Breaking creative rules

Before you break the rules of catalog design, you need to understand what they are – and why they work

Catalog design has come a long way from the industry’s downscale origins and the days of jam-packed “big books.” In recent years we’ve seen more avant-garde page design, as well as unusual use of typography and color to make catalogs look different.

But as important as it is that catalogs stand out in today’s ever-crowded mailboxes, remember that “different” does not necessarily translate to greater sales. Catalogers have long followed many of the established design principles for one simple reason: They sell products. So before you embark on an unusual or unconventional creative approach that breaks the rules, make sure you and your designers know what the rules are.

Shown below are eight catalog creative rules generally accepted by professional catalog managers and designers, rules that typically produce decent, if not always spectacular, results. But with each creative rule, we will show you exceptions that have boosted revenue and profits.

rule #1

Always place a best seller in the upper right corner of each spread.

As a rule, when readers glance at a catalog from front to back, their eyes first fall to the upper right corner of a spread, so it makes sense to put a strong product there. But best sellers are not always the most visually compelling or attention-grabbing products. If that’s the case, consider placing in the upper right corner an unusual-looking product or photograph that will impel readers to pause. Then by placing your best seller in another prominent position on the spread, you will encourage readers to view the entire catalog spread.

One of our clients, vitamins cataloger Healthy Directions, had much better results after running a customer testimonial for a weight-loss food supplement in the upper right corner, in lieu of just running a photo of the item. Instead, the actual bottle of the weight loss product was prominently placed near the top of the opposite page.

rule #2

Keep the typography simple, and limit the number of typefaces you use.

No matter how much information is necessary to close the sale, the copy has to be legible – that means no reducing the type to 6 points to help you cram in all the text. Still, sometimes some elements of the copy need to be presented in type that’s bolder or larger than the rest of the text to communicate a special benefit or offer.

For instance, if you are selling men’s pants that do not wrinkle, don’t bury this benefit in body copy. Instead, try a benefit headline with a distinct type treatment to make sure it stands out. Casual apparel cataloger Eddie Bauer, for instance, quickly communicates the advantage of its trousers with the “defies wrinkles” head in a prominent location, using bold type.

rule #3

A catalog must always have an order form.

When mail was the primary means of submitting orders, it was essential to include a well-designed order form that was easy to fill out and mail, usually with an attached envelope. But as telephone, fax, and the Web continue to replace ordering by mail, many catalogers are rethinking this creative tenet.

While fewer customers use the order form to mail orders, think twice before you drop the form altogether. An order form in a catalog says “direct selling” and sets it apart from information brochures and magazines. What’s more, many customers – both business and consumer – use the form as a worksheet to organize their orders before calling or ordering via the Internet.

As the ratio of mail to phone orders decreases, you may consider eliminating the reply envelope, which is the most expensive part of the order form. The envelope is also the creative element with the longest lead time, often adding up to 15 days to the production cycle. If you’re a business mailer, you might replace the elaborate order form and preformed envelope with a simple 8-1/2″ x 11″ one-color “telephone organizer and fax” form.

rule #4

Consistent layouts are a mark of excellence.

Developing recognizable spreads, typographical elements, and icons is important in creating a brand image. But if every spread looks the same and follows the same rules of eye flow, customers will become bored and probably choose not to peruse your entire book. Mixing up the spreads with grids and “surprise” layouts encourages readers to spend more time throughout your entire book. You can also improve pacing by creating “stopper” spreads throughout the catalog using a series of planned layout template changes.

For instance, you might use different colors, backgrounds, or layout formats to break up the overall design of the catalog. The Electric Outlet catalog, a client that sells household electrical items, uses the occasional grid layout among mostly asymmetrical layouts to shake things up, grab the readers’ attention, and encourage them to stop and read the spread.

rule #5

Standard catalog formats are more profitable.

You can gain many economies by working with your printer and the Postal Service to determine an efficient trim size, but sometimes a unique format will attract more attention or better enhance your brand than a standard full-size, slim-jim, or digest-size catalog, which in turn can boost sales and even the bottom line.

For instance, one of our clients, biking and walking travel tours mailer Butterfield and Robinson, uses an oversize, coffee-table format to present its trips and expeditions. Such an oversize format can add as much as 25% to your paper and production costs, but some mailers trying to present a certain image find it’s worth the expense.

Another cataloger that effectively breaks the format rule is The Black Dog, which uses an unusual horizontal calendar format to extend the life of the catalog and encourage year-round buying.

Then again, our client Bath & Body Works manages to keep costs the same while bending the rules: The toiletries cataloger/retailer uses a horizontal, though standard full-size, format for its catalog.

rule #6

Grouped products don’t sell.

Grouping complementary products, either in different photos put together in the layout or in a single shot, typically doesn’t sell the goods. Smaller catalogs with budget considerations often try to save money by grouping products, and some designers think that carefully keying each item in a group photo will help sell merchandise. But such strategies often backfire. For one thing, some of the products grouped together in a photo or layout may not relate to each other. For another, in a grouped layout or photo, no product is the hero that draws the reader in.

We worked with designer Mary Engelbreit’s country lifestyle magazine to create Breit Ideas, four catalog pages bound into the magazine. One of the pages sold children’s products propped in a lifestyle photograph of a room. The page bombed, even though each product in the photo was keyed to the selling copy and prices.

Are there exceptions to the rule about grouping products? Of course. If you’re selling books, greeting cards, or advertising specialties – products that tend to be similar to one another – grouping products makes a good deal of sense. For instance, business stationery marketer Brookhollow’s Human Resource Ideabook features a number of spreads grouping products such as cards and books, which saves photography and layout time without costing sales.

rule #7

Magalogs don’t sell.

A magalog is half-magazine and half-catalog. In the past several years, we have seen more magalogs than ever before. But are there really any truly successful selling efforts from this hybrid format? In most cases, as the amount of nonselling editorial space takes away from sales-oriented real estate, the viability of the catalog as a revenue producer decreases. We have helped create a number of targeted magalogs, but seldom have we seen a gangbuster winner using this format.

That’s not to say that a magalog type treatment will never work. Many conventional catalog marketers have increased the use of editorial material in their books, and quite a few have boosted sales with this technique.

For instance, gourmet kitchen products cataloger Williams-Sonoma within the past 18 months has increased its use of editorial sidebars with product tips and recipes. And furnishings and decorative accessories cataloger French Country Living has increased the space devoted to editorial material explaining the history of its products.

This strategy of devoting a limited amount of space to product-related editorial enables marketers to provide added value to customers and “tell their story” without giving up on the purpose of the catalog – to generate sales. If it’s important for you to have a straightforward, nonselling communication to customers, think about mailing a newsletter rather than a magalog to keep in touch with customers between catalog drops.

rule #8

A four-color catalog performs better than one- or two-color book.

Generally speaking, yes, four-color presentation looks more attractive, grabs more attention, and generates more sales than a one-color book. What’s more, some product lines, such as apparel and cosmetics, require accurate color representation. But in some select cases the sales do not justify the cost of four-color printing and color separations – and you might find that a two-color presentation sets your book apart from competition.

Our client Three Dog Bakery sells canine treats made from whole-grain ingredients. When launching its catalog, the company found that duotones worked well, since the products are brownish in color. As a result, the book cost at least 25% less to print than a four-color catalog would have. Many industrial products marketers sell goods that don’t demand a four-color treatment, so they use a four-color cover and one- or two-color pages inside. This strategy has worked well for another of our clients, wholesale plumbing supplies mailer Industrial Thermoplastic Solutions.

Bend or break

As we said earlier, there’s a good reason that catalog design principles have become tried and true: They work. Most catalog designers and creative studios have learned the rules the old-fashioned way, through substantial testing and experimentation.

But as with most other rules, catalog creative mainstays can occasionally be bent or broken, as long as you and your design team know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. By selectively breaking the rules – and testing each time you do – you might surprise yourself with a boost in sales and profits.