New mail order

Catalogues provide designers with an unwelcome dilemma – how to create something beyond a vehicle for selling when what the client actually wants is the hard-sell approach. No one would argue that for many catalogues, from mail order to trade brochures, the standard of design has become far more sophisticated over the past ten years or so. Some suggest mail order has become overdesigned, with the result that designers have become too formulaic, churning out catalogues that are no longer ground-breaking in appearance.

“We’ve become so saturated by brochures and catalogues that there’s a lot of complacency and mediocrity in the marketplace,” says Alan Aboud, a partner at Aboud Sodano which works on brochures for Paul Smith and Patrick Cox.

He also questions whether fashion brochures are becoming a “dying art” because of the substantial investment clients have to make to produce them coupled with competing means of communication such as the Internet.

Mail order, or home shopping, is however, a growing sector which was worth 869m in 1998 and is predicted to grow to 5.3 per cent of all UK retail sales by 2000, according to the Direct Marketing Association. While new technology such as the Internet and digital TV will spur this growth, retailers offering home shopping are increasingly aware that sales are dependent on presentation.

Contrived model shots – which are the butt of catalogue jokes – are becoming a thing of the past, as mainstream home shopping adopts a more fashion-conscious approach. Unoriginal perhaps, but catalogues are having to mimic the style magazines their target markets read.

The arrival of Next Directories provided an initial warning shot back in the Eighties. Originally designed by Lamb & Shirley, the directories were stylish and well presented. When the mainstream catalogues began following, Why Not Associates was commissioned to create something the others wouldn’t try to copy. The result was pretty ground breaking, offering daring typography and imagery.

“We were creating something that had another level other than just flogging merchandise. We were turning it into a nice object in itself and elevating it above what you’d expect from a catalogue,” says David Ellis, a partner at WNA. The consultancy worked on the directories for three years, after which Next took the design in-house. “There’s nothing around now that’s as exciting typographically,” says Iain Cadby, a senior designer at WNA.

The key challenge for designers working on catalogues and product brochures is to create something visually stimulating that the clients feel will entice sales. “There’s a reticence in terms of designers sticking their necks out because of the emphasis on sales,” says Aboud.

For Roz Streeten, a partner at Streeten Kamlish Associates, the main hurdle is achieving a balance between good design and hard sell. She has been working with pet products mail order company Bone Dogalogue for the past three years and says initially she was given a pretty free rein over the design. Now, however, the client is more specific about what sells best. “It’s difficult to convince the clients because they’re the ones spending the money and they become brainwashed by mail order conferences preaching what works best in a catalogue.”

Ellis says there’s bound to be an element of conflict at some point because “it’s two sets of people who both have slightly different priorities”. As an example, he recalls the work WNA has more recently done for Dutch children’s clothing company Cakewalk for a mail order brochure. WNA wanted to use certain shots because they looked good but the client wasn’t happy because a jacket wasn’t hanging right. “They want to show the clothes and you want to show things graphically,” he says.

Having a theme or narrative is also crucial to avoid creating “just another catalogue”. “It’s about capturing the balance – getting the right content in the photography and pushing the brand. We always try to get an idea into it as well, so it’s not just a series of photos and prices. You need a big idea to carry it through,” says Peter Rae, creative director at Tango which has worked on product catalogues for Ray-Ban, Nike, Dockers and Levi’s. “You have to have a point or theme, otherwise it’s like you’ve just slapped anything in,” agrees Aboud.

Streeten points out in the Bone Dogalogue brochure her aim has been to “make it enjoyable to glance through and make consumers feel like they belong to a club”. Photography plays perhaps the most important role in catalogues and it is easier to inject fresh ideas for a new clothing range than for products which have not changed.

The challenge then, says Morag Myerscough, who works with Wireworks on mail order brochures, is “how much you can abstract the product and put ideas into it”. Often there is not the budget to reshoot products all the time, so Wireworks produces a longer-lasting core brochure with regular supplements. “It’s interesting how the design has changed – we try to keep it fresh and every year it gets more successful,” adds Myerscough.

Aboud laments the current lack of collectable brochures and believes there’s “a huge gap in the market waiting to be filled”. He adds: “People used to collect designer brochures and would wait for them to come out. I can’t remember the last one I kept.” Now there’s a challenge for retailers and designers alike.

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