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Appealing Catalog Design - Product Placement and Page Design

A catalog is a specialized piece of marketing material intended to woo customers to do business with you by presenting a tempting display of appealing products. Catalogs are:

most successful when paired with a niche marketing strategy

easier to alter than mass market materials

useful to test market acceptance of a product or product line.

less expensive than a sales force

well suited to providing detailed information about a product

To do all these things, a catalog must be well-designed and must, to the best ability of the designers, be tailored to convey the company's image. Obviously a catalog intended to sell children's toys should have a different visual motif than one selling sporting goods or home care products.

Major Catalog Design Elements

In conceptualizing an effective catalog, you must give careful consideration to the front and back cover, internal product placement, the manner in which products are photographed, and a number of other factors.

Front Cover

The cover of any catalog should be:

visually attractive
feature the company name
not be overburdened with information

Try to select an image that will speak to your audience and make them want to use your products. For instance, if you sell sporting goods, you might feature a hunter wearing a jacket displaying your logo and carrying a weapon offered in your inventory. Such imagery allows the customers to imagine themselves using your products in a setting they enjoy and understand.

Back Cover

Never neglect the back cover of a catalog. A high percentage of readers actually start at the last page of a magazine or catalog. Magazine editors often include a piece at the back of the issue called the "second lead." Catalog designers should use the back cover to:

not be overburdened with information
feature new products
briefly showcase several major products cross-referenced to detailed descriptions inside the catalog

The inside left page is also a good place to highlight this kind of information since the reader's eye lands there first when the catalog is opened from the back.

Upper Right-Hand Corner

In laying out the catalog's internal pages the "sweet spot" is the upper right-hand corner of each two-page spread. The reader's attention will be directed there first as pages are turned. Use that area for products that are:
visually compelling

You may not want to put your best-selling products in the upper-right hand corner but rather items that are new, improved, or that you are "pushing" in some way.


If your catalog isn't readable even the most careful product placement will not generate sales. Make your catalog readable by using the following tips:

use no more than three typefaces
do not use type smaller than 8 pt.
vary type usage by weight (bold, italic), size (8pt. and larger), and colors
avoid using all capital letters and underlining

You want the reader's attention to be on your product, not distracted by dozens of conflicting type faces.

Developing Brand Image

Many catalogs are easily recognizable such as the venerable Sears & Roebuck Wish Book. Others, like the J. Peterman catalog distinguished themselves with a "hook." Each product in the Peterman catalog was accompanied by a small piece of narrative "adventure" fiction. People looked forward to receiving the catalog to read those little stories. Any catalog that develops that kind of brand image will do well. Consider:

looking for a "hook" that will differentiate your company from the competition
create consistent design schemes so readers know what they're seeing even before they start reading
make the "look" of your catalog comfortable and familiar for the readers even if the products are new

Individual Items Sell

When products are being photographed remember:

group photographs don't draw enough attention to individual products
show items individually or in small, closely related groups
carefully key items in group shots to product descriptions. (Placing a small "A" by a product to indicate it corresponds to the description marked "A.")
show most products with no background, if possible, just a subtle drop shadow.
talk to your photographer about shooting items against a white backdrop to create a "floating" appearance
Above all else, keep the focus on the products. When products are staged into a complex image people see the whole image not the individual parts.

Order Forms

Even in this day of telephone and online ordering, a catalog should still have an order form.

customers use the form to work out the details of their order
the form is a good place to list the terms of sale, return policies, and other relevant policies.

It is perfectly acceptable to leave out a reply envelope, which will also save money on the cost of printing and binding.

The Economics of Printing

In assembling a catalog you will need to make decisions about the format of the publication, the number of pages, and what color process to utilize. All will affect the cost of the print run and the effectiveness of the catalog.

Catalog Format

The most economical catalogs in terms of printing processes are:

standard full-size (8 3/8" x 10 7/8")
slim jim (6 1/8" x 11 1/2")
digest-size (5 3/8" x 8 3/8")

Unique Formats

Unique sizes do attract attention and can be highly effective vehicles to sell products. Be aware, however, that formats that diverge from "standard" sizes will add as much as 25 percent to the cost of paper and production.

Always discuss options to create a unique look or form factor with your printer. He may be able to offer economical "tricks of the trade" like using a standard size paper but binding it on the short side to create the illusion of a different format.

Number of Pages

Since heat-set web presses print in 16-page "signatures," printing in the same increments will be the least expensive approach. This would mean catalogs of 16, 32, 48 or 64 pages and so on. (The next best option is to design in increments of 8 (8, 24, 40, 56 and so on.)

Color Catalogs Sell

There's no question that if you can afford to print your catalog in color you will generate more attention and sales. Some catalogs experience a sales jump of 25 percent or more just by converting to color from a one or two-color format (with no change to the product line itself.)


In selecting paper for your catalog, cost will be the bottom line but also consider:

resistance - how the paper will hold up to handling and to being mailed
texture - glossy papers have a richer feel than pulp or matte papers

Remember that a catalog must withstand a fair degree of wear and tear but it also creates a physical reaction in the hands of the user. High quality paper suggests high quality products


Many of the considerations in choosing a binding are similar to those associated with paper. A binding needs to stand up to handling and mailing. The two most prevalent methods are:

perfect binding (like that used in paperback books)

In general, catalogs that are perfect bound and have a more "book-like" appearance are regarded as more "up scale.

Bringing All the Elements Together

By paying attention to how a reader's eye crosses the page and capitalizing on the prime upper-right hand spot, catalog design can direct the browser to review the entire company product line with a surprising degree of concentration and attention.

When a catalog takes on a personality and comes to be something the customer enjoys perusing, brand image has been achieved. No other piece of marketing material targets a niche audience as effectively as a well-designed catalog, which can be an excellent companion to an online or physical store presence.

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