'At-a-Glance' Comprehension Boosts Sales

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This is part one of a two-part column.


Catalogers can increase sales by improving the immediate comprehension of their catalog pages and the elements within. The sooner a reader "gets" what we are trying to communicate, the sooner they move to the next step on the purchase decision chain. Immediate comprehension can fight the page turning that often happens on spreads that are relevant to the reader, but not immediately understood as such.


Comprehension is a strategy within design. Too often what is perceived as beautiful design will work against comprehension. The type that is selected, the colors chosen, the placement of product and copy, the design of icons, the words used, etc., are areas that can bolster "at-a-glance" comprehension.


Hot spots are important for big messages. The front cover is probably the biggest chance to provide the "ah-ha" moment. Communicating relevance is often the way to achieve the highest level of connectivity. This relevance needs to be aspirational, something the prospect wants to achieve. The cover needs to be planned with the important elements of drama, differentiation and, if possible, emotion. But unless you show relevance, even catalogs with the most dramatic covers may get tossed.


Williams-Sonoma has done a superb job of showing relevance on its covers for years. What aspiring cook can resist a turkey fresh from the oven (shot at a dramatic angle, with gorgeous photography and well styled)? Patagonia and Frontgate are other examples where aspirational relevance is strategy.


The back cover is another place to immediately communicate positioning and content. Product selection, price points, photography and density are elements that should reflect positioning, at a glance.


The opening spread is prime real estate not only for product, but for presenting positioning and service. Many catalogers miss the chance to build brand and confidence when they skip this information. However, most leading catalogers understand the value of communicating service, delivery and an unconditional guarantee to customers and prospects. L.L. Bean may emphasize service, Lands' End focuses on quality and Patagonia will devote the space to adventure. All will underscore their 100 percent guarantee.


Selection and placement of type. Why would any cataloger use type that takes twice as much time to comprehend? Seems like a no-brainer, but it's done every day. That's because most designers don't know that the effect of type -- and where they put it -- can make the difference between a prospect reading a page versus going on to the next one.


For skeptics, all it will take is one read of Colin Wheildon's "Type & Layout: How Typography and Design Can Get Your Message Across - Or Get in the Way." The book demonstrates, by quoting test results and statistics, comprehension levels for various applications of type, headlines, captions and art. Anyone who reads it will come away with their own list of guidelines, or you can adapt these:


· Use serif type over sans-serif. This is one of the most popular guidelines in the print industry, probably because we were weaned on schoolbooks and newspapers that use serif type. Think it doesn't make a difference in your catalogs? Wheildon's researchers found that a serif typeface like Times New Roman is more than five times easier for average readers to comprehend than a sans-serif type such as Helvetica or Arial.


· Avoid using reverse type. It's harder to read white or knockout type than black type. According to Wheildon, when text was printed black on white, readers reported good comprehension 70 percent of the time, fair comprehension 19 percent and poor comprehension 11 percent of the time. When text was printed white on black, good comprehension fell to zero while poor comprehension rose to 88 percent. If you must use reverse type, use it for secondary (non-selling, editorial) copy.


· Avoid using color type. It's harder to read and slower to comprehend than black. And unless you're using a fifth color on press, because color type is composed of more than one color, it can get out of register, appear blurry and be harder on the eye.


· Avoid all caps. They are harder to read than upper/lower-case sentences or headlines.


· Long columns are harder for the eye to follow than shorter, managed columns.


· Use left justified type. Centered type or right justified is much harder to grasp.


· Captions and copy blocks belong under photographs, not above them. Newspapers train us to look for copy below the thing they're talking about. If they can't be below, at least put them to the side.


· Headlines are read most when they are at the top of a page. Headlines in the middle or low on a page have much lower comprehension scores.


· Type reads best on white backgrounds. Comprehension diminishes when colors or photography are used for type background.


· Avoid extensive use of bold type. Text printed in bold type is harder to comprehend than regular type.


Next month: organization.


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