Building better creative

Are you guilty of leaving your catalog’s front — and back — cover planning and design until the last minute? And when you finally get to the covers, do you give them the time and attention they need?

The cover is the single most important page in your catalog. It’s the point at which the recipient decides whether to keep you or toss you, so it should get top priority.

How do you make sure your catalog covers get the attention they need? Put someone in charge of them. This person is responsible for making sure that:

  • The cover is discussed at the initial turnover meeting, regarding goals, branding, seasonality, past covers or competitive covers, etc.
  • Products or candidates are selected and agreed upon.
  • All the information that must go on the front cover (logo, offers, information, etc.) is presented and reviewed.
  • Tightly rendered cover options are presented and discussed at the layout meeting. “Swipe” (photography that is representative of the desired look) is presented and the planned photography is discussed, including how the shot is going to be accomplished.
  • The final catalog cover presented represents the sum of all the efforts.

If your designers have all the information and resources at their disposal and you’re still not getting stellar covers, maybe it’s time to bring in some outside influence. Consider only catalog designers or agencies with proven experience — and make sure that you speak to references and review catalog covers the person or company has done before you hire.

As important as the cover is to any catalog, it’s just one of many creative aspects you need to put under a microscope now to make sure your book is the best it can be.

Here are a few more creative commandments:

  • Require alternate treatments and more ideas from creative

    Just like an accountant knows there is more than one way to look at numbers, we know that there is more than one way to look at a catalog page or spread. In most cases, a creative team will develop effective spreads the first time out, based on their experience, coupled with their time working together.

    But there are always situations during the catalog development stage when you need to see options and different treatments. Perhaps it’s a presentation or technique you’ve never done before, or maybe it’s time to freshen up a stale presentation with a new look.

    Good art directors present alternative treatments as a matter of course; they enjoy challenges and like change. You should expect and receive options from your creative team when they have come up with alternative presentations. You actually need to see different treatments to determine which will be more effective with an audience.

    Your creative team members should be studying other catalogs, especially those from leaders in the field. They should be pulling out swipe from these catalogs as examples of how your catalog can do a better job.

  • Don’t let creative staff make decisions that negatively affect performance

    You know you do it. Everyone does. But whether it happens infrequently or all too often, art directors, writers and desktop people should not be making creative decisions that contradict what we know works.

    A few example of things that creative staff often do that will work against performance:

    • Lowering density because high density limits their design

      The truth is, high-density catalog formats do sell, and marketing should be weighing in on that, based on square-inch analysis. Talented creative people, in fact, can create well-designed, dense spreads.

    • Using hard-to-read type because it’s more aesthetically pleasing

      Maybe if the designers knew how much they were lowering comprehension when they use reverse type, sans serif, color type and all caps, they would use less of it!

    You might get your catalog creative team a copy of Colin Wheildon’s book Type & Layout, which documents scores of type comprehension tests. Maybe then they’ll stop fighting you on this issue.

    And while you should encourage your creative people to look at other catalogs and the competition, don’t do something you don’t feel comfortable with just because another cataloger is doing it. Be sure any cataloger you emulate has had proven results with a technique before you embrace it.

  • Hire people with proven catalog experience

    One of the biggest mistakes that a cataloger can make is to hire creative folks without catalog experience. It’s like using a general practitioner to do a heart transplant — no one should feel comfortable guaranteeing good results.

    Catalog design and copywriting has guidelines and techniques that are unique to catalogs and take years to master. How would you expect a magazine designer or writer to understand or deal with density, copy length or square-inch analysis? These are foreign concepts to them.

    Noncatalog writers won’t understand that customers require all the information they need to make a purchase decision from the page, yet they don’t want “fluff” or useless information that wastes their time.

    While it may be more challenging to find someone with catalog experience, and it might even cost you a bit more money, it’s worth it. And if you’re lucky enough to have experienced staff, there’s probably an opportunity to bring on junior, inexperienced folks as you grow and let the pros train them.

  • Stop accepting mediocre — or bad — work

    If you’ve been dissatisfied with the work from your staff or freelancers, now is the time to do something about it.

    First, have some serious discussions with your creative people and identify your concerns and frustrations. Warn them that they will be sent back to the drawing board when you see a weak cover or a poorly designed spread. Make them more accountable for the quality of photography.

    Let your creative team know ahead of time that you will have higher standards for their work, and identify areas that have been of concern in the past. Make sure you allow them to identify the things that might stand in the way of them accomplishing better work.

Next Page: Quit wasting time — use it more wisely

Previous Page: Here are a few more creative commandments:

  • For example, do their roadblocks have to do with timing, talent or money? Work with your creative staff to see how you can lessen their challenges. There are always ways to do this within schedule and without breaking the bank; it just takes some insight, cooperation and coordination.

    The good news is that most successful catalog designers develop their talent because they study examples of excellence around them and work hard to identify and mirror the successful techniques they see. They seek out guidance that will help them do a better job, and are receptive to input from those with experience.

  • Quit wasting time — use it more wisely

    Have you ever counted up how much time is wasted during the course of the day because of lateness? Do you work in a company where there are those who habitually keep others waiting? When one person is 15 minutes late for a meeting that has three other people attending, that’s really an hour of working time that is gone.

    Multiply how often it happens, and it’s easy to see how you shave days or weeks off of productivity every year. Every time someone is late, isn’t prepared, if decks aren’t copied, if numbers aren’t ready, etc., business suffers.

    Don’t accept this behavior. It’s important to start meetings at the agreed-upon time and leave behind the latecomers. Better yet, penalize them by having them buy pizza lunch for their group when they’re late!

    In a similar vein, make sure that time is used productively. Almost every meeting should have an agenda that includes objectives of the meeting and start and stop times. Someone should be the facilitator and manage the content and conversations so that the meeting doesn’t wander off, and all points of the agenda are covered.

    Finally, take advantage of times when people naturally get together. One way to invest in training staff without big expense is to bring in speakers during lunchtime. Either have the staff brown-bag it or bring in pizza and soda while your team learns about direct marketing.

  • Create more effective schedules and stick to them

    Could your team members be more effective if they had better schedules? Absolutely. Too many companies have created schedules that reflect their own internal bad habits, and it takes a lot to undo the situation. Look at your own schedule and ask yourself:

    • Do you miss dates, or build in extra time, because people are often late or incomplete with their work?
    • Do things happen outside the schedule and then hold up progress? (examples might be senior approval on specific activities being late.)
    • Are schedules longer than they have to be because you don’t have adequate talent available?
    • Are schedules cut short because merchandise is late?
    • Is it felt that creative quality suffers because of the inadequacies of the schedule?

    If any of this is happening, it’s time to take a hard look at the schedule. Since various internal groups and individuals have such disparate vested interests in scheduling, this may be a good time to bring in an outside consultant to review your process and schedule. An outsider will point out opportunities for streamlining and improvements that might be hard to implement at first, but could lead to years of successful scheduling in the future.

  • Make sure there is a challenger in your midst

    A challenger, or a “change agent,” is someone who aggressively challenges people and the work they do to be better. This is important to the growth and development of your creative work and catalog presentation.

    Is there someone who is motivating your creative team to do better, smarter, more strategic work? Is there someone who is challenging his or her boss or the head of the department?

    It’s hard for most people to challenge their own activities because they’re immersed in daily work and problem solving. And it’s difficult to ask anyone with pressing immediate challenges to think in the future. A change agent works in the future, not in the present.

    In addition to having proven experience making impressive improvements, change agents will be passionate and self-motivating, and will have a keen understanding of people and how to motivate them.

  • Cut out the dead wood

    Saying goodbye to people who aren’t performing is the hardest thing that some of us have to do. So much so that many do whatever they can to avoid letting go of weak employees.

Nevertheless, if people are not performing, they’re usually a drain on the company and others they work with. It should go without saying that it is always important to provide employees with regular feedback and formal, written evaluations.

But if, after a proper evaluation and after a reasonable amount of time, you can’t get a person to the place he or she need to be, it’s time to let him go. No company can afford to carry ineffective staff these days.

Sometimes it’s just a bad hire, or perhaps the person has reached a level of incompetence. The employee may not be a hard enough worker or maybe just lacks talent. Whatever the reason, he or she not is contributing to your business, and may even be undermining it.

It’s not easy to do a lot of the things discussed here. But if you aim to survive these crazy competitive times, your catalog creative needs to be the best.

Take a hard look at some of your design practices, team members and results, and make any changes you need to. It will pay off.

Glenda Shasho Jones ( is a New York-based catalog consultant specializing in improving creative performance and branding.

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