Catalog Doctor: Good Readability Makes a Healthy Catalog
PATIENT: Doc, in my last visit [in January's All About ROI] you gave me two sure-fire prescriptions for healthy catalog marketing during this economic epidemic. Can you prescribe another sure thing I could count on to deliver results with low or no risk?
CATALOG DOCTOR: Your last prescriptions were to make design fast and easy to view, and add testimonials. Although there are no guaranteed "sure things," here's another low-risk script to keep your catalog healthy: Have good readability.
While it's a myth that "no one reads copy anymore," it's true that almost no one will ever read all, or even most, of your catalog's copy. The only person who will ever read every word of your catalog front to back is probably your proofreader.
So your readability goal isn't to get customers to read every word, but to have most of your marketing messages jump into their brains — almost unconsciously — when they skim each page. This means taking all the work out of reading that you can.
Rules for Body Copy
Body copy is the smallest copy with the most words, so it starts out harder to read than page heads, product heads or subheads. For easiest reading, know its limitations. Follow these eight rules:
- DON'T use gray type. Stick with black; high contrast enhances readability.
- DON'T use colored type. It's OK for other text, but never product body copy because the low contrast reduces readability.
- DON'T use colored type on a screen tint. It can be very hard to focus on, and may go out of registration on older presses.
- DON'T use reversed type. Especially don't reverse type out of a medium- or light-colored screen tint. This reduces contrast way too much.
- DON'T use italics. It's OK for other text, but never italicize product body copy unless you want to de-emphasize a message — such as "some assembly required" or "batteries not included."
- DON'T use overprinting on a color unless that color is very, very light.
- DON'T use overprinting on a pattern of any kind.
- NEVER combine "don'ts." For example, never use italic reversed out of a background color.
Serif or Sans-Serif?
Serif is still best for print body copy.
Young designers will bring up recent readability studies showing sans-serif type winning. But those are for computer screens, not print-on-paper. Print renders type differently than a computer screen. Sans-serif type renders better than serif on a computer because all the little points (serifs) can mush up in pixels. Serifs are more crisp in print. Just because you found sans-serif type works better on your website doesn't mean you should print it in your catalog.
The extra shapes on the ends of serif letters add to its readability by helping the brain discern differences in letter shape instantly. Before readers are even conscious of it, their brains identify words and their meanings at skimming speed. Sans-serif type is cleaner with fewer shape differences, and therefore has fewer visual cues for your reader's subconscious brain to translate — meaning fewer words are translated in the high-speed catalog skimmer's brain.
The end result is that serif body copy tends to get higher recognition of key words and phrases than sans-serif during quick skimming. More word/phrase recognition means more chances for customers to become interested in something on the page. When they become interested, it's more likely they'll read the copy for a given product, which makes it more likely they'll buy.
The better your copy's readability, the more your response will increase. What if you could lift response 5 percent simply by switching fonts? You'd get an immense return on almost no investment.
The fashion in print right now is toward "clean" sans-serif fonts. Designers will often argue that people have seen sans fonts for so long that they've been trained to read sans as easily as serif, but that's a fallacy. Every decade someone makes that same argument — this was a big contention back in the '70s and '80s as well — and each time it's been proven wrong. We're talking basic brain chemistry at the subconscious level. The way the subconscious human brain decodes shapes and renders them into concepts hasn't changed in 10,000 years.
If, for some reason, you must use a sans-serif font for body copy, try to use one that has shape — that is, where all letter parts aren't exactly the same thickness — to help your customers' subconscious brains better recognize differences between letters at scanning speed.
Rules for Big Copy
The bigger the copy, the fewer the rules. A big headline that runs across a two-page spread, like "Gifts under $25" in 72 point can be in any font, including a swirly initial-cap script on the "G," and it can be in a color, even pastel.
The smaller the copy, the more you need to stick to easy-to-read rules. Consider the following:
- High-contrast black ink on white paper.
- Upper and lowercase sentence style. Big-upper/small-upper is OK for specialty uses, like a big page or spread headline, but don't use it for product heads or body copy.
- Roman — that's the "regular" version of a font as opposed to italic or bold.
Big product headlines can be a color, but make sure it's dark for good contrast. It can be all uppercase if it's fairly big, but the closer a headline comes to the size of the body copy, the more you need to change to upper/lowercase and black type. ROI
Susan J. McIntyre is founder and chief strategist of catalog marketing agency and consulting firm McIntyre Direct (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Susan J. McIntyre is Founder and Chief Strategist of McIntyre Direct, a catalog agency and consultancy in Portland, Oregon offering complete creative, strategic, circulation and production services since 1991. Susan's broad experience with cataloging in multi-channel environments, plus her common-sense, bottom-line approach, have won clients from Vermont Country Store to Nautilus to C.C. Filson. A three-time ECHO award winner, McIntyre has addressed marketers in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, has written and been quoted in publications worldwide, and is a regular columnist for Retail Online Integration magazine and ACMA. She can be reached at 503-286-1400 or email@example.com.