Designing A Catalog From Conception To Completion - A Catalog Design Tutorial

Catalog Design Sketch Conception Process

Designing A Catalog From Conception To Completion

By Elle Phillips, Elle Phillips Design

We are very excited to have Elle Phillips guest write for us this week. Please visit her fabulous portfolio to see more of her wonderful work. You will find that this catalog design article is very well written, informative, and extremely helpful. She wrote this article to guide you through her own graphic design process, from conception to completion. Please feel free to contact us if you want to submit your article as well.
Big or small, no matter the client or subject, good design and implementation of that design should never be sacrificed. If you are handed a project where you need to create a new (or update an existing) marketing piece such as Packaging, Logo, Brochure, Catalog, etc. it is your job as a professional designer to make the piece appealing and functional not only to your client, but to their target market as well. Regardless of how the piece was designed in the past, embrace the challenge of updating that design for the future.

In the recent case of one of my clients, RT Foods, Inc., it became my job to create a fresh and up-to-date look for their 2008 Product Catalog – the product being a line of frozen foods under the brand name TigerThai®. Upon first inspection of their previous catalog, I realized all the technical information that was required would make redesign a challenge, but regardless, their products needed to be displayed in a clean, simple and elegant manner. Below, I describe the step-by-step process of how I accomplished this task.

Step 1: Research

Before starting any project, ask questions!

Who is the target market? Are there existing brand colors, elements, etc. that need to be maintained? Is there an existing logo that must be used? Is there a piece that has been done previously and, if so, what did the client like/dislike about that piece? What would the client like to see included in the new piece?

Get as much information as you can and it will save you time and hassle later on. You want to spend the bulk of your time, as a designer, creating an effective piece. Not sending a job to your client who is dissatisfied because they had a completely different idea in mind. As a bonus, you will gain an exceptional reputation as someone who knows what they’re doing.

So, in the case of RT Foods, they had an existing catalog from the previous year, but did not think it had the professional quality they preferred to send out to retailers (see the image below of the original cover and a sample of an inside spread). The purpose of the catalog was to convince retail businesses to resell the TigerThai® brand of frozen foods out of their stores. Each product page must include technical information such as nutrition facts, ingredients, allergens, box sizes, pallet sizes, UPC information and a detailed description and image of each product. RT Foods had a new package design they really liked and wanted to somehow emulate that image in their new catalog. Something else that was very important to this client: consistency. Much of the information had not been laid out in a consistent manner in the previous catalog, so attention to detail this time was imperative. With this information and more, I was able to get started.

Catalog Design Layout Spread

Step 2: Conception

When I started working as a designer over 11 years ago, the “cut and paste” era was coming to a close, giving way fully to computers. Still, nothing will ever compare to good ‘ole pencil and paper when it comes to the conception stage of design. In some cases of tight deadlines it’s okay to jump straight into your design programs and start a layout, but you may find that to be more time consuming in the long run if it turns out the design doesn’t work as well as you imagined in your head. Put your keyboard and mouse aside, pick up a #2, and sketch out some very basic layouts, called “thumbnail” sketches. There is no minimum or maximum required, just keep going until you have a couple of good, solid concepts.

Using the 2008 TigerThai® catalog as my example, you’ll see five quick sketches I came up with – three cover designs and two inside-page layouts:

Catalog Design Sketch Conception Process

Sometimes many sketches are required, but because I felt these were all solid ideas I moved on to the next stage.

Step 3: Full-Scale Mockups

I have found it’s always good to give your client a choice, but keep those choices limited to two or three concepts. If you give a client too many options, you’re likely to end up doing more work than is really necessary. So, once you’ve chosen your best two or three sketches, go ahead and start laying them out using a professional layout program such as QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign, or if you’re really inclined, you can make full color, hand-rendered mockups. I personally prefer a digital layout for the mockup stage because if one design is approved, then much of the work is already complete and it’s just a matter of revisions from this point on.

Note:DO NOT try to get client approval based on your thumbnails. Sketches like you see above are not enough quality or detail to give the client a good idea of what the actual catalog will look like.

For the 2008 TigerThai® Catalog, I used a combination of programs (Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign) to create two full mockups, each containing a cover design as well as a 2-page spread to go with it. Since I was limited on photography (this would be provided by the client later on) I used some basic stock photography marked with “FPO” (For Position Only) so they could get a decent idea of what those pages would look like. You will see some similarities in these layouts due to the information that is required to be on each page, but there are distinct differences in how type is treated and formatted, as well as placement and usage of images. Idea #1 includes a large graphic element in the center, while Idea #2 does not. This is because I didn’t know what was more important to the client: images or information. I would let them decide.

Catalog Design Covers Spread and Layout

Step 4: Approvals & Revisions

Now that my mockups are complete, proofed for spelling and accurate content (no matter what stage of layout you’re in, always spell check!) and include all the elements the client required, it’s time for client approval.

I have found the most widely acceptable format for proofs is PDF. I have not yet run into a client who did not have a copy of Acrobat Reader, and in some cases am lucky enough to work with someone who has a full working copy of Adobe Acrobat. With the full version, clients can make notes on the PDF document and get very specific with what changes they would like to make. This makes my job much easier and faster, but if a client prefers to review changes in person or over the phone, it is very important that you do your best to understand what they want.

Once I sent my two ideas to RT Foods, they responded quickly with an approval of Idea #1 and asked to see a sample layout of the entire catalog. This is a best-case scenario. Often I have run into clients who are so particular that we end up going through many rounds of revisions before they want to see a full layout. In the case of RT Foods, they had no hesitation: Idea #1 was exactly what they were looking for.

Step 5: More Approvals & More Revisions

Revisions are a way of life for any graphic designer. Only on the rarest of occasions have I designed something with 100% accuracy and approval from a client on the first try, so my best advice is to take every revision with a smile. As long as the revisions come from suggestions that were beyond your original knowledge, then feel good that you’re making progress. If a client comes back at you correcting your misspelled words, your mistakes or elements that you should have corrected from previous revisions, then you need to shape up and get your act together. Find a better way of organizing your notes, save multiple versions of your project, and proof everything multiple times. Fail to do this, and it may be the last time that client works with you.

Once I finished my idea of a complete catalog (still marking missing images with FPO) and submitted it to my client, then the real revisions began. The previous catalog, which I received most of my original information from, was riddled with mistakes. Everything from inconsistent formats to misspelled words and inaccurate UPC codes. Nothing is worse than trying to fix another designer’s mistakes. Plus, the previous catalog was laid out entirely in Illustrator. Why was this a problem? Because all the fonts were outlined into graphics, which meant all the copy had to be re-typed in order to edit it, not to mention the monstrous file size of each page. With client approval from the beginning, I laid out the new catalog using InDesign – QuarkXPress would have been acceptable as well.

Tip:When designing any layout, us a program that was designed for layout. When editing photos, use a program specifically designed for editing photos. When working with logos or illustrations, use a program that was designed for illustration. This will make life easier for you, and your client will appreciate that you are well rounded and know exactly what you’re doing. Attempting to lay out a 24-page catalog in Illustrator or Photoshop is just begging for trouble, because that isn’t what they were designed to do.

Finalized Catalog Design Layout Spreads

Step 6: Finalize for Press

There is a very large element to design that many designers regretfully forget: making your design print friendly! In my experience with printers, they tend to dislike graphic artists because there are so many problems at the press stage. As a designer, you should talk to your printer and find out what they require: rich black values, bleed requirements and live areas are most often the problems at press. If possible, send a sample of your layout to the printer during your revision process and get their feedback. You will gain higher respect from the printer and have fewer problems once the final design is sent to press, making (again) a better reputation for yourself as a designer who really knows what they’re doing. In the Freelance Design world, people talk, and reputation is very important.

Also, have full knowledge of how the program you’re working with prepares for press. More often than not a press-quality PDF will suffice, but there are times when you will need to send out native files with supporting images and fonts. Knowing your programs will allow you to manage whatever may be required.

The 2008 TigerThai® Catalog was my first project for RT Foods and I have since been handed the design efforts for their entire line of packaging, website and additional sales materials, ultimately meaning they are very happy with my work. Best of all, I enjoy working with them as well, and that makes a perfect relationship for any freelance designer. Enjoy what you do and who you do it for, and life will be very satisfying.

For more samples of my freelance graphic design portfolio, please visit my website at www.ellephillips.com. I encourage you to contact me there with any questions or comments. If you are an aspiring graphic designer, I hope you have found this article helpful and wish you the very best of luck in your endeavors!

[tags]catalog design tutorial, catalog design, catalog design tips, how to design a catalog, how to layout a catalog, design concepts, conceptual design, graphic design, design, graphic design tutorial, design mockups, graphic design mockups, mockup design, how to design, prepress, prepress tips[/tags]

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  1. simon
    Posted May 7, 2008 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    i am a graphic designer but new in the site.
    Its the most wonderful job guys can do really teach others online what graphic s entail.
    It surely will help me in my freelancing works.
    keep up but also i would like to see banner designs.

  2. thedesigner
    Posted May 15, 2008 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Thank You for a very helpful article of yours. How i wish i am good as you. Thanks again.

  3. deep
    Posted May 27, 2008 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    nice tutorial

  4. Posted July 26, 2008 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    Hi Its a fantastic tutorial, but yes just if some designs may be shown and the sizes of catalog in which it shud be made would be mentioned more clearly it wud b very helpful . Thanks for such a nice tutorial.

  5. Posted January 25, 2009 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    great job!

  6. Ben
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Typo in the tip section of step 5: When designing any layout USE a program……..

  7. Elizabeth Barrett
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Really appreciate the concept of start to finish tutorials. I am a instructor of graphic design for multimedia at the high school level. Sites that are visual and allow students to follow at their own rate is so important with the speed and growth of program software. Thank You:).

  8. Posted May 6, 2009 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Nice article, however it is more formalizing well known facts, then providing someting new. I would be interested in an article for product photography in regard to the catalog design.

  9. Joey Orozco
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Excellent in every aspect. And the fact you are open to help others to do better tells a lot.

  10. Posted March 28, 2011 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    i learned a lot on your article. thanks.

6 Trackbacks

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    Designing A Catalog From Conception To Completion - A Catalog Design Tutorial…

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    Designing A Catalog From Conception To Completion - A Catalog Design Tutorial Graphic Design Blog & Graphics News Blog…

    In the recent case of one of my clients, RT Foods, Inc., it became my job to create a fresh and up-to-date look for their 2008 Product Catalog – the product being a line of frozen foods under the brand name TigerThai®. Upon first inspection of their…

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