Catalog Doctor: Strike the Right Beauty/Clarity Balance
PATIENT: Why aren’t catalogs prettier than they are? Isn’t a beautiful design the best thing for my catalog?
CATALOG DOCTOR: It’s true that many catalogs aren’t as pretty as they could be. Most important, of course, is what lifts sales. Will beauty improve sales for you? Let’s try to answer that, then look at how to achieve beauty.
Look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous “Mona Lisa,” acknowledged as beautiful art the world over. Whether from the colors, the proportions or the mysterious smile, it has the underlying elements that make people want to look at it and hang it on their walls.
Could a catalog image be so beautiful that people would want to hang it on their walls? Look at the candle holder on pg. 41 of this article. It’ll probably never hang at the Louvre in Paris alongside the Mona Lisa, but it has beauty and, in fact, hangs on our office wall.
If you were to take that same image with some copy on it, most people would say the copy detracts from the beauty. But you can’t buy the “max beauty” candle holder without copy telling you how and why to buy it.
So now look at the same image on the right. It has two copy blocks: a big “30% OFF” circle and a corner violator that designers would complain “ruins the graphic integrity.” You’d be hard-pressed to find this image framed on anyone’s wall, so it loses points for artistic merit. But who cares? It gains points for salesmanship.
There’s a dynamic tension between selling and beauty, and striking the right balance in your catalog.
Pretty in Its Place
A gift cataloger conducted a creative test between “beauty” and “clarity.” Guess what: clarity won.
Both the beauty and clarity catalogs were very good-looking, but the beautiful one focused on drawing attention to the pretty photos and creating ambience and emotional connection — all of which are important. Headlines and captions became secondary, though, and were easily missed by scanning readers. The connection between copy and its image was slow to materialize and not always clear.
The clarity catalog had less razzle-dazzle. But the headlines popped, and scannability and eye flow were great. It was a fast and easy read. The book optimized all the selling elements, even if it occasionally had to sacrifice beauty to do so, and it reaped the bigger rewards when orders started coming in.
Over the years, seeing hundreds of catalogs and lots of tests and results, I’ve formed these three copy and design principles:
1. Clarity first: includes eye flow, scannability, unambiguous writing.
2. Benefits second: these are promos and your unique selling proposition.
3. Brand third: covers voice, look, photo style, fonts and color palette.
Benefits and brand won’t sell well without clarity.
Clarity trumps benefits and beauty. So when you’re trying to balance all three, sometimes you have to sacrifice gorgeous for clear. And that’s OK.
Beauty or Beast?
Three catalogs I really admire that are very different from each other, but very on-target for their respective audiences, are Levenger, Vermont Country Store and Duluth Trading. All have great copy and wonderfully unique products. Each has a very different look and feel. I could make a case for each being beautiful in its own way, but for hang-on-your-wall beauty, only Levenger’s gorgeously lit and photographed images of “tools for serious readers” come close.
Vermont Country Store’s newsprint paper, line drawings and simple photos expertly convey small-town, general store charm; old-fashioned function; and family-run friendliness. It does so ... well ... beautifully. In fact, gallery-style beauty would be wrong for the brand.
Duluth Trading’s big, often humorous headlines and clear, function-oriented illustrations convey the sense that a team of knowledgeable, down-to-earth workmen developed these practical products for customers like them. “We understand your working needs and problems” comes across just right without any gallery-style beauty that would, again, be wrong for the brand.
Gallery-style beauty is right for many very high-end products, and it’s right for a lot of fashion, art, jewelry and gifts. But it’s wrong for many value-priced products; problem-solver products; and for workhorse products used in a factory, school or working farm.
5 Secrets to Looking Better
If you’re not one of those catalogs, you can boost sales by injecting beauty. Explaining how to execute a truly beautiful catalog would take a whole book, but here are the five top tips.
1. Have beautiful photography.
Beautiful photography requires time, money and a really good photographer who’s experienced in complex lighting and partners with an experienced stylist. Your photo team needs to show each product very clearly, while creating a look that comes as close as possible to taking your breath away.
2. Have excellent color correction.
Dull gray photos, weak or muddy colors, or overfilled shadows will hurt the impact of images, reducing their beauty and appeal.
3. Embody balance and proportion.
Artists throughout history have studied and understood the importance of proportion to beauty. When you find the right proportional balance, you strike an emotional chord in the human brain by turning the ordinary into the beautiful.
This doesn’t mean everything is the same size. It’s about the Golden Mean and Parthenon proportions. And it needs a designer with training and a great eye. Good proportion helps eye flow and makes your pages feel balanced, too, improving scannability, thus lifting response.
4. Use upscale fonts.
Your designer must understand fonts and their emotional impact. Fonts like Garamond are friendly; some like Times Roman create credibility. There are contemporary fonts, classic fonts, serif fonts, sans-serif fonts, shaped sans fonts, high x-height, low x-height and so on. Each feels different. The feeling is almost always unconscious, but important. The wrong font can feel cheap and out of place, detracting from an otherwise beautiful layout.
5. See what other beautiful designs are “happening.”
Look at high-end architecture, fashion, cars, furniture, ads and magazines. There are timeless elements in beauty. But beauty isn’t a timeless standard that stands still; it changes with the times. Combine inspirations from the past with inspirations from today to create a work of art that sells.
Susan J. McIntyre is president of McIntyre Direct, a full-service catalog creative agency and consulting firm based in Portland, Ore. You can reach her at (503) 286-1400 or email@example.com.