A lesson in catalog anatomy

When you sell charts, posters, and models of various parts of the human anatomy, it’s not always easy to sex up your catalog design. Anatomical Chart Co. understands that even when your book has good bones, sometimes you need to improve muscle tone and make some cosmetic tweaks to be at your best. The Hagerstown, MD-based mailer offered up its 2007 Product Catalog for a design dissection. Critiquers Jim Bowling and James Hughes — copywriter and creative director, respectively, for Dallas-based Elevate Group, and Jennifer Jerde, principal/creative director of San Francisco-based Elixir Design donned their lab coats and put Anatomical Chart under a creative microscope. Here’s their diagnosis.

JIM BOWLING AND JAMES HUGHES

Glance at the cover of the Anatomical Chart Co.’s 2007 Product Catalog and you immediately get the impression of a clear, concise and well-written catalog. The dramatic cover depicts a silhouetted shot of a man taken from a poster of the human muscular system; the image is mostly red set against a black background.

Overall, the nice, clean layout works well graphically in presenting a large amount of technical information and text for multiple products. And for the most part, the copy coveys a lot of information in succinct language. The product descriptions match the subject matter with an informational tone, and copy does a nice job of getting right to the point.

That said, Anatomical Chart might consider the following several suggestions to help generate greater sales on its next catalog.

For starters, the major opportunities to brand the company on the cover and in spread headlines are largely wasted by coming across as either dry or boring, or more cliché than clever. For example, the heading on a page selling anatomical models illustrating heart conditions reads: “Beauty is more than just skin deep.” The company should start by exploring the brand story told in the introduction letter and develop a brand identity and strategy.

The color-coded index is helpful, but the catalog should enlarge and highlight tabs 1 (anatomical charts and posters) and 2 (anatomical models), since these two sections represent the largest portion of the book. The tab system would work better if the whole page of the next section was flooded with a background color so that the shopper can tell that they have moved into a new section of the catalog. Currently, it is treated quietly.

Page 3 sells anatomical charts and posters; the cataloger should highlight the four mounting styles and include them on an introductory page rather than on a page selling product. This would help the consumer understand the various forms and styles of each product line. Also, the introductory paragraph on page 2 should highlight the fact that certain posters are available in Spanish text.

The black insets provide a nice break from the many flesh-colored products on each page, but the copy points are passive, written in the third person and, in one instance, use repetitive language (“pictures are worth a thousand words…”). Furthermore, the photos of people used do not convey a particular message and have no relationship to the products on that page.

Overall, photography needs improvement. Better photos of the “chart collections” series, for instance, would highlight the fact that this is a collection of charts rather than a single item. Also, higher-quality photography could highlight the three-dimensional charts on page 22; right now you can’t tell that they are 3-D.

Topics on posters are not consistently placed in the catalog. For example, on page 9, charts L, M, N, and O are related to nutrition. In the separate section on “Nutrition Resources” (page 72), only two of these four posters are listed again. Better grouping of related posters will help the consumer find what they are looking for and result in improved conversion rates.

The index needs some work. For one, it should be comprehensive — right now it is not possible to find the chart labeled “Dangers of Smoking,” which is item F on page 14. Also, the index page is on the back of the order insert set so it could be accidentally removed when the consumer uses the order form. This could result in lost repeat orders. We suggest relocating the index page to the front or the back of the catalog, and making it more comprehensive for easier product access.

Anatomical Chart might consider including a small section introducing the authors of the award-winning illustrations, which would add interest and validity to the catalog. This could also include a call action directing readers to the Website for more information on these award-winning artists, which could generate traffic to the site and increase sales.

On a positive note, the company enlarges selected illustrative charts to show examples of the text, etc., while the other posters on the same page are a smaller size. This adds more visual interest to the page by not having all items the same size.

The catalog and the Web page are also consistent in tone and manner, which helps provide a consistent shopping experience to the consumer. But Anatomical Chart could do a better job graphically promoting the weekly e-mails and special promotions offered on the Website, so the catalog, online store, and e-mail campaigns work seamlessly together. The “related sections” boxed text do work well and are consistent with the Web page, and probably could be used more to increase conversion.

The left-hand footer repeats the company name 30-something times, and perhaps misses an opportunity to separate the phone number, fax, and Website address crammed in the right-hand footer so they read more easily. Perhaps, alternate the phone and fax with the Web address on every other page for a simpler layout and read.

And finally, the two pages before the back cover include several nice action-oriented headlines. We would like to see more lines like these throughout.

JENNIFER JERDE

I was thrilled to learn that we would be critiquing the Anatomical Chart Co. catalog, which targets educational and health care professionals. The de facto motto around the Elixir office is “heart and gut” — we’ve got vintage anatomical diagrams all over the place. Antique diagrams detailing how to bandage a hand run in a series down the hallway. You get the idea. Personal considerations aside, I have conducted no formal interviews with the target audience. So my comments should be received in the generalized, constructive spirit they are intended.

First impressions: The catalog’s front cover presents a clean and striking anatomical illustration of a man silhouetted on black. At top, the title reads “The Anatomical Chart Company 2007 Product Catalog.” A reader can assume she’ll know precisely what is found inside, because the cover literally represents the product offerings. The presentation is appealing and communicates authority. Clearly, this is a resource, something to keep until the 2008 edition arrives. All good.

The back cover shows three products from the Nutrition Resources department. I trust that the three items are here because they sell well, but the items on the back also further clarify what a reader will find inside. Namely: not just charts. Despite the wonderfully literal name, Anatomical Chart Co. sells other categories and they clearly are represented here.

Also on the back is a funny little gem that hints at entertainment value inside the catalog (another way of saying: something for everyone). It’s a 5-lb. fat globule with the following accompanying copy: “Grossly dramatic Life/Form replica of fat is a shocking and motivating attention-getter. $83.95.”

The opening offers a table of contents, extensive ordering information, three paragraphs of introductory text that also seems to serve as a mission statement, a large anatomical poster in which we find the original cover figure, and a rainbow of color-coded tabs running along the entire right edge that lists every category and its corresponding page number.

This last item, the right-side tabbed index system, is an almost perfect gesture because it runs throughout the book and a reader is able to locate every category at all times. I may be off the mark, but the impression is that this catalog is not built for browsing but serves more as an annual resource to be used as needed. If next October an orthopedic surgeon needs three muscle shoulder joint models, she can find them quickly without having to wade through pages of merchandise.

Good as the tabbed navigational system is, this first spread is unfortunately overwhelming. A few modest improvements would make it excellent. For example, the typography and page number references in the tabbed index system are so tiny they are almost unreadable. I would recommend a more legible type size.

But these are small fixes to an otherwise good catalog. If there’s an overarching theme to this criticism of the first spread, it might be this: avoid redundancy and copyedit some more.

A linguistic bloodletting, an edit throughout for brevity and clarity, would work wonders. For example, you could argue that because of the company name (already established), each navigational tab might not need to repeat “Anatomical Charts and Posters” or “Anatomical models” and so on — delete “Anatomical” and go with: Charts and Posters, Models, etc.

This point about brevity and redundancy extends to ordering information, which currently receives half a page (that is a quarter of the entire spread). Catalog shoppers know how to place an order. Save that space for something else. And ditch the table of contents on the left, because the tabbed navigation does a better job of presenting it on the right.

The introductory text is also too long, which is a shame, because it might very well go unread. The text includes interesting points of differentiation, including the fact that the company’s proprietary artwork is created by the finest anatomical illustrators, that every chart is researched and approved by an esteemed panel of medical consultants, and so on. Edit down so that good stuff stands out.

Funny enough, this criticism about wordiness — easily fixable — does not apply to the rest of the book, in which the copy is very even. Incredibly even, like a phone book. This is tricky, because a heavy-handed approach could tip the scales and ruin what is good about this even-ness, but I would suggest that the rest of the book could actually benefit from hierarchy. What are missing are big, bold headlines — much like those found on the charts and posters themselves.

Each respective section in the guts of the book is consistent in its presentation — and this is essential to what makes the catalog a good resource. Most pages, aside from a few spreads, are even, with small photos and illustrations, an equal amount of copy, and consistent layout/grids.

For example, the red-tabbed “Charts and Posters” section includes page after page of charts and posters that use more or less the same, tasteful visual vocabulary: flesh colors, reds, enhancing accent colors, black text, etc. And then, the red-orange tabbed “Models” section includes page after page of 3-D models shot against gray gradient backgrounds. In other words, there is a general and specific consistency throughout.

Also throughout, pages are broken here and there by the catalog equivalent of bookstore “shelf talkers.” Some are “informational” factoids with the goal of cross merchandising, such as “see page X for related products.” Others — offering sage pieces of aphoristic advice — are…what? Advertisements? Calls to action? For instance: “Pictures are worth a thousand words in helping patients visualize what a procedure entails.”

I would argue that the story told by these and other modules (including the stock photos of a doctor with stethoscope) is not always worth telling. I recommend replacing most of these elements with truly compelling customer testimonials or stories — more visceral, and always a powerful aid to selling.

A fairly large margin of space is built into the grid — nice for the design overall given that the density is quite high. For the most part, images are small and people are relying on product names more than the visuals. My sense is that the designers could tune the grid, trim down the white space minimally, so that the space could be used much more efficiently and dynamically.

The visuals could go a little bigger so that, in turn, the product names could go a little bigger. Or, only some could go bigger. The grid could benefit from being broken up somewhat. Some charts might have more impact, with larger visuals to also help the pacing. And a few well-chosen full-bleed visuals could help the book immensely.

The black and gray gradated backgrounds in all photos are quite good — they allow products to stand out — but there is inconsistency in color. Some blacks and grays are pinkish in tone and some are greenish, which hints at lower quality. The few occasions of showing product against a flat green background do not work well. And the fake marble-like textures incorporated randomly here and there are mostly inconsistent with the high level of quality found elsewhere.

But for the most part, Anatomical Chart Co.’s catalog is well organized and tastefully designed. And it sells incredibly compelling product, including gifts such as muscle- and bone-imprinted socks, anatomical clip boards, and a heart-shaped Jello mold. We love this stuff!

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