‘Clean’ Design: Lean, Mean Selling Machine or Buying Barrier?
PATIENT: "Doc, I hear there's a trend today toward "clean" design. Should I be using a clean design in my catalog? And what does clean design mean anyway?"
CATALOG DOCTOR: "‘Clean’ design typically means more negative space (aka white space), minimal copy, larger but fewer images per product, sans-serif type, often smaller point sizes and sometimes gray type instead of black. To see if clean is for you, let's look at where it works and where it doesn't."
Where Clean Works
Clean works well in noncatalog vehicles like print ads and billboards, where the goal is to grab attention and create emotional interest. Catalog environments have more requirements because they must sell directly. In catalogs, clean works best for products that people are buying primarily because they like the way they look (e.g., art).
Check out the image below for an example of clean design, as featured in a recent Talbots catalog. Here's the complete copy: STRETCH TWILL JACKET Cotton/spandex. Contrast-lined collar. Machine wash. The jacket is shown full page, on-model. The model is wearing a scarf and earrings which are line-listed. Although the jacket's features don't show very well in the photo, the overall impact is very attractive. Five colors are shown via small swatches with color names overprinted. Small point size, sans-serif type.
This strategy will deliver Talbots sales primarily from customers who are completely comfortable making a purchase based just on looks and price. Those who want a pocket count or to know more about the cut or the length won't buy. But if they're interested enough from the photo, they may go online to learn more (yes, there's more online) or to their local Talbots store. Those who are mildly interested won't bother to do either.
Where Clean Doesn't Work
Clean doesn't work well for feature-filled products that require a lot of explanation. An example is the Solutions catalog that's featured below. It's an attractive, orderly catalog, but it has lots of selling elements. Solutions iconic Miracle Cloth has four photos, a triple-deck headline, three photo captions, four callouts and 61 words of copy. This cover-all-the-bases selling technique is what typically gets great results for feature-filled products.
How Do I Know What's Right for My Catalog?
You need to think about your audience and the degree to which they ask questions before they're comfortable deciding to buy. Work with your customer service staff to find out what types of questions customers ask to get an idea of how much your copy and photos need to answer.
Also, take a look at what your competition is doing so you can see the expectations your shared customer universe likely has. If you're seeing your competitors using conventional copy and design, you should probably lean toward the conservative approach.
There's no longer a standard design/copy formula for all catalogs; there's a wide range to choose from. For your catalog, you may not want to go all the way to one end of the spectrum or the other. But where in the middle do you go? Here's an easy way to test: Take a two-page spread and design it two ways, your normal way and a couple of steps in the direction you want to test (e.g., more clean or more selling). Mail both, then compare the sales just of the products on that spread from the two different versions. That limited-to-two-pages test will give you confidence to evolve your catalog in the direction that wins the test — and at a lot less expense than a complete catalog redesign!
Clean design isn't for everyone. Clean depends on how much your customers and prospects need to know in order to get the maximum number of purchases. If they need to know a lot, you can't go with clean because clean will depress response too much. If your customers buy mostly on appearance, however, you might want to give clean a try.
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.