The 10 most common creative mistakes

Nov 01, 1999 10:30 PM  By

A detailed evaluation of your catalog creative will help you understand what you’re doing right – and what you may be doing wrong.

Are you in a creative rut? Hankering for a redesign? Complacent about your catalog design? No matter your stance on catalog creative, it’s always a good idea to review the basics and check on how your creative stacks up. In the process, you will invariably learn something about your catalog business and your creative approach.

You will likely also learn what not to do again. So while reviewing your creative, keep the following list of common catalog creative mistakes (and their cures) in mind. Avoiding these blunders could save you aggravation and performance points in the short and long run.

1. Similar covers

Did you ever take a catalog out of the mail and wonder, “Haven’t I already seen this book?” It’s probably because the cover looks so similar to past covers. Typically, catalog customers will toss any book they think they’ve seen, or any catalog that’s not different or interesting looking enough to hold onto.

Catalogers that create the same-looking cover book after book are probably trying to execute a campaign or create a recognizable look. Neither of these is a bad objective, but you have to differentiate the execution of each catalog edition.

To correct this creative error, you might consider planning out a campaign of covers at the beginning of the year or season. Use marketing information such as mailing dates, seasons, events, holidays, and other relevant facts to shape a cover strategy that supports positioning and builds the desired brand identity.

The creative team should then have the opportunity and adequate time to come back with a design that addresses marketing objectives. It’s helpful if creative uses “swipe” photography – artwork pulled from other sources such as magazines and other catalogs – to demonstrate the recommended style of photography, backgrounds, models, color, type, and seasonality. Even if you plan to use illustrations as art, it should have swipe to back it up so that everyone is clear on execution. This is also the time to address details such as promotional copy, tag lines, and placement of 800-numbers so that they are not an afterthought.

Then schedule a review meeting to allow critique from all key areas of the company – marketing and merchandising along with creative – and generate constructive feedback so that the creative team can make any necessary modifications. This process should give you a better chance to develop a more strategic and dynamic front cover campaign.

2. Hard-to-read logos

Research tells us there’s equity in brand. For instance, a recent New England Mail Order Association (NEMOA) focus group revealed that consumers would sooner pick up and review a catalog they recognized than one they didn’t. Without question, you want your name – recognizable and readable – in your recipient’s face.

A logo should act as a masthead, whether it is on the top, on the bottom, or in a corner, so that it is instantly recognizable. Never use a logo that is too small or difficult to read from a distance. You also don’t want to use cover type that is larger and more prominent than the catalog’s name. The logo should be the first thing, beyond the art, that the reader sees.

In some cases a cataloger will “inherit” a hard-to-read logo, perhaps a highly stylized or script logo that was developed years ago, when few mailers thought about readability and instead went for design differentiation. The only remedy may be to update and redesign the logo.

As long as a logo is prominent and readable, I’d go in the direction of simplicity. Let’s face it, some of the most successful catalogers – L.L. Bean, J. Crew, Lands’ End – have the most simple and easy-to-read logos.

3. Copycat creative

Copycat creative is the use of recognizable creative strategies that are “owned” by other catalogers that developed them or that use them dramatically and consistently to support their positioning and build brand image. Catalogers that don’t have enough of a differentiated positioning or are hesitant about taking creative risks are most likely to “borrow” other mailers’ creative execution. But replicating a creative look that is associated with another catalog company will not support your brand image, and it’s unproductive in the long run.

The originators of strong design concepts usually maintain the recognition and credit; they also typically have the insight and talent to stay in front of the competition with continually evolving creative. For certain, the catalog design and photography of mailers such as J. Jill and Coldwater Creek have been copied by many – a strategy that results only in watered-down creative for everyone.

4. Disorganized or confusing spreads

Some catalogers need to clean up their act – literally. There’s no excuse for tough-to-read, tough-to-follow layouts, which can turn off the customer, make a catalog difficult to shop from, and most certainly depress response rates. Here are some of the most frequent reasons that catalog spreads become disorganized or confusing:

- Overall poor design skills. If your creative displays a lack of space, type, photography, or overall design sense, it’s time for a new art director.

- Using “desktop designers.” Due to ignorance or lack of funds, some catalogers will turn the creative components of a catalog over to the person charged with putting up the catalog pages on a computer. But desktop designers do not necessarily understand how to make a catalog easier for the customer to shop from – for that you need a qualified creative director.

- Lack of page layouts prior to photographing the product. I’ve run across catalogers that shoot without layouts and then expect to put together a cohesive, flowing catalog. That’s like building a house without a blueprint. Layouts help plan the elements that affect the overall look of the book when it’s put together. Feature shots, models, backgrounds and locations, lighting, and numerous other factors can look disjointed if not planned out prior to photography.

- Poor scheduling. Many catalogers don’t allocate enough time to the layout and mechanical development stages. And if there’s inadequate time in the schedule after photography, there’s no time to massage and fine-tune layouts.

5. Voiceless copy

It’s a backhanded compliment when a copywriter is labeled a “catalog writer.” The complimentary part is that his or her name may be passed along as someone who can pull cryptic information off a fact sheet to create copy blocks and write a 72-page catalog in four days. The not-so-complimentary part is that “catalog writers” can also have a reputation for cranking out boring, non-inspiring, and sometimes fluffy copy.

It’s hard to find inspired, refreshing, and marketing-oriented people who can write copy that sells products and promotes a brand. But even if you’re not a copywriter, you can help develop a voice for your catalog and ensure top-notch copy. Below, some ideas to help you get the best copy possible:

- Prepare background information on the target audience and identify marketing goals for the catalog.

- Talk to copywriters at length about positioning, strategy, and voice, so that they know the kind of words that can “move” the reader. Make sure they understand the competition and how you are different.

- Provide examples of great copy in your category.

- When trying new people, have them write sample editorial and selling copy based on information you provide. This allows you to compare copywriting candidates on a level playing field.

6. Unreadable type

Hard-to-read type is a top complaint among consumers, yet many art directors keep selecting small type sizes and hard-to-read fonts, or using reverse type and surprint (type over photographs or other artwork) onto busy backgrounds. Yes, sometimes hard-to-read type looks better, but what’s the use if you can’t read it? There’s no point in selecting type for the sake of design – not when you’re selling.

7. Inappropriate or poorly cast models

Models can improve sales and bolster a brand presentation – if they are approachable, relevant, and aspirational to the target audience.

The selection of models is important, as is the way they are styled and made up. For instance, an upscale audience may be more attracted to high fashion, glamour, and an aloof feeling, while customers of more moderately priced catalogers may prefer to see happier faces and more lifestyle poses.

One last note: A big creative mistake that many catalogers make is not having enough ethnic diversity among the models in their books. A cross-ethnic presentation can be more appropriate – plus I’ve seen the increased use of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian models in particular improve catalog performance.

8. Missing keys

One of our jobs as catalogers is to make shopping as easy as possible. We know that the process of taking in information involves 1) seeing a product photograph of interest; 2) finding the product name and price; and 3) reading the copy block that describes it. Keying a product with the copy block is one of the best techniques we have for making the connection between the photograph and the copy block, especially if the copy does not appear right next to or below the product’s photograph.

A common and effective approach is to use the letters of the alphabet, in an easy-to-read font, as the keys. Place a letter clearly in the artwork, in a consistent place among the various photos, and then place the same letter immediately before the copy that refers to the product. If a product resides right next to the copy block, you might resist using letter keys, but I’d still be inclined to use little arrows or pointed triangles.

9. Lack of feature shots and hero spreads

The easiest and quickest way to add vitality and excitement to a catalog is to make sure that every spread contains a feature product and a subfeature. These products, which are normally identified by the merchandising team as best-sellers or the most expensive or profitable items, warrant special treatment. Use some sort of specialty presentation – greater space allocation, a background tint, outlining – to make these products stand out and create excitement, interest, and pacing in a catalog.

Not-to-be forgotten are hero, or breaker, spreads – spreads featuring large product or lifestyle photos – which have consumer stopping power. These pages may be lighter in product density, but you can make it up with denser spreads elsewhere in the book.

Many catalogers are so afraid to jeopardize sales by making any item appear smaller than the others (which is what you need to do if you’re going to make another item appear larger) that they present all merchandise on a spread as a similar size. But their fears are unfounded. Features create more interest and overall shopping from a catalog.

10. Complicated backgrounds

One of the most destructive things a cataloger can do is overcomplicate product shots. Unfortunately, in an effort to upgrade their overall presentation or enhance the merchandise, some catalogers end up creating shots that detract from the product.

Take location photography. Sometimes to create a sense of place, designers go overboard with backgrounds that compete with the merchandise, or photographers sometimes shoot with the backgrounds in focus so that their work is more esthetically beautiful. I’ve even seen catalog creative directors include complicated backgrounds in layouts to justify the expense of going on location. All of these are the tail wagging the dog.

Backgrounds can also be a problem in the photography studio, when in the course of creating a location, a feeling, or a season, the propping gets overcomplicated. There are all different levels of prop stylists who work on catalogs. Often the most talented know how to show merchandise off by using less.

In general, shapes and structures can give your catalog a sense of place, and color should give a sense of season. Lighting can add to drama and consistency. The most dramatic catalog photographs often have less than clearly defined backgrounds.