5 Catalog Design Fails

I’m asked to critique catalogs on a regular basis. Assessing catalog design is important, and I’m of the belief that we can “always do better.” I usually point out small deficiencies that alone do not make a big difference, but collectively they can affect results.

However, there are a few things I believe CAN sink your results, so I’m going to share the top five catalog design fails.

FAIL #1:

Not working your COVERS hard enough. Seriously, your front and back covers are hands-down your most important pages. They are the front doors of your business. If your covers don’t quickly grab attention – quickly say who you are and get the reader inside – then they’ve failed.

Also, remember that back covers are just as important as front. In fact, I consider them more important because the products and messages you place in this coveted space have the opportunity to trigger a need, desire or curiosity.

Sadly, covers are often an afterthought.


Not creating a sense of EXCLUSIVITY for your unique merchandise concept. This is a biggie because according to research conducted by the ACMA, the #1 reason people browse catalogs is because they are looking for something unique. Wow.

What do you do to express your unique merchandise assortment? Do you include visuals, copy or headlines that point to exclusivity or how you’ve edited your merchandise assortment?

Few catalogs do. Major fail.


Lack of ENGAGING spreads. Once upon a time, throwing a bunch of products on a catalog spread seemed to work for many brands. All you needed was a picture, a paragraph and a price-point. For most brands this no longer works.

We have become a society that demands entertainment. In fact, according to a Statistic Brain study, our attention spans have decreased from 12 seconds (in 2000) to 8.25 seconds (in 2015)… that’s less than a goldfish, which clocks in at 9 seconds!

Consumers want eye-candy. For catalogs, this means delivering visually interesting spreads that capture attention and pull the consumer in. This can be accomplished by creating relevant and engaging themes or stories for each spread, or because catalogs are a visual medium, using interesting product or lifestyle imagery.


Lack of BALANCE with visuals, text and density. This is a close cousin to Fail #3.

Creating balance in your catalog helps with engagement, which is proven with heat map research. If everything is the same – same-size visuals, same spread density, same repeated design – then consumers spend less time with your catalog. Period.

Great catalogs are designed as a whole, creating pacing with a variety of layouts.

Sometimes this requires risking valuable real estate for one or two products (or, what we like to call “hero products”.) And yes, real estate that presents aspirational or inspirational photography that isn’t always about selling a specific product engages the reader.

It also requires fearless copy editing. We are not a nation of readers anymore, as research suggests – 79% of consumers scan-read. You don’t need to tell them everything, just enough to pique their interest and state important facts.


Giving little thought to important CALLS-TO-ACTION. This is a pet peeve of mine. Catalog are meant to DRIVE activity. It’s not enough to place your phone number and URL at the bottom of the page. And, we’ve learned through heat maps that creating an icon that invites web traffic is not enough either (see blog post.)

Carefully crafted calls-to-action that invite the customer to either see more, learn more or engage online is a major role of the catalog. The copy invitation must be relevant, or provide a benefit to the reader, or else it’s wasted space.