The Age-old Argument Artists Are from Mars, Marketers and Merc
By Lois Boyle and Beki Weight
It's true: The art department is located on a whole different planet than the rest of the catalog marketing machine.
Artists and graphic designers wear different clothes, visit different Web pages, and speak an entirely different language.
But as different as they may seem on the surface, beneath that lime green outfit usually beats the heart of a bona fide catalog professional dedicated to the same goal as other catalog professionals ... to sell products off the page.
Selling product is a team sport. The marketer's role on the team is to select the right audience to be contacted and the right time to contact them.
Meanwhile, the merchandiser's role is to select the right product with the right features at the right price.
And the artist's role is to communicate to the marketer's audience about the merchandiser's product, features and price. Getting all of these elements right makes for a blockbuster season.
But in order for the artist to spin the marketer's and the merchandiser's "rights" into a catalog strategy with bottom-line results, there's one little Rumpelstilskin that must always be invoked: communication. Nothing grows in a vacuum, least of all business.
Information is Key
There's a difference, however, between communication and talking—the difference is information. With information, a marketer can communicate his or her goals and creative strategies, and the merchandiser can communicate the purchase drivers and brand differentiators of the products.
With the marketer's and merchandiser's information in hand before the design phase begins, the artist won't jump up and down cursing the tie-wearing denizens of the marketing home world—that is, Venus.
What Artists Really Want
What kind of information does an artist want, and when does he or she want it? The short answer: as much as they can get and as early as possible. The long answer involves four major segments of essential information that allow an artist to craft a creative presentation to support the marketing objectives.
1. Brand Identity.
This is the first (and most-often neglected) information an artist requires. Whether designing a template for a catalog startup or redesigning existing creative, it's vital for the artist to understand the unique positioning in the marketplace, as well as the goals of the brand identity.
As virtually every design decision, from fonts to color palette, must support the catalog's brand, it's essential that the artist be clear on not only the established elements of brand identity but also those elements that currently may be detracting from the desired effect.
Any new goals that have been established to evolve the brand identity into a more desirable market niche must be communicated. The creative voice, the market niche, the target demographics, the strategic agenda and goals ... all must be clearly discussed before the design phase begins.
If a visual identity already exists, create a style manual detailing every possible attribute of the catalog identity. Fonts, color palette, copy conventions, logos, icons, naming conventions and anything else that's been established as standards must be included.
A photography style manual may be helpful, and it should include visual representations of brand-enhancing materials and colors to be used as guidelines for choosing/creating backgrounds, surfaces and propping in the photography stage.
Finally, a catalog's special service attributes should be discussed. When a catalog offers unique services or extraordinary skill or product, the brand identity should build upon these competencies and brand differentiators at every available opportunity.
In the design process, there are many opportunities for an artist to visually reinforce these important brand messages.
2. Marketing Strategy.
It's important for the artist to understand the catalog cycle goals, as well as exactly who comprises the target audience. Different strategies—both visually and conceptually—apply when appealing to an established customer base, compared to when you address a prospect.
Understanding the average order value goals—as well as special offers and versioning—will help your artist create more productive, bottom line-driven concepts and to maximize opportunities to speak more appropriately and individually to your customer segments.
Of all the information, probably the most important to the artist is merchandising.
Because the ultimate task of any catalog designer is to visually represent the product in a way that drives sales, specific and complete merchandise information becomes the bones of any concept or design. Product tearsheets or pictures before the layout stage are essential, as are spec sheets and listings of special features or benefits.
In order to represent a product effectively, the artist must understand it and visualize it. She must develop an accurate perception of size and be able to define what it is about a particular product that will drive the customer to buy.
The artist must then decide on the most effective way to visually represent the product so benefits are clear to the customer, as well as irresistibly motivational. That's a heck of a task, but it becomes an insurmountable one when the only description the artist has to work from is that the product is "big, round and purple."
In a perfect world, every artist wants to have the product in-hand to poke, twist and bounce about the office before beginning the layout/design phase. But often the reality is that the product isn't readily available at such an early stage.
Because there often are special needs or limitations to photographing a product, and because there also are extensive propping considerations to be considered in any full catalog shoot, all product should be on-site at least three days before a shoot begins.
Only then can the artist properly plan the environment for each shot and identify and address any spec sheet mis-implications that invalidate the original plan for shooting the product.
Then there is the artist's bane: vendor-supplied photography. It's no secret that every artist would prefer to shoot the entire product in any catalog they design.
In addition to giving the artist layout flexibility and image quality control, controlling product shoots insures that products will be represented in a way that's both brand-enhancing and that portrays all the benefits in the best light. However, vendor-supplied photography has become a virtual given in today's catalog market; and as necessary evils go, it can be quite a time and money saver.
To make vendor-supplied photography work for the bottom line rather than against it, images must be supplied before the design phase, and there always must be a quality-control checkpoint.
Every artist needs the discretion to refuse vendor photography when it's inadequate, or at least to be able to alter the photo for improvements. Poor photography, lighting, benefit representation, resolution, brand-enhancing environment ... all these are good reasons to re-shoot a product for which a vendor has supplied a photograph.
The question to ask: Will the value of the new presentation outweigh the cost of a re-shoot? The product must earn the space it's given in the book. Poor benefit representation, or muddied or bit-mapped resolution, can cripple the product's ability to earn its keep.
Lastly in the merchandising information segment is the identification of hero products in the design phase. Everyone saves time and frustration if the merchandiser can identify which products should be featured based on sales, margin and brand-enhancement value. If you let the artists choose, they'll always pick the really neat looking indigo ostrich plume clock.
Why? Because artists are visual folks, and that ostrich plume clock is too much of a visual temptation for even the most Mars-literate among them to resist.
4. Production Specifications.
A successful production phase is predicated entirely upon having accurate technical information up front. Both the printer and the production coordinator should verify specs to be certain they meet all postal regulations and printer requirements before a single copy block is laid in place.
Because so many designers now use computers to layout books in the design phase, printer templates, bleed specifications, margin requirements, trim sizes and other relevant technical information should be given to the artist in writing at the project kickoff.
Once the production arc has begun, your catalog's revisions should be managed in an orderly and organized fashion. Copy conventions and guidelines always are helpful for proofreaders to know, so each new set of eyes is not re-inventing the wheel of the proofer before them.
And be sure to consolidate all edits onto one set of proofs; this drastically reduces the moans wafting through the air from the art department. It also assures that no revisions get overlooked in the shuffle between multiple sets of proofs with duplicate, and often contradictory, revisions.
Artists Want the Same Things
There you have it. So what do artists want?
As surprising as it may seem, all that artists want is the same thing marketers and merchandisers want: namely, to create profitable catalogs that enhance the company's brand identity while blowing all previous sales records—and the competition—right out of the water.
The only real difference is that artists want to do it while wearing lime green outfits.
You want attention-grabbing covers that stand out in the mail? You want mouth-watering, bite-off-the-page product? You want to increase your average order value with bundling and upsell concepts?
Sit down and tell your catalog designer everything you know about the company's brand identity, marketing strategy, merchandising agenda and production specifications—and your artists will do that for you and more.
After all, they are artists ... hear them roar. In Venusian, of course.
Lois Boyle is partner and chief creative officer and Beki Weight is senior art director of J. Schmid & Associates, Shawnee Mission, KS. You can reach Lois by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.