Sprucing Up

A catalog of heirloom garden bulbs could be fertile ground for a creative makeover. But our critiquers this month — Lois Boyle, president/chief creative officer of J. Schmid & Associates, a Mission, KS-based catalog consultancy, and Kevin Kotowski, president of Redondo Beach, CA-based creative consultancy Olson/Kotowski — had plenty of flowery prose about Ann Arbor, MI-based Old House Gardens, this month’s subject.

That’s not to say, however, that the reviewers didn’t have some sound suggestions on how the mailer could reap more sales with a little pruning here and fertilization there.


Within the category of selling garden bulbs via mail, this catalog certainly excels at carving out a niche. The book offers exactly what the cover suggests: “heirloom” bulbs that are hard to find and, in some cases, rare or close to extinction. Old House Gardens does a wonderful job of reinforcing its unique position by using copy that touts its rare bulbs, sidebars that reinforce its expertise, and woodcut illustrations to visually remind readers of the “heirloom” nature of the product. Even the cover differentiates it from the competition by presenting a Victorian-style illustration instead of a predictable photo.

Is there room for improvement? Yes! Here are a few recommendations that will strengthen its overall creative presentation and solidify its niche:

  • Use a vintage typeface for the masthead instead of a standard typeface. The logo on page 2 has a woodcut look that would work beautifully as a masthead.

  • Currently the cataloger uses the term “Heirloom Bulbs” in conjunction with the masthead. This might cause confusion with customers who know the cataloger as “Old House Gardens.” Instead, the company should place a five- to eight- word tagline (using the word “heirloom”) under the logo to reinforce its unique positioning.

  • Spread headlines will remind readers of the exclusive nature of this bulb collection (e.g., “What’s the Rarest Lilly by Far?” below right) In addition, they will help engage the reader on the spread.

  • The catalog uses a color bar to indicate rare bulbs, but an interesting visual icon would grab more attention. Some of the bulbs are exclusive to Old House Gardens and need to be visually called out. The eye will “read” a visual element, such as an icon, before text, so place icons next to the photo, not the copy.

  • Reinforce unique positioning on the back cover by emphasizing the rarer heirloom bulbs, preferably best-sellers. While the catalog already wisely uses inside page references on the back cover, it should also refer to other rare bulbs from that same category with page numbers.

  • The opening letter on page 2 is friendly and welcoming but does not work hard enough to reinforce the exclusivity of the bulbs. The letter should focus more on product benefits and less on “we” copy.

The copy in Old House Gardens is fun and descriptive, leaving readers with the sense that these bulbs are truly special. Every category has an introductory paragraph that relays helpful information about that particular variety. Color-tinted sidebars full of helpful tips and testimonials further enhance the story. With catalogs, however, it’s important to use product photography to draw the eye in so that the copy will eventually get read. Here are some other ideas on how to better engage readers:

  • Use large photos of best-selling or unique flowers in the upper right-hand corner of several spreads. (see the redesigned example directly below). Anchoring pages with “hero” shots will help the sales of that particular item and everything else on the spread.

  • Incorporate several design templates instead of the same layout on every spread. This will alleviate visual boredom and encourage further browsing.

  • To enhance the wonderful sidebars, give them a name such as “Old House Gardens Tip” to reinforce the expertise Old House Gardens provides.

  • Take advantage of the opening spread. Except for the front and back covers, it’s the most valuable real estate in the entire catalog. Right now the spread is chockfull of copy, but the book does not begin selling until page 4. There are many great references to products found within, but copy should be whittled down to only the most important differentiators.

  • Instead of paginating by fall- and spring-planted bulbs, then in alphabetical order, paginate according to best-selling categories. Place the top-selling bulb categories in the catalog hot spots (in the front and back of the catalog and around the center spread).

Old House Gardens does a nice job of giving readers all the information necessary to shop the book and place an order. For the most part, the cataloger presents this information logically, but it should do a few things to create a friendlier shopping experience:

  • It’s not always easy to find copy that goes along with its corresponding picture. Place copy next to the actual image, or use product key codes (A, B, etc.) that immediately link the two.

  • The cataloger uses corner banners to delineate spring- vs. fall-planted bulbs. Unfortunately they are placed on an actual product, making it seem as if each banner is applicable only to that product. Instead, the banners should be placed in one of the four corners or referenced in the body copy.

  • Place captions beneath photos rather than above them. Gravity will pull the eye down, giving captions under a photo a better chance at being read.

  • The order form is hidden in a valley in the back of the catalog. It should be in the center of the book, where customers expect — and are trained — to find it. The zone map on the order form is an important feature for customers. It should be placed on spread 2-3 and referenced throughout the catalog.

  • Consider using category headings in the corner of each spread so that readers can quickly find a particular variety they are interested in.

  • Beware of long line lengths. Copy stretched across the page is difficult for the eye to track and therefore seldom gets read.

All in all, Old House Gardens is on the right path. It has all the components necessary for an A+ catalog; it just needs to take things to the next level. Implementing some essential catalog best practices will enhance the catalog as a selling tool and further engage readers.


When asked to critique a catalog, the tendency is to jump right in and point out ways to improve it. But I’d like to begin by pointing out what’s already really good about the Old House Gardens Catalog: the copy.

In fact, the copy’s not just good. It’s terrific. A tip of the Kotowski cap to the writer who wrote this description of the Ruburm Lily on page 21 “Is this what heaven smells like? It’s my favorite floral fragrance — lush, complex, and never too much. Achingly beautiful, too. ‘Rubrum’ has pink and white petals ‘all rugged with rubies and garnets, and sparkling with crystal points,’ to quote John Lindley soon after its arrival from Japan.”

To gardening enthusiasts like me, that copy really sings and, more important, sells. And you’ll find pages of similar world-class copy throughout the Old House Gardens catalog.

Even the Welcome Letter on the inside front cover is extremely well written. I especially like the titles of the Old House Gardens staff. Scott Kunst doesn’t label himself as “President” but rather “Owner and Head Gardener.” Denise Lynn is “#1 Helpful Lady on the Phone,” and Rachel Murphy is “VP for Everything Else.” It’s a nice human touch that tells the reader he’s dealing with real people who share his enthusiasm for gardening.

I’d urge any cataloger looking for examples of great copy to get his hands on the Old House Gardens catalog. And I’d urge the folks at Old House Gardens to make sure, as they work to improve their catalog presentations, that they don’t deep-six their wonderful copy in the process. Now let’s look at areas that could be improved.

As great as the copy in this catalog is, the design of the pages is encyclopedic. Which is fine for an encyclopedia, not so good for a catalog. Spread after spread runs square-finished photos in a line along the bottom of the pages and masses the copy in the middle. The photos are all of equal size. The result is a catalog that design-wise is pretty boring and uninvolving. Remember, neatness is often the enemy of involvement. And involvement is what leads to sales.

I’d recommend choosing a “hero” product and a “subhero” product for each spread (not each page; remember, viewers see catalogs as spreads), then designing the rest of the spread around them. By varying the sizes of the product photos, the designer can control the reader’s eye flow and make the pages a lot more interesting. I realize growers supply most of the photos, but it’d help to also shoot a few “drop outs” rather than use only square-finished photos throughout.

A redesign using hero and subhero products on each spread would provide the most dramatic improvement to the Old House Gardens catalog and would likely have the most dramatic impact on sales.

Another recommendation: Soften the color palette. Instead of the pumpkin color used behind sidebars and charts and the violet bars used throughout, I’d like to see more earthy colors, such as soft yellows, greens, and earth tones at about a 20% tint. Done right, it’ll add to the feeling of authenticity of the catalog.

I do like that Old House Gardens uses a very readable serif type for its body copy. But the boldfaced phrases in each copy block aren’t helping the readability of that marvelous copy. They’re hindering it. I know the temptation is to emphasize certain words or phrases by bolding them, but in this case, it’s interrupting the readers and causing them to lose track of what they’re reading. Eliminate the bold type completely and watch both readability and comprehension increase.

Kudos to the Old House Gardens team for captioning its photos. I’d like to see the captions work a little harder, though. Currently they give the reader only the name of the flower and the year it became available. I’d turn the writers loose and let them also drop in a bit of sell copy for each caption. Whenever we’ve done focus groups for our clients, photo captions and photo callouts score high among readers. This cataloger in particular could put them to better use.

Finally, the page footers could use a little help. I’d recommend moving the page numbers from the middle of each page to the outside, then putting the phone number and possibly the fax number on the right hand page and the Website address on the left. Bumping up the type size a bit would help too. The catalog name and address is only adding clutter, so I’d eliminate them from the footers completely. It’s more than likely the readers know the name of the catalog, and if ordering via mail, they’ll find the address on the enclosed order forms.

I’ve saved the Old House Gardens front cover for last. Although it features a lot of good messages, running them vertically around the cover is killing their readability. I’d suggest redesigning the cover with a stronger masthead. As is, it’s hard to quickly grasp the name of the catalog. Then simplify the message of what this catalog is about (for instance, “unique, endangered, amazing cannas, crocus, daffodils, dahlias and other diverse treasures” would be enough copy). Think hard about what else, if anything, the reader really needs to see on the cover. Right now, there are way too many messages to absorb.

Although photos usually sell better than illustrations, in Old House Gardens’ case, I’d retain the illustration. It pulls the catalog away from the bigger, slicker competition and helps brand it as “real, genuine gardeners for real gardening enthusiasts.”

The bottom line? If Old House Gardens redesigns its pages to match the level of its copy, I’ll bet not only will its sales increase, but we’ll be hearing its name called at a number of awards shows.

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