The day after Christmas in the Thompson household is a relatively calm experience. A much needed down period to relax and recover from opening (what felt like hundreds of) LOL Surprise dolls that Santa delivered to my daughter. So while she plays the day away with her newly acquired toys, I get to sit on the couch, drink coffee, and space out.

Spacing out, though, typically means that I’m tinkering on my phone or laptop. So as I doomscroll the day away on my iPhone, I noticed an intriguing pattern repeating itself as I tapped and pushed up on my screen: 1 out of every 8 (estimate) posts on Facebook was an advertisement for Higher Education.

I’m constantly searching for examples of Higher Ed advertising. I search to find inspiration, to see who is pushing the limits of their branding, to see who is exploring new visual territories. It makes sense that all the ads I see are from Higher Ed, I just didn’t expect to see them in the frequency that I did. Doomscrolling actually loses it’s grip on you when it feels like every other post is an advertisement.

Except I had to be a nerd about it and take screen captures of all the ads that crawled across my screen. My gift for Christmas was my brain wanting to work when I should be relaxing.

The screenshots below are ads that I was exposed to during my doomscrolling. In addition, I’ll offer my thoughts on what inspires me in these designs. 

The Power MBA

I appreciate design executions that repeatedly feature the brand identity in subtle ways. This ad features the logo at least three times: in the page icon, the sweatshirt, and the laptop sticker. The multiple points of exposure within one centralized area emphasize the belief the student has of this intentionally-disruptive band. It’s fun to cheer on the disruptors especially when they are trying to flip the MBA on its head and change the game. The ad copy at the top and bottom bookend the image, but it’s really the bottom text that anchors the image down that gains the most attention.

MIT Sloan

I appreciate risk-taking in advertising. They aren’t featuring a human. They aren’t showing a building on campus. Its MIT. They don’t need to. They can take some creative risks and experiment. That being said, a cute, cuddly animal will always win the viewer over. 

This is a good example of Visual-Verbal Connectivity. The relationship between image and copy is critical to delivering meaningful, memorable, and minimal messaging. The image reinforces the tagline and vice versa. 

I’d like to see them just show a picture of an adorable dog or cat with no text and see how it tracks. 

Western Governors University

This ad captured my attention primarily because of the aesthetic choices and construction of the design. It’s multi-layered but minimal. It places a lot of focus (via scale) on the owl, but the lighting effect on the student gives him a priority. The scholarship news embedded in the ad itself is a smart choice…particularly the design of the scholarship money, it captures your attention quickly. This image has some drama to it because of the darker color palette, which I think helps differentiate it from the standard ad mentality. 

There is a variant on this design featuring a female student that is also well done, you can see it in the image gallery above. 

Northcentral University

This advertisement has been creeping on my feed for what feels like the better part of a year – and I don’t mind. It is a strong visual, engaging, and interesting.

Layer effects and opacity drops have a way of creating a visual narrative that suggests memory and the passage of time all within one static image. Using them adds dimension and personality. Overlapping half-opacity rectangles with a full-color photo can also create some surprising effects with the underlying color of the photo. Using opacity drops and layer effects allows for capturing attention, creating emphasis, subject matter variation, and rapid construction. 

ASU Online

I’ve been a very active supporter of the use of illustration in Higher Ed advertising for a while now. It may be because I sacrificed my ability to draw in order to learn how to code. Though that ability is diminished, the ability to critically critique, admire and discuss illustration still remains. 

I like that ASU is exploring illustration in social media advertising. This design captured my attention right away. It is pushing forward visually but still holding back its full expression through a minimalist approach. The composition is a two-column two-row approach that creates a useful underlying grid structure. It hits all the beats. 

Purdue University Global

This ad has something to say. You can say a lot with words, but this ad is practically communicating the beginning-middle-end of a whole story without really saying anything. This is an ad that places a premium on a strategy that is rooted in emotional content and meaningful visuals. They could do an entire series with this methodology and it could last years. It is a testament to the power that smart design can have when you can create iterations of this theme forever without it literally saying anything and to see continued success with it. Honestly, I’m a bit jealous. 

St. Edward’s University

Ok. I know what most of you are thinking and your thoughts are probably well-justified. This ad stood out to me because it zagged where every other ad zigged. It’s different. It challenges the design of the Facebook feed itself by introducing a color that is essentially invasive to the color of the feed.

The part of this ad, though, that really inspired me was the modification of the word “leadership.” Typography, or the design of text to make them legible, readable, and attractive, is a discipline that is all about the details. When you modify a letterform, you have to do so with precise control that maintains the function of the letter while also giving it personality. This ad modifies the word to give it a unique personality while optimizing its readability and legibility. Note: this is really the only thing I focused on in this ad which speaks both to my design nerdery but also ads that feature masses of text. 

University of Cincinnati Online

The use of Shape-Framing to create focal points is a technique I’ve been exploring personally for some time, so naturally, when I observe it being used well I have to say something.

Shape-Framing is when a designer utilizes basic geometric shapes to frame critical areas of a photo or illustration, essentially making the intended focal point of the image clearly obvious. In some cases, the shapes are not a part of the codified brand identity, which can add some dimension and flavor to an ad. In this ad, if you look in the top right-hand corner triangle, they are essentially adding dimension by introducing a completely different photo instead of maintaining the continuity of the background in the full-color image. 

The danger with Shape-Framing is when you compromise the brand identity itself. If you have to feature your logo in your design and you also utilize the Shape-Framing technique, do so with caution. The scale of your shape-frames is important here: you don’t want your shapes to take over too much space in the design and you can’t compromise your logo. This ad works though – it strikes a balance amongst the necessary elements.

As you can see, there are a million different ways to execute an advertisement on Facebook. For me, though, the ads that resonated the most were ones that featured a core narrative concept, meaningful and obvious emotional content, a premium emphasis on strong photography, the use of subtle Photoshop effects, the potential for an iterative series, minimalist compositions, and perhaps most importantly the ability to create curiosity and wonder in the mind of the viewer.

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday and spent it relaxing and not working. Time to get back to opening my daughter’s LOL Surprise dolls.

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