Best Practices in Cover Design 2011

Everyone agrees, the most important catalog page is the front cover. The most fascinating aspect of the front cover is that although it is the most important page in the catalog, the customer spends the least amount of time with it. It usually takes just seconds for the recipient to decide whether to keep the catalog or toss it.

This means a lot has to happen in the customer’s mind in a very short period of time. To have a reasonable chance of being kept, the catalog, has to be attention-grabbing, relevant and inviting enough to make the recipient decide immediately to keep it and look through it.


The strongest covers reflect positioning and desired brand. To accomplish this, your creative team must understand how strategic and functional their work needs to be — that it’s more than just the aesthetics. And this means they need to be informed in a strategic fashion.

When I brief creative talent, I tell them the following:

Positioning is our promise to the customer. Creative should reflect what the catalog promises to deliver, and it should be relevant and meaningful to the target audience. It should also be unique and differentiated from other catalogs. Examples of great “promises” include Williams-Sonoma (become an almost-professional cook), FrontGate (create an atmosphere of luxury in your home) and Victoria’s Secret (you will look sexy).

Brand is like your personality. Creative elements should work in tandem to create a strong sense of individuality and character. Examples of strongly branded catalogs include J. Crew (confident, reserved, stylish and hip), Patagonia (an adventurous spirit), Lands’ End (witty, smart and casual).


This is where REDD comes in. It’s the acronym I’ve long used to remind myself of the things that need to be accomplished on a front cover. They are the strategic considerations that help in planning creative execution.

  • Relevance

    Customers want to know that you understand them — not only how they live, but how they want to live: their aspirational self. That’s why it’s so important to know your customer, not only demographics but psychographics. A cover is going to be a lot less effective if the recipient can’t relate to it or, worse, is turned off by it. So your customer may be cooking with 20-year-old pots and pans for the most part, but she buys new serving plates regularly and sees herself as a gourmet chef in the kitchen.

  • Emotion

    Probably the most difficult strategy to execute, creating emotion can come from careful planning or spontaneity. Puppies, kittens and babies may be the easiest way to create a little tug on the heartstrings. Since they don’t always have to do with merchandise, they’re not used frequently, but you’ll always get a smile from a dog lover when that Orvis catalog shows up with man’s best friend on the cover.

    Humor is tough, and you can’t pull it off unless you really understand your customers and what makes them laugh. Lands’ End knows how to put a smile on people’s faces with illustrations of dancing reindeer or an oversized Santa trying to get down a chimney.

  • Drama

    There’s nothing like grabbing a customer right out of the mailbox. Nothing can do this better than presenting an image that bursts off the page or seizes the reader. The harder it is to do, the more probable the drama quotient increase. FrontGate’s locations are luxurious and eye-popping, Williams-Sonoma food shots are mouth watering, and Patagonia covers are virtually breathtaking.

  • Differentiation

    Creating a differentiated cover really refers to reflecting your unique positioning. It’s the thread that ties the other elements together, because your cover should be done in a style that reflects both what you stand for and your promise to the customer. Competitors who copy others aren’t doing themselves any favors. The goal is to figure out how your company would present the outfit, the plate, the mosquito killer or the chaise lounge.



There are no universally right or wrong answers to what to put on the cover; it depends on your positioning and brand, the look within your catalog, the purpose of the catalog and your points of differentiation. Here are some things you want to keep in mind.

  • When to use models on the cover

    If you’re a men’s or women’s fashion catalog and use models in the catalog, you probably want to use them on the cover. (But if you don’t use models inside the catalog, you probably don’t want the disconnect of having one on the cover.)

    If you are considering a model shot for the cover, remember this: You’d better do a stellar job. That means allocating time to the shoot and talent to the casting, hair and make-up, styling, photography and art direction. While interior shots are smaller, less important and therefore somewhat forgiving, a bad cover shot can carry a lot of negative communication.

  • Portraying still-life on the cover

    Many catalogers prefer product-focused covers. That’s certainly fine — and if that’s the case, the same rule for allocating time, resources and talent applies to a still-life cover. Since you don’t have the attitude of the model to reflect brand, it’s even more important that you make sure that the styling, style of photography, props, etc. support your unique positioning and achieve differentiation.

  • Can no product on the cover be effective?

    If you are considering a no-product cover, such as a landscape or location (a la Territory Ahead, Coldwater Creek or Garnet Hill) it should directly support your desired brand and it should be carried throughout the book in some manner.

  • Should prospecting covers be different?

    If you are mailing a prospect version of the catalog, consider putting multiple products on the cover. Experience indicates that prospects respond better when they see a wider breadth of merchandise on a front cover. This can be accomplished in a group shot, grid or inset shots.

  • When to use an all-type cover

    All type covers can be very effective on sale catalogs. Type becomes the art and the more drama (and color), the better.

  • Critical elements of an effective catalog cover

    An effective cover results from a thoughtful and strategic combination of multiple factors. It includes the treatment of the logo, type, photography, color, seasonality, offer, language, design and copy. Here’s some advice for some of those areas.

  • The logo

    It’s imperative that the logo be prominent and easy to read. It needs to be the first thing a recipient sees and for that reason it should appear at the top of the catalog. Ask yourself: Could you be missing customers because they don’t recognize your company or can’t see your logo at a glance? (Especially in a pile of mail!)

    When it comes to logo design, simple is better. Think of J. Crew, Lands’ End, Victoria’s Secret, L.L. Bean. If your logo is hard to read, over-designed or weak in any way, maybe it’s time to rethink or modify it. And while all lower-case lettering may be a favorite of the art department, it’s usually a weak and understated treatment for a logo.

  • The tagline

    One of the hardest groupings of words to agree upon, taglines are nevertheless a great way to state your positioning (promise to the customer) in a succinct fashion. One of my long-time favorites is Levenger’s “Tools for Serious Readers.” It describes the promise and the customer’s lifestyle, and is broad enough to include merchandise categories that are related to literate people. All in a four words.

  • Information and offers

    A hard-working front cover contains copy with the goal of further motivating the recipient to open the catalog. The challenges are:

    • Make sure all copy is readable (especially on complicated covers).

    • Prioritize the messages! For example, make sure Free Shipping and Handling gets more prominence than Look Inside for Great Father’s Day Gifts.

    • Design messages to “look like” what they are. Offers such as percent or dollars off, or Free Shipping & Handling should be in dot-whacks, banners or bursts in a very prominent location, such as the upper-right-hand corner; that’s where the customer expects to find it. Information such as number of new products in a catalog or a new designer could go in bold type in a somewhat prominent location. Supporting information, such as what to find inside, can be in more simple black type in a less prominent spot.

  • The use of color

    There’s a big opportunity for most catalogers to use color more strategically — and nowhere makes more sense than on the front cover. Color can be a big indicator of seasonality, which can be an amazing shopping motivator. It’s also a technique to build brand recognition: Doesn’t it seem crazy for the logo to change color for each catalog because creative wants to make it match or aesthetically pleasing? I’ll take the consistent use of thoughtfully selected color(s) as a brand reminder any day! Look how effective companies like Tiffany and Godiva have been with their use of color.

  • Phone number and web address

    While it’s a sure bet your phone number and website appear on almost every spread of the catalog on the footer (at least they should) this information should also be on the cover: It’s an immediate signal that the catalog is asking for an order.


Since all customers and most prospects will receive many catalogs from you over time, it’s important to look at your covers as a campaign. It can be very helpful to step back and plan an annual cover contact strategy that takes into account seasonality, holiday, events and outside factors.

While merchandise needn’t be selected and your plans can always change, this process increases the probability that you’ll be identifying the consistent factors that improve brand, while at the same time planning the development of differentiated catalogs., is a consultant in the direct marketing industry. She specializes in improving performance and branding through creative applications.

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