Simple wraps deliver a more powerful message

By Dan Antonelli

Posted on Friday, February 17th, 2023

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Vehicle wraps—whether on vans, cars or box trucks—present a unique opportunity to get your client’s message out in a visually powerful medium. The cost to purchase a similar form of outdoor advertising, such as a billboard, would run thousands of dollars every month.

As the popularity of the medium has soared in recent years, so has the popularity of wraps, often with stunningly poor designs. I’m not sure what the underlying reason for this is, but I’d venture to say there are more bad wraps on the road than good ones. And as the market gets saturated with bad examples of wraps, eventually the demand for them will also suffer. It will get harder to sell them because the client will come to believe wraps don’t work, especially if they’ve already had one with a poor design.

So while every Photoshop filter and carbon fiber backdrop has its place, it often comes at the cost of good design, legibility and, ultimately, a strong advertising message. Clients themselves can often be the ones requesting these insane effects, dizzying photos and grocery-list type ad copy for the wraps. But it’s your job to explain the medium. And before you explain it to a client, it’s obviously critical that you understand it first.

Before the advent of digital printing, the sign painting masters who came before us understood the power of a simple, clean layout with an easy-to-understand pictorial. The same is true for those who worked primarily on outdoor billboards. They knew that the primary limitation on the medium was simple to understand: time.

Time is the most critical element to consider when you design for an outdoor medium. And the limitation is lack of time—the few seconds that a viewer has to discern your message. Whether it’s a billboard or a box truck or a vehicle, the same limitation applies. The viewer must grasp the message almost instantly, understand it easily and, you hope, get an impression (be memorable). Theoretically, this sounds simple. Yet most sign designers continue to ignore the fundamentals. Here’s some common issues you’ve seen before:

Photos are used for no apparent reason, or have no obvious tie to the business type. Just because you can print a photo doesn’t mean you should. And how often have you seen a beautiful, colorful photo used—with no indication of how it’s related to the company?

The advertising itself has no focal point—and the message is lost amidst a blur of hard-to-read copy. No Photoshop filter in the world can make up for messages that do not use basic design principles like appropriate contrast, type size and good distance legibility

The wrap, while colorful and eye-catching, is not memorable. How many times have you seen wraps that catch your eye because of all the colors? As you’re driving, they sure stand out! Now tell me if you can recall what businesses the wraps were advertising on each of them. Certainly, there are hundreds of diamond plate and rainbow splashed backgrounds available to drop into our layouts. Once again—just because you can add a filter or background fill, it doesn’t mean you should.

The Yellow Pages syndrome: Let’s list every possible service the company offers so that there’s no chance of people not realizing that the plumber can fix a toilet, or that the remodeler can finish a basement. The big problem with this is that instead of remembering the ten bullet points listed, the reader actually remembers none of them. There’s nothing memorable because the viewer can’t overcome the clutter. They tune out. On box trucks, perhaps, you have a little more opportunity to list some things. But you still must keep the copy well prioritized so that if they read none of the bullets, at least they read the headline.

Wrapping for the sake of wrapping. Clients may come to your shop and ask specifically for a wrap, but do they actually need one? Many effective layouts can be attained with partial wraps. Quite frequently I see full wraps that offered the client no added benefit for their advertising dollar. Why is that? First try to understand the advertising’s mission before you design for the advertising medium.

Start by educating the client

When the client comes in with their own ideas about how many photos they want and how much copy they think they need, it’s your job to educate them about the medium. Speak about the importance of simplicity in the message, of using sparse copy (the shorter the better), and of using simple graphics or photos. You may even be able to offer less expensive and more effective alternatives to a full wrap. But be careful of what you show as examples of this type of work. If your own portfolio displays the problem traits identified above, selling a different approach is even more of a challenge.

Do the job and collect the check?

You can, of course, decide to pick your battles elsewhere, and simply do what your client is asking you to do—regardless of whether or not it really makes sense from an advertising standpoint.

In my opinion, as the professional, you have the utmost ethical responsibility to inform a client that their ideas will not work and explain why they may be wasting their money.

From a business standpoint it seems like that’s probably not a good idea—but sometimes you’re likely to garner their respect rather than have them simply take it to another shop. It illustrates to them that you care about how they invest their dollars. You’re advocating better solutions to their problem instead of just doing what you’re asked to do. I obviously don’t have the insights into what went on behind the scenes of some of these particularly horrible wraps on the road.

However, I can control what my own agency puts out on the road, and I’m fortunate that most clients trust me to do that without too much art direction from them. But that trust doesn’t happen overnight—and it takes a lot to earn it.

This installation was done without wrapping the whole vehicle. The large, easy-to-understand graphic, and easy-to-read logo leave little doubt as to the nature of the business. The core components are legible, and certainly not overwhelming to read. Even though this canvas is huge, we did not fall into the trap of listing too many things. This Rhode Island-based cleaner has six retail locations, and has noted significant increase in exposure since having five of their vans lettered. The installation was done by J. Masse Sign Company, Plainville, Massachusetts.

Here’s a full wrap with a simple message and graphic treatment. It’s hard to miss, and the approach is different enough to draw a lot of attention. Note that the rays behind the circle are subtle enough so as not to interfere with the primary copy. Try using your backgrounds in a similar fashion—drawing on them to enhance, not detract from, your message.

This is more of a billboard approach to vehicle advertising. We added a headline to set the tone for business type, which in this instance was especially important because the logo’s primary copy does not specifically state the nature of the business. So in this case, we have a headline that gives the viewer a strong indication of business type, plus a large, isolated pet photo, and of course some smaller secondary copy. The vehicle is quite often parked at a store location, so the amount of secondary copy is a little bit more than we generally like to use. But even if that copy is not read by all who see it, viewers still quickly know what the company does and who they are.

Michael Ries, Advertising Vehicles, Cincinnati, Ohio

Sean Tomlin, Designer Wraps, Millville, New Jersey

Michael Ries, Advertising Vehicles, Cincinnati, Ohio

Michael Ries, Advertising Vehicles, Cincinnati, Ohio

Michael Ries, Advertising Vehicles, Cincinnati, Ohio


This appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of SignCraft.



Dan Antonelli owns KickCharge Creative (formerly Graphic D-Signs, Inc.) in Washington, New Jersey. His latest book, Building a Big Small Business Brand, joins his Logo Design for Small Business I and II. He can be reached at dan@kickcharge. com. Dan also offers consulting and business coaching services to sign companies. For more information, visit On Instagram: @danantonelli_kickcharge.