Up in smoke

We all know that smoking is bad for us, and that not only should we quit, we should discourage others — namely kids — from trying cigarettes. To help people avoid or quit smoking, the Tobacco catalog from Calhoun, KY-based NIMCO aims to be the center for prevention and cessation resources, according to its tagline. But is the book’s design a breath of fresh air or a stale burned-out approach? Critiquers Sarah Fletcher, creative director of Providence, RI-based Catalog Design Studios, and Glenda Shasho Jones, president of New York-based consultancy Shasho Jones Direct, took a look at the 2007 edition and gave it a thorough workover. Read on to see if the book is a winner, or if it needs to kick some bad creative habits.


The four words I would use to describe the Tobacco catalog are, “very loud utter confusion.” It is too much, too loud and too in-your-face to be a pleasant shopping experience. Several serious problems are negatively affecting the catalog. The first is that the 64-page book is titled “Tobacco,” and there are 13 pages of product not related to tobacco.

Then there’s the organization by 16 categories, which are too broad and cause confusion. Section names include “Tobacco Cessation,” “Tobacco Prevention,” and “Consequences.”

I’m sure these categories make perfect sense to the company. But to the customer, all three sound the pretty much the same. I fear that customers see a huge array of products that they need to investigate in depth before they can make a purchase decision.

The overly broad category problem is exacerbated by the double exposure of numerous items throughout the catalog — as well as a flawed pagination. For example, there are smoker’s lungs models on four different pages, rather than having one page of smoker’s lungs where the company could maximize differentiation and upselling.

Similarly, the “Ciggy Butts” life-size cigarette costume appears in three places, there are rubber bracelets on 10 different pages, and a product called “a Drug ID display” is on a page of bracelets in the “Character” section. If you take the time to study the catalog, you start to figure out that there are sections for drug prevention, abstinence, and anti-violence mixed into the catalog as well.

This is a classic example of poorly organizing a catalog. The best way to fix this problem is to start with the customer. My guess is that the vast majority of sales are to schools, companies, and organizations. They are going to be selecting merchandise for a specific customer profile.

The first level of customer organization would be to help the customer identify what problem they are trying to overcome (smoking, abstinence etc.). The catalog does this, but not quick enough. Better product groupings, a table of contents on the back cover, and messaging on the front cover would help.

The second level of organization for the customer would be age. For example, if the customer is an elementary school, it would want to know which items are the most effective tools for discouraging kids from taking the first puff. If the customer is a company, it would be looking for tools to help the beleaguered pariahs standing in the cold by the loading docks puffing away. These are two very different audiences, and the folks trying to help them don’t want to look through an entire category of posters to find the one that corresponds to their needs.

The cover — which depicts a cartoon pack of cigarettes holding up signs promoting “no smoking” days and events — is fun. But the dark green background kills most of the graphics. There should also be page references for the items shown to more effectively drive customers inside.

The book’s overall design screams — and not in a good way. This catalog sells products that are designed to get attention, and each one is yelling its own message from the rooftops. The designers have tried to sell more products by using callouts that need to shout louder than everything else on the page. Each callout and background adds to the visual cacophony.

The best way to fix this is to take out everything and start over using a hierarchy of importance as the guide. Determine what the most important message on the page is and make it the loudest. Then keep the key messages to three at most.

A good way to make room for headlines and page groupings is to get rid of all of the boxes that surround the products.

These boxes are the tobacco of the design world: Once you start using them, you need more. Suddenly, all the copy and photos need to be reduced to make room for the boxes. Then you need more boxes to differentiate things on the crowded page and — aaaarrrgh! My rule of thumb is that if you need more than one box per page, you have an organization problem that needs to be solved rather than a design problem.

Good pagination requires “highs” and “lows” so that customers have visual markers throughout the catalog. Tobacco has repeated its best selling products throughout the book at the same size. This actually adds more confusion than help.

Giving the best sellers hero status (making the photos large, adding strong headlines and selling them with compelling copy and callouts) would help relieve some of the visual fatigue of this super dense book. The Ciggy Buttz costume, priced at $685, is a great candidate, for example, and would look terrific presented as a half page.

There are six two-thirds pages dedicated to bracelets (many of which are triple and quadruple exposures). Making a bigger deal out of other key products with some of that space would be more effective.

The catalog needs to keep the basic information simple. URLs don’t need to be bright and colorful and grab attention; they just need to tell customers where to go to make their purchases. The phone number should also be at the bottom of the page rather than in the tab at the top of the left-hand page.

What’s missing from this catalog?

Sidebars that help customers decide what to buy. Tips on creating effective programs. Ideas for challenging smokers to quit. Testimonials. Profiles of leaders in the field. In short, your company’s voice; the voice of the caring people who have dedicated an entire catalog to helping others quit smoking.


Yikes! If ever there was a catalog that would benefit from simplification, this is it. I felt like having a cigarette just to calm down when I looked over this book. I actually had to go to the Website to understand what the company was all about — clearly something every catalog recipient is not willing to do!

Starting from the front cover, there is way too much going on. First of all, what is the name of this catalog? Tobacco? That’s what it says. TobaccoFreeEarth is listed as its URL inside. Mind you, on the Website (and in a different logo) the business is called Tobacco Prevention. Which is it?

The assortment of adolescent looking color type would indicate that the catalog is for teens. It’s not; the products are, but the catalog is targeted to health, youth, educational and other organizations involved in tobacco and drug prevention.

All the copy on the cover is presented in the hardest-to-read type. I can’t tell if the “thing” (blue striped box holding signs) on the front cover is a message to the recipient or an actual product. The offer for a “FREE DVD/VCR” is pretty much lost in a rectangle at the bottom of the page. If there’s one thing on the cover that should be colorful — and perhaps in a burst — it’s the special offer.

This front cover needs to be organized so that recipients understand what they’re getting and what’s being offered. Whatever is on the front cover — product or imagery — needs to be clear, dramatic and relevant.

The opening spread is just as busy as the cover — the reader is mired in a miasma of color, type, icons, and photography. Where does one start? My guess is that this catalog loses a high percentage of readers at this stage.

It’s hard to believe that anything is missing from this spread, but the catalog is unaware of — or ignoring — the importance of some basic information that is especially important to prospects. The opening spread is the place where readers expect positioning and relevant customer service information.

There are four important areas that could easily be handled in a one-third column on the left-hand side of page 2:

  1. Welcome note with “positioning” information

    A friendly letter that sums up what the catalog stands for — as it is relevant to the customer — is important, especially for prospects who may need the extra confidence. It’s best if it comes from a real person; focus group participants usually tell us that they trust a company more when they see a person behind it.

  2. Ordering information

    Listing the phone number and ordering hours, as well as the main Web addresses becomes a “call to action” that inspires people to order from the catalog. This can be done in a friendly and interesting way, such as “3 Easy ways to order.”

  3. Delivery information

    It’s always helpful to list shipping options up front. The information can be expanded upon on the order form, but the opening spread is a good place to list the main choices.

  4. Guarantee

    One of the biggest confidence builders is seeing a 100% guarantee on the opening spread. It’s a good way to tell prospects and remind customers that they can trust you.

Overall, this catalog’s design and presentation is assaulting — products, color, type and icons are all over the place. It’s tremendously hard for a potential customer to shop from the catalog because of the overwhelming creative, poor organization, and hard to read type.

The good news is that this company would really increase its comprehension — and sales — if it made some improvements to the catalog. Here are six of the biggest problem areas and recommended solutions. If it addressed these areas correctly and aggressively, this catalog would be immensely easier to shop and most certainly get an improvement in performance.

  • Reduce the amount of color used

    By far, the biggest problem this cataloger has is the overwhelming use of color. The color type, rule lines, icons, headlines, and background tints all take away from product presentation and copy comprehension.

    This catalog looks disorganized because of all the color treatments, even though the products are organized by categories and presented in columns. Cleaning up the color treatment would help product presentation tremendously.

  • Simplify and prioritize type

    A catalog needs only two or three typefaces — simple is better, and this helps the reader focus on the product. It will also make the catalog easier to read. In order to manage the copy for digestion, you can develop enough diversity with the type size and treatment (such as bolding, italicizing, underscoring, etc.). Headlines should be the biggest, subheads the next tier, body copy at a readable point-size, and caption type for under photos or insets. The consistent use of that kind of type, using bolding, etc. where appropriate, will create a much more readable catalog.

  • Create pacing through product hierarchy

    The best products should be treated as features and sub-features and given more space. You want to create a strong eye-flow with product placement, which encourages the customer to spend more time with the spread. Key items should be strategically located so the reader is easily drawn to one spot and then pulled across, around or up and down the spread.

  • Consider decreasing density

    While in most cases an overwhelming presentation can be corrected through design and organization, this cataloger may have exceeded the ratio of products to page. Most of these products need a clear visual presentation and a certain amount of copy.

    In this case, the copy is actually pretty good and necessary to sell the merchandise. This cataloger might gain more if it either added more pages to accommodate the number of items, or dropped some less productive products from the catalog and indicated that there is more available on its Website.

  • Put information where it is expected

    Over the years, catalogers have trained customers where to look for basic information. Phone numbers and Web URLs should be at the footer (bottom) of the spread, not at the top or vertically along the side. Folios (page numbers) belong at the bottom-left and right-hand side of the spread. If spread categories are going to be called out (e.g. DVDs, Videos, Curriculum on page 2) they belong on the outer top of the page, where the reader can spot them when thumbing through a catalog. These areas are not the place to reinvent the rules. Changing location only serves to frustrate the reader.

  • Help the customer make a purchase

    In so many cases throughout this catalog, the customer is given the choice of a variety of similar products (e.g., mouth models on page 2, sports balls on page 3). This cataloger could generate many more sales if they presented the reader with some help choosing. In some cases, comparisons such as good, better, best would work. In other situations, “best seller” or “our choice” might motivate a customer who is having a hard time making a choice.

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