template, upload your image, and download your mockup.
Lots of templates, from billboards to laptops to iPhones.
Not the easiest to figure out, but damn, it has a lot of options.
Simple to use, with some nice templates. Sign up and you get some more...but you don't really need to.

We're going to use Since our ad is for a local brick-and-mortar juicery, let's search for a bus shelter template.

They really need a search function, but I found one!

Alrighty, their system is pretty easy to use, so upload the ad you made in Canva, follow the instructions, and...

...boom goes the dynamite.

Give Yourself the Best Chance

This part isn't hard. In fact, it's only a small part of what an art director's job is. The hard part is coming up with the idea, and if you can, do it together.

But if you're solo, don't let the execution of your idea stand in your way. Just remember that if your idea sucks, no amount of design is going to save you.

I want to give you the best chance you possibly can. And putting a marker rough in your book will definitely not look as good as this...

Someone recently told me that what we do is a team sport. Copywriters and art directors aren't just headline machines and comping robots. We're ideators, with unique and complementary skills.

So, if you're missing one of those skills, don't let your ideas suffer. Give your book something people can fall in love with at first sight.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this, say hello @thejeremycarson. LinkedIn Instagram TikTok