How to create successful web banner ads even if you’re not a designer — The ultimate guide of 2021


Posted by AdEx Network on June 24th, 2020


You’ve decided to try display advertising for your product or service? No wonder, as programmatic is becoming more and more popular in recent years (84.9% of the total ad spend in 2019 in the US alone). But creating a web banner may be as complex as creating any other form of digital advertising, so many marketers of business owners don’t know where to start from. Fear not, in this post we will share our insights that will hopefully teach you to create well-converting web banners, even if you are not a designer. We cover the complete process of creating banner ads.

What you’ll learn in the article:

  1. Planning — how to start creating your web banners
  2. Design — basic color theory, tools and practices that will help you with your design
  3. Copywriting for banners — how to write your messages properly and pick the right words.


Planning is the process of structuring your strategy for the banner ad campaign you are building. It is more of a heuristic process involving research and brainstorming than actual hands-on work. Anyway it is important as it will lay the groundwork for your campaign.

Start with the “why”

You can apply this advice not only to display advertising, but pretty much to everything you do. However, when it comes to marketing and creating banners, you have to answer a simple question:

Why do you want to run a banner campaign? Do you want to raise awareness for your product? Do you want to increase the number of installs or signups of your app? Is it something else? This question is important, because it will tell you what message and content you need in the banner. If you want awareness, you may write a longer message or a slogan. If you want more registrations, you need a really strong call to action and probably a button.

What are the most common web banner sizes?

Size matters. There are lots of banner sizes available — the AdEx Platform alone supports 19 formats. But should you run banners in all sizes? Definitely not, unless you have a monstrous budget you’re ok to waste. You may prepare by first getting to know what are the most popular banner sizes on the web and how are they called — don’t worry, we already did it for you, voila:

  • Small square — 200x200 px. This is the basic square banner size — you’ll usually see it on the right sidebar of magazines among article feeds. When planning for a square, keep in mind that it will be usually (not all the times though) in the right part of the viewer’s screen.
  • Square — 250x250 px. This is the larger square banner. It will allow you for slightly more text (25% actually) than the small square.
  • Banner — 468x60 px. Why is it called just “banner”? Because it was one of the first banner ad sizes. It was actually retired from IAB, because it was first used on top of publishers’ pages but it was replaced by the leaderboard. However, it is still a common banner size and one not to be ignored — especially because it displays quite well on mobile
  • Leaderboard — 728x90 px. The leaderboard got its name from being usually placed on the top of the page. It has a great visibility and enough space for including longer messages or more images. It can be found on almost every news site or web forum.
  • Inline Rectangle — 300x250 px. Also known as medium rectangle, the 300x250 is the best choice when used inline with text or at the end of an article, hence its name.
  • Large Rectangle — 336x280 px. Inline’s bigger brother, the large rectangle is used where publishers have more space. It is good for advertisers too because it allows more of the message to be incorporated in the ad creative.
  • Wide Skyscraper — 160x600 px. The wide skyscraper is the more popular of the two skyscraper banner sizes. The name is self explanatory — the ad looks like a tall building. Wide skyscrapers are usually found on the right side of the web page. It is one of the largest ad formats and allows for a wider message and interactivity.
  • Skyscraper — 120x600 px. The original skyscraper is slimmer than the 160x600 and can fit in smaller spaces on the publishers websites.
  • Half-Page Ad — 300x600 px. Even bigger than the wide skyscraper, the half-page ad has the same shape and it can be viewed as the sum of two large squares (almost).
  • Large Leaderboard — 970x90 px. The leaderboard also comes in a “maxi” size and it is called a large leaderboard. It usually stays in the header and CPMs for it can be a bit pricier because of the good visibility and results.

There are even more banner sizes, but if you are just starting, these will be more than enough to begin with.

Preparing the visuals for all sizes can be really demanding, especially if you don’t have a designer with you, so it is important to consider two things:

1. Which size will fit best for your message and idea; and

2. Is there enough inventory (i.e. available publisher ad slots) for this size on the ad network you are using. On the AdEx Network you can check the AdEx Explorer to see current demand for different sizes.


How to create eye-catching banners

Embrace your creativity and don’t fear — everyone is creative and so are you. It’s not necessary to be an experienced designer to create converting banners, but you have to follow some basic rules and concepts and educate a little on design principles after all.

The design structure

When designing the banner, you should have a list of the mandatory elements you are going to include in your design. Usually they are:

  1. A background image or color
  2. The logo or name of your company or product
  3. The value proposition of your offer or product
  4. Additional image or representation of the product — it can be a product shot or just a picture of people. The image can be a visual representation or a metaphoric one.
  5. A call to action button

Design Principles

From a design point of view, creating a banner is not different than creating any other digital advertisement visual, so you should start with 5 basic graphic design theory principles:

  1. Space and composition

Whatever the banner size, you are working within its space and it is your job to decide how to deal with it. The effective usage of space means putting visual elements together without taking all of the space, or without leaving too much empty space, while keeping the right proportions. The best way to learn how to perceive space is to start using the rule of the thirds — divide the space in 3x3 equal parts and remember that the most powerful points in the space are where the dividing lines meet. Read more about the rule of the thirds here.

2. Balance

Balance is critical for your design. It is the ability to place different elements of your design in harmony around the space. The rule of the thirds applies in full power here and you should use it. Many people say that balance and composition are instincts that one can learn, so don’t think too much about it — just divide your space and try to think how to place elements around it until it feels right and important information meets the focus points.

You may also want to look into the Golden ratio rules — it is an established fact that banners designed with it in mind are perceived as well-balanced.

3. Hierarchy

You can have all your elements well distributed in space but knowing how to emphasize the right ones is important. HIerarchy is the ability to choose the right font colors and sizes for different elements in your design. For example: choose bold sans-serif font in larger size for the brand premise or the headline, while you can add the rest of the information in a smaller italic font. This is an example of applying hierarchy principle using typography, but you can create hierarchy by applying different colors, shapes or by placing the elements in certain order in the space.

4. Color

It depends on your purpose and on the colors of your brand or product. The ability to choose and combine colors is very important, so you might want to read at least a little about color theory (with a good focus on main color wheels) or at least follow few simple rules:

  • If you are not sure about the design, use solid color background. If you have a lot of text that you want to put into the banner, again stick to the solid color background. Make sure that you pick a color that will combine well with the text color, so people will easily read your message.
  • If you have a good photo of your product or your product is a service or something harder to depict, you may use a photo as a background, but make sure the text will be easy to read and there’s a good contrast.
  • If you are more confident with design software, you can experiment with gradient backgrounds, or combinations of product photo and solid color backgrounds or product photo and gradient backgrounds.

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5. Typography

Typography is another important principle of graphic design and it is a vast topic. However, in order to create web banner ads you don’t need a university degree intypography. It is enough to learn the main types of fonts available, e.g. the difference between serif and sans-serif. Here are a few very useful tips for typography for creating banners is:

  • Use sans serif fonts for headings or the more important information in your banner
  • Use italic for smaller text, additional information or information that is not the main point of focus in the ad
  • Use bold for CTA button texts

3. How to write the text for my banner?

The web banner is a very specific format — it has to attract attention with its message, while keeping it very simple and short due to the size restriction, like a very short story. But most importantly, the very meaning of a banner’s life is to achieve the “sacred” click. Whatever you are writing, you should be doing it with this click in mind. Will this attract viewer’s curiosity? Will people click to find out more about this?

What text can you include in a banner?

  • A headline, or punch line — a statement, something to provoke the viewer and spark interest. As everything else — keep it simple and as easy to perceive as possible.
  • А premise or an offering — information about a product you are selling, an explanatory line following the headline, a price tag.
  • Call-to-action button (CTA). Although it is usually not a real button, its purpose is to stimulate the viewer to click it, to trigger the instinct to do so. That being said, the call-to-action text inside the button is something you should pay special attention about. Having a “call” in its name, the CTA implies that you should use verbs that trigger actions: “Learn”, “Buy”, “Install”, “Play” — those are all words that provoke action from the viewer.

Plan your texts

Yes, you should start this part too by planning. Before writing the text you should think about few things:

1. What is the objective of this banner?

Is it to tell the world of my brand or to focus on a specific promotion? Do I target app installs or purchases or just want to reach more people? Do I need a button?

2. What is the information I want to convey with this banner?

What do I have to say with the banner? What is the most important message I want to send to viewers?

3. What’s the shortest way to do it?

Can I put the information from the previous point into one sentence?

4. Can it be even shorter?

Can I shorten the sentence even more? KISS (Keep it simple, stupid) is important principle — you shouldn’t tell the whole rules of your running promo in a single banner — tell just the essentials, but the most important ones, the ones that will attract people the most and spark interest.

Answering those questions will help you structure and write the text better.

“Sell a good night sleep, not a mattress”

Now that you know what you want to say, the next hardest thing is to think of how to say it. We often tend to advertise a product or service’s features — and not the benefits it brings to its users.

Let’s say we advertise our own advertising network. We want to say: “Ad Network on which you can optimize your budget”. This is our value proposition that we want people to remember. We can say:

“Ad Network on which you can optimize your budget”

(Button) Learn More


“Optimize your budget on AdEx Network”

(Button) Learn More

but what if we say:

“You hate burning your ad budgets for nothing, don’t you?”

(Button) I do!

First two versions tell an ad, the third one tells a story. Of course, you can’t and you shouldn’t always tell a story (we’ve had some pretty good results with first and second versions indeed), but remember that a good story provokes emotion and emotions are what makes people act.

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In this banner we told a story. First, we provoked the viewers by saying something controversial in times when people are getting more concerned about their privacy. However, once we got their attention, we introduced the comforting plot twist in a font that is harder to read at first and demands attention. The button in the lower right corner nudges the viewer to continue reading the story “beyond” the banner ad.

The holy CTA

The call to action — one of the favorite terms of marketers, the holy grail of good conversions — should you have one? Not at all costs, but preferably, yes. The call-to-action in a banner ad usually fits into a button, so you are somehow limited in terms of length, but nothing else is really that different — you have to choose the word most suitable for the action you want to stimulate in viewers and that’s it.

Dare to Experiment

Call-to-action words are pretty standard: “Click”, “Buy”, “Learn More”, “Install”. That doesn’t mean you have to always stick to them — try different call-to-actions, try to provoke emotions, speak the language of your audience.

Imagine your banners are targeted to millennials — you can try switching the predictable and somehow boring “Learn More” with “Y tho?” (well don’t take this advice literally though, apply it to your case accordingly). But when experimenting, don’t forget to test.

A/B Test

Always do A/B testing — this is trying out different versions of your ad to see which one performs better. This is one of the most powerful marketing tools for optimising results of campaigns and strategies. You can definitely do A/B testing of the text in your banner ads and you should do so. Next time when you are wondering between “Read More” or “Discover” for a call-to-action text for your button, try running both versions with the same targeting, CPM and budget conditions and see which one does better. If you are limited on budget you can always “bootstrap” A/B testing by showing the different versions to your friends, colleagues or your community. It’s worth trying.

An important thing to remember here is that you should always test one element at a time — if you’re A/B testing the same banner with a different CTA button and a different background color, the results you’ll get won’t be reliable. You can test everything on the banner — just one thing at a time, e.g. test the button first, then run a different A/B test for the background color.

3. Free tools for creating ad banners

The main tool you’ll need to create web banners is the editor. While Photoshop is getting more affordable with annual plans starting as low as $120, if you don’t have design experience, you won’t need a tool as complicated as PS can be. Luckily, most of the alternatives were created exactly with this in mind.

  • Canva— the champion online free editor on the web. The Australian startup launched in 2012 and today it has more than 15 million users worldwide. Today you can create pretty much anything on Canva — from a logo to a Brochure. There are lots of fonts and customizable templates on the editor and it is FREE. Of course, if you like it, you may unlock all designs, fonts, images and features for as low as $9.95 monthly fee. Either way, Canva will provide most of the tools you need to create good looking banners.

Canva Canva

  • Pixlr — Those familiar with Photoshop will immediately spot the similarities as Pixlr resembles PS in many ways — workspace arrangement, layers, basic features. It started as a photo editor, but you have everything you need to create a banner too. Probably the best thing about Pixlr is that you can create a banner even without signing up — this makes testing it really worthy. The two basic editors Pixlr X (Basic features) and Pixlr E (Powerful Photoshop-like tool) are FREE, there is a Premium version too with unlimited features starting as low as $3.99 monthly with an annual plan.

Pixlr Pixlr

  • Fotor Banner — Fotor is a competitor of Canva and Pixlr that has a dedicated banner editor. While the editor doesn’t shine with super different features from the competitors’, it has an impressive gallery with banner templates. Yes, most of them are locked behind the Fotor Premium subscription plan, but you can easily recreate them in the editor or just use them as an inspiration. Fotor is FREE and premium plan starts as low as $3.33 monthly fee with annual subscription.

Fotor Banner Fotor Banner

  • Bannersnack — This is a web based graphics editor that was originally dedicated to creating ad banners only, but today you can also use it for social media graphics, print materials and more. The web editor is very rich and has many options to play around. Best thing about it? You can create animated banners. Sadly, the free plan lets you create no more than 10 banners total. If you want to use it regularly, you can go premium for as low as $7 per month.

Bannersnack Bannersnack

  • Adobe Spark — Adobe has its own simplified web editor designed exclusively for creating web graphics. It has the familiar Adobe design and user experience and it stretched down to the most basic features one would need to create decent graphics fast. It is perhaps the less complicated web graphics editor available. You can use Adobe Spark for free, but all your graphics will be watermarked. Adobe Spark is included in the Adobe Creative Cloud plan, but can be purchased separately (and the watermark disappears) for a monthly fee of $9.99. It is available for iOS too.

Adobe Spark Adobe Spark

  • Google Slides **— You didn’t expect that, did you? Google Slides (Microsoft Power Point as well) has all the tools you could possibly need for creating an ad banner. Just start by editing the page setup and entering the desired banner size and you can start editing your banner. Want another useful tip? Many people don’t know that if you type “**” in your browser and you’ll start a new Google Slides presentation.

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Image Banks

Resources are very important when it comes to creating web graphics. Most designers have paid Shutterstock accounts, but if this is not your work, you’ll probably want to look for royalty free images for your banners. Worry not, there are plenty of free graphics out there, you just have to know where to look for.

  • Unsplash, Pexels, Pixabay — These are the most popular photo banks for artistic shots of pretty much everything. Best thing about them? They are all completely FREE. These image banks are useful if you are going to create banners using photos.
  • Freepik is the best alternative to Shuttestock. It is a user generated stock graphics platform for mostly free content. You’ll find images, icons, vector graphics, drawings, templates and more on Freepik.
  • Flaticon and The Noun Project are image banks for icons only. You will find more than 3 million icons of pretty much everything. Some of the icons are paid, but most of them are free.
  • Flickr is a user generated photo base on which you can find free images too. Just look for images licensed for reuse.

Other tools

  • — choosing color combinations is one of the trickiest things about graphic design and Coolors can be a really useful tool. It’s a color combination generator that will make sure that you use matching colors on your web banners every time.
  • Gradient Generator— there are lots of gradient generators on the web and this is just one of them. Sometimes you will want to set a gradient background for your banners and gradient generators can be really handy.
  •— Sometimes you’ll want to put objects on your banner that are cut from the background. Doing this in Photoshop requires patience and experience, but luckily changed the game some time ago by introducing a web based AI background removing software. You can cut the backgrounds of images just by pressing a single button for FREE, but you can download them in lower resolution. This, however, isn’t much of a problem when it comes to banners, because they don’t need high resolution images anyway.

4. Recap — what do you need to create beautiful web banners?

If you’ve decided to add banner advertising to your marketing stack — go ahead, you should do it! With AdEx Network you can run your own banners in front of а huge audience in no time, even if you have no previous experience with ad networks. Just prepare your banners first and remember:

  1. Plan your banner campaign — know what’s the purpose of it and what you want to say with your ads.
  2. Stick to basic design principles.
  3. Keep your text short but choose words carefully and don’t be afraid to experiment and test different versions.
  4. Use any of the free tools around the web — it’s important that you feel comfortable with the service you choose and complex tools won’t create the good banner — a good idea is more important.

Are you ready to start a banner ad campaign? Register in under 5 minutes on AdEx Network and start today.