How to Make a Catalog - Detailed Guide

by Stefano Bernardi 19 minutes to read

Today's content is all about one of the oldest and most effective sales tools in the business world - catalogs, or more precisely, how to create one.

Since we have a lot to talk about and learn, here is the structure of this content. Knowing where we're heading might be useful to you, especially if you want to skip ahead or go over some specific parts:

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Introduction to Catalogs

What is a catalog and why is it important?

Catalogs — when done correctly — can have a huge positive impact on your business.

They are one of the oldest marketing tools and they can help you promote new products, raise brand awareness, increase sales, and more.

In what formats can catalogs be created?

Nowadays, creating a catalog is always done digitally.

Companies and graphic designers use a type of software called desktop publishing software (DTP).

What is a DTP software?

To put it simply, a DTP software is like Microsoft Word but with more powerful layout functionalities.

When compared to Word, with a DTP software it's easier to:

    • maintain a consistent and beautiful layout
    • add tables and data
    • place images
    • add a style to your text

The most famous, and most used, DTP software is Adobe InDesign.

I'd say 90% of the people who created a catalog in the last 20 years probably used InDesign, but if you are up for something different, I also made a list of the best DTP software solutions you can find out there.

What type of catalogs can you create?

From this digital catalog created in the DTP software of your choice, you will be able to produce:

  • a printed catalog; or
  • a digital catalog

One type of publication is not an alternative to the other.

A printed and/or digital version can be used in different situations and for different reasons.

Don't forget that since a catalog is a very important tool, you should also focus on making it:

  • attractive: have a good design (you can hire a designer or start from a template if you are on a budget)
  • functional: match your reader's expectations (what does your reader need and expect to find and what can you do to deliver just that - stick with me, I'll explain this later on).

If you need inspiration, here you can find the 50 best catalog templates I found online.

Printed Catalogs

The era we are living in is shaped by technology and digital products. But marketing experts believe this traditional marketing tool is here to stay for years to come.

I believe printed catalogs are irreplaceable because:

  • they help you triumph over the digital clutter. Unlike a digital catalog that might get lost amongst the other e-mails, a printed catalog will always land in the customer's hands.
  • user-friendly: there's no need for a computer or speedy internet; it's simple to flip through and look for products; it's easy to bookmark a page and go back to it in matter of seconds. All of this is more difficult if you're doing it on a tiny screen.
  • it's a real object. A digital document can be deleted with a single click. It's a painless instant action that requires no effort. Instead, throwing away a real object — like a physical catalog — requires effort. You at least have to walk to the bin. If you analyse your own behavior, or the behavior of the people around you, you might notice the importance of this difference. I, for example, moved to a new apartment a year ago and I still have last year's catalog from IKEA!
  • constant brand exposure: once a catalog is printed and on your reader's table it can be flipped hundreds of times by people living there, family, friends, relatives; its physical presence makes it constantly available which makes your brand constantly exposed to customers.
  • easier to understand: 21% less cognitive effort when compared to digital media - read the interesting neuroscience research here.

Digital Catalogs

Digital catalogs are a digital equivalent of the printed catalogs. They are built with the same tools (DTP software).

Generally they are in a PDF format and they give you different opportunities as they:

  • are cost-effective: you have no printing and no distribution costs, which for you might translate into more budget for other marketing activities.
  • can be interactive: you can add links to your website or e-commerce, and videos or other forms of interaction and create a complete selling experience.

Printed Catalogs vs Digital Catalogs

Printed Catalog Digital Catalog
Advantages

Great experience for all 5 senses → best experience proven by researches

Improves brand exposure → once printed and delivered, with its physical presence will constantly expose your brand to new readers

Easier to update and change the information in it;

Multiple practical analytical features;

The option to add interactive elements and videos;

No printing or distribution costs;

Disadvantages It can be costly to print out many copies and distribute them.

It can get lost in the digital clutter and be easily deleted;

Low emotional value;

Both printed and digital catalogs have their pros and cons but they shouldn't convince you to choose one type over the other. Instead, you can get the most and best out of both types by combining them together in a multi-channel marketing strategy.

In my post "Should printed marketing collateral die?" you can learn more about the science (and data) we know so far on the topic.

Can I create it on my own?

The short answer is - probably not.

Many think a single graphic designer has to create a catalog on their own, but this is only partially true - an entire team is included in the creation of a single catalog.

I'm talking about product developers, marketers, digital teams, sales experts, creatives, trend directors, and merchandisers, and they all have a different role.

Tasks and people behind the development of a catalog

Data collection: product developers are generally held accountable for collecting all the information related to the products. It's important that they speak with the designer to understand how to prepare the data to simplify the layout development

Product order, descriptions, important information: the marketing team (or person) is generally in charge of explaining each product and clarify the differences. The goal should be to help someone from outside the company easily understand each product offer.

Product Pricing: depending on the dimension of the company, pricing could be a responsibility of the business owner or the marketing team supported by the finance team. Make sure every decision on this aspect is done before collecting the data.

Layout and design: this part is generally taken care by a graphic designer. You might have someone in your team ready to help you, or you could outsource the task to a consultant. If you are in a rush or on a tight budget, or you simply prefer to do things on your own, a good solution could be using a pre-made catalog template (useful also for inspiration).

There might even be more people and other teams involved in the process. But the important thing is that everybody shares the same goal: make it easier for a non-informed reader to learn more about your business.

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Where to begin when creating your catalog?

Before you start creating your catalog, you should have a clear understanding of these four points. They will indirectly determine the success of your catalog.

1. Determine the objectives of the catalog

The absolute number one step when creating a catalog is determining catalog's purposes, objectives, and goals.

Are you sending people to a store? Are you trying to send them to your website? Do you want to generate new customers or increase sales among existing ones? Is it just informative? Or are you looking into promoting new products, services, or offers?

Knowing your catalog's goals will give you the ability to measure its success.

For example, if your goal is to get more people to your website, with the help of a promo code placed in your catalog, you could figure out how many new people "landed" on your website.

2. Know your audience

Identifying the best audience for your catalog is the next crucial step.

It's important because so you can:

    • deliver to relevant people only: your catalog won't end up in the wrong hands, or even worse - in the trash; and
    • better understand your readers: you'll understand what your readers value, understand how they compare your products (within the catalog or with possible competitors), learn how to help them quickly access the information that is important to them, and then give them "more info" as they are interested to learn more about your offer.

That's why is vital to:

    1. study your best customers (create a "buying persona" - gather demographic data such as age and gender, and psychographic data such as habits and lifestyle)
    2. create a list of sources that match this profile (a high-quality mailing list, a list of the best businesses to work with, etc.)

This way, you'll end up delivering your catalog only to people relevant to your business.

3. The market you are entering

    • Do market research: gather valuable insights about your competitors and how they approach the market.

This will give you a general idea of your current position, what to focus on, how to fit into your target market, where you'll be heading in the future, and how hard will it be to get there.

4. The products you are placing

Here are some qualities your products ought to have.

Remember though, that these qualities are not "one shoe that fits all". Consider all the above-mentioned points such as your goals, customers, and the targeted market.

Always think about a certain specific quality (a good one of course) that helps you "stand out from the crowd".

Attributes of a "Winning Product"

Uniqueness (stands out from the crowd) Useful: does it solve a problem? Does it offer a solution? Emphasize that. Clear product value and appropriate placement on the market
Mass Appeal (fits into lives of versatile demographic groups) Intuitive, easy-to use and easy to explain (low attention span - your readers should understand your product without much effort) Before and after transformations - include when available (differences achieved with your product can be a powerful marketing tool)
Multifunctional and multi-featured Credibility (include testimonials from previous customers and experts) Proven Results

Remember that the attention span is always very low, so communicate all this to the reader quickly and directly. Make it easier for them to understand who you are and why each product exists.

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Answers to some crucial questions

How can you make people read your catalog?

Creating an attractive catalog that sells too is all about a catalog being both:

  • well-designed (achieved with designer's help or a great pre-made template); and
  • functional

Design aside, functionality is all about:

    1. knowing how people read (and making the most of it in terms of layout to get the best response from the reader)
    2. having a proper structure (easy and logical navigation through the catalog)
    3. matching your reader's expectation (answer your reader's needs)

How do people read a catalog?

Reading catalogs is done - left to right and top to bottom.

This means that the most important information should be on the left upper part of the page.

However, consider that when a page is turned (from right to left) - the focus is on the right-hand page because it's revealed before the left page, meaning page three is a bit more important than page two, page five more important than four, and so on.

Do you have a deal/product/offer that your readers cannot miss? Simple: place it in the upper left part of the right-hand page.

How do you structure a catalog?

Setting a proper structure is key because it will give your readers the ability to flip through your catalog without effort and understand everything.

Give them a visual path to follow (a pattern).

Educational article illustration

image source

No one likes chaos, tiny letters that are hard to read, and pages so different that seem like they are from two different catalogs.

If it's too difficult to follow, no one will read it - let alone purchase from it.

Here is what to pay attention to:

    • Create a unified appearance: present the product's data in the same way/order
    • Table of Contents & product categories: this will simplify the process of finding a certain product
    • Add strong headlines, descriptive subheadings, and powerful first sentences
    • Limit the typefaces: two or three in the entire catalog creates a consistent look

Does your catalog match your reader's expectations?

Walk in your reader's shoes or at least think like them for a bit.

Think about what are they expecting from your catalog? What does your reader need? How can you successfully deliver it?

Let's say you are selling furniture and you plan on creating a catalog. The latest trends in the interior design industry are these wholesome pictures with people enjoying themselves, warm colors, happy faces and moments.

Yes, you are not only selling furniture but an entire experience - saying "we share the same values with You".

If that's what your reader expects, and cares for, provide just that - answer your reader's needs.

How do you organize the products in your catalog?

Organizing the products in your catalog should be done according to the reader's needs.

Think intuitively. Think about how your customers will consume the content of your catalog.

What do your readers want to see first? How do they go through the catalog? Will all of the pages be read? Or are your readers looking for specific products?

Answering these questions will tell you how to organize the products.

In most cases, the products are arranged according to:

    • demand, sales, and profit: the most popular and profitable products come first and have more space
    • alphabetically: in some industries where this is important - such as the medical one
    • by categories: similar products go together - easier navigation
    • by price: in cases where this is a key factor for your readers

This list is a basic one and can go on - according to product's usage, color, size, etc.

Always think about your reader and organize the products that way.

How do you define each product individually?

    • Only add the needed information: include just the vital information, remove everything that is not necessary (make sure you include all the key differences between similar products - it will ease up the decision-making process)
    • Focus on advantages: make sure you point out your advantages, especially in comparison to your competition. Even more, create a clear distinction between the products you are offering (their quality, benefits, differences, pricing).
    • Summarize product's content: when possible create bullet points with the product's main characteristics or maybe add a table (people don't read content, they scan it to find what they are looking for)
    • Add helpful icons: this will help readers compare the products faster and more efficiently; try to limit the number of icons below 5. Too many will make them useless as the reader won't remember their meaning

Instead of being a product promoter aim to become a trusted advisor (strive to be of value and the success/sales/positive outcome will follow).

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What elements do you need when making a catalog?

Preparation is key when creating a catalog and a huge part of it is collecting the elements you'll need.

Do this right and the creation process will be way faster. Your team will make less mistakes, meaning less corrections and less edits.

Here is a list of every element you'll need:

      • Product data (descriptions, technical details, and tables)
      • Images

Product data

1. Descriptions - Make them on point.

    • Don't make them too long: let people understand quickly what you are talking about. If it's too much effort, they will go to the competition. Remember that the attention span is very low. Give yourself a limit (ex. "maximum 300 characters") and make sure each description is within the limit.
    • Sell the benefits, not the features: no one likes to read technical and hard-to-understand data. Instead, explain how your product will improve the life/career/business/or status in society of those who purchase it. If some of the features are important to the reader, don't add them to the description but consider adding them to a list.

2. Technical details

Make sure to make them easy to read and access. The reader should be able to understand the data without effort.

      • name and price; code and barcode of the product
      • product's category and subcategory
      • technical information (such as size, height, the weight of the product)

3. Tables - A lot of information and a need to compare the products? - Add a table.

      • offers a better understanding of the products
      • simplifies the most important data

*Tables are particularly practical when there are dozens of products and pages.

Images

    • Products in a real-life setting: this will bring your products closer to your potential customer - make them fit into your customer's lifestyle.
    • Choose high-quality images

Remember, images speak louder than words. Can you explain how to use the product with a picture or an image? If yes, do that. Everything that helps your readers understand your products with a minimum effort is welcome.

How do you collect all these elements?

Data can come from many forms such as a business database, Excel documents, or other publications.

It can be hard to deal with the amount of information that is generally required to produce a catalog. And if you don't organize this step properly, chaos will ensue.

To ease up the process of creating a catalog, I collect the elements this way:

    • product-related information (in an excel file)
    • product tables (separately in another excel file)
    • introductions and other textual content (in a word file)

This way, you'll have "all the pieces of the puzzle" when the time comes.

How do you collect the product-related information?

During this step, I generally create a table in Excel. I ask my team, or the client, to fill up the table with all the names of the products, and then divide them into groups of similar products.

I then ask them to make a list of all the data we should collect (product code, short and long descriptions, list of advantages, etc.) and add them as columns in the Excel file.

Finally, the person in charge proceeds by collecting all the data.

Collecting the product data should be done in a structured, simple, and easy-to-understand way.

If you choose to follow my process, make sure that there are no missing cells in the Excel document. If there are - you'll have to go back and double-check, and when dealing with hundreds of products, this will take a lot of time and effort.

Excel document example

The more organized - the better.

How do you collect the product tables?

If you need product tables with detailed information, you should collect them separately in excel files and place them in the same data folder.

There is no right or wrong way here, but I suggest doing it this way because it will ease up the process of putting your catalog together.

How do you collect the document introduction and other textual content?

Collecting all the textual content can be done with the help of a Word document.

Having all the needed information upfront will be helpful and time-saving.

This includes all the additional information: introduction and final pages, explanations about the brand, chapter openings, and every other textual content you might have in mind.

Why collect them this way?

Data is the foundation of your catalog.

In its core, a catalog is nothing more than bits of information presented in an appealing and understandable way.

Collecting the data in a unified and structured way gives order to the huge amount of information you have to deal with throughout this process.

The excel document will also be:

    • a product's guide: see and control every product that goes in and choose the way your products will be laid out in your catalog; and
    • a base of information: everyone on the team should understand this file - this will be crucial for an easy collaboration between everyone included in the creating process; plus
    • it helps with cooperation: everybody understands and knows how to edit an Excel document (or a spreadsheet in Google Drive).

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What tools are used to create a catalog?

Almost every catalog is created digitally with the help of a DTP software.

Some of the most popular are:

    • Adobe InDesign (for professional work) - the majority of catalogs are produced using InDesign
    • QuarkXpress (the alternative for professionals)
    • Scribus (the free solution)
    • Microsoft Publisher
    • Affinity Publisher (the alternative for hobbyists)

Check my post on Desktop Publishing Software for a detailed review of all five solutions.

InDesign is the industry standard for design and layouts, for that reason in the content that follows, I've chosen to create "my catalog" using InDesign.

If you too choose InDesign, I suggest taking an InDesign course before you dive into the creative process.

One of the advantages of using InDesign is that there are a lot of templates available for this software that you can use to save time or as inspiration. Here is a wide selection of 50 InDesign Catalog Templates (download a free one, or purchase a paid one).

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What parts of a catalog are essential?

Here are the key pages of almost every catalog:

    • Front and back cover
    • Table of contents
    • Main pages with products (focus on catalog's layout)
    • Introduction and final pages (optional)

1. Front and back cover

These two pages are of great importance because they are the first to be seen. Their most basic elements are an interesting photo, a catchy headline, and your company's elements (logo, colors, branding elements, etc.).

Encouraging your readers to look inside the catalog can be done by adding:

    • strong benefit claims: emphasize the best features of the most popular products
    • unique opportunities: intrigue your readers with a good offer they cannot miss such as a discount, free trial or product, or something premium
    • captivating graphics: make your readers turn the cover page - and start reading

Tease but don't reveal the entire story!

Catalog cover page example Ikea

image source

2. Table of contents

TOC is an unavoidable element, especially in multi-page product catalogs.

It is a key element because it will add a structure to your catalog, make it more user-friendly, and serve as a "road map" for your readers.

In InDesign, make sure you are using Paragraph Styles to add formatting to your text. Use a Paragraph style for the name of each section, one for the name of the product, and so on.

By using Paragraph styles, you can automate the creation (and update) of your Table of Contents. This will save you time and make creating a table of contents in InDesign an effortless task.

The same feature is also useful with digital PDFs because you can automatically add bookmarks when exporting the PDF. This means that you can click on a row in the TOC and go to that specific product instantly.

3. Main Pages with products (Catalog's Layout)

This is where everything I've explained above comes together.

Catalog's layout is about creating a visual rhythm for your main pages to guide your readers.

What's important to your reader?

Viewing the image? Make it larger. Reading the description? Make it bolder. Or maybe it's all about comparison? Create a table.

Coming up with a few different layouts is a designer's job, but you will be the one who has to make the proper choice based on everything we've spoken about.

In InDesign, there are features such as InDesign master pages and paragraph styles that allow you to keep a consistent layout and style for both your pages and paragraphs.

This way your catalog will have a more consistent and professional design. All the while you will be improving your workflow, productivity, saving valuable time, and making fewer mistakes.

A significantly sped-up and more efficient workflow can be achieved by automating some parts of the layout.

Here is how to do it.

    • Textual data and link to images (Data merge)

If the layout is a "fixed" one, automating some parts of it can be done with the data merge feature (particularly great with a repetitive layout such as a catalog's).

This feature will allow you to merge a data source file (in .csv or .txt format) with a prototype-layout document.

    • Tables ("Create links when placing text and spreadsheet files" feature)

Automating tables can be done by linking any Excel spreadsheet to InDesign.

Once InDesign creates a link with the chosen spreadsheet, every change you make in the spreadsheet itself will reflect in your InDesign document.

This way, when editing your spreadsheet in Excel, you won't have to:

      • manually edit the table element in your InDesign documents; or
      • re-import the altered tables

4. Introduction and final pages (alternative)

These pages are not always necessary but you can use them to tell the story of your company, add additional information on why the reader should trust your brand, add information that helps get in contact with your company, or maybe explain how they can buy a product.

Think about answering some potential questions and doubts your readers might have, or placing some information you haven't found the right spot for.

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How do you produce your catalog in many other languages?

Producing your catalog in many other languages doesn't have to take weeks or cost a fortune.

Multi-language layout

For some companies, it's more efficient to create one single catalog and add all translations in the same layout. That way, they only need to print a single document and deal with a single publication.

But this choice doesn't work for everybody. In some cases it might even work against you.

A layout with more that one language is harder to access and read. Many languages add confusion.

Single language layout allows you to take advantage of automation

Besides being much easier to read, a document with one single language is also much easier to produce because you can add automation to your workflow.

Our own Redokun, for example, is a tool that allows you to upload your catalog in the cloud (in IDML file format) and download all the translated versions of your document.

With Redokun you can:

    • invite your team to translate the sentences from a web interface
    • export all phrases, send them to be translated, import back the translations and download the translated document
    • deal with updates and document revisions instantly
    • use machine translation to lower the cost of translation and speed-up the process

If you are curious to see how Redokun can help your team, try it with our 14-day free trial.

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Costs of creating a catalog

The creation of a catalog is a complex process in which many people are included. Even more, catalogs are so versatile that the chances of finding two same ones are close to zero.

This is why there is no single calculation/equation to tell you the costs of creating and producing a catalog.

However, here are a few helpful things.

Types of costs

    • Designing costs: all of the planning, organization, and strategy, art direction, design and layout, copywriting, photography, illustration, page production, and pre-press.The bigger and more complicated the catalog - the higher these costs will be.
    • Printing costs: affected by various aspects such as:
      • format and size: the most common sizes for catalogs are A5, A4, and B5 (these are chosen because they are more suitable for mail purposes and cost effective because of their weight)
      • paper type: glossy, matte, or silk with different thickness - choose according to the impression you want to make on your readers - it's proven that a high-quality paper has a more positive impact
      • number of copies: higher number of copies is usually more cost-effective
      • number of pages: more pages - more expensive to print
      • special finishes or requests
      • type of binding: Saddle Stitch (method with staples - suitable for catalogs that have 64 pages or less) and Perfect Binding (glue method - suitable for very thick catalogs)

Here is a practical calculator that will help you with calculating the approximate printing costs.

There you have it, how to create a catalog!

Don't be scared or overwhelmed, know where you're heading with it, gather the data, choose your preferred tools, and you are good to go.

I encourage you to try everything out! What was your favorite part, the most difficult or easiest one?

Reach out, I would love to hear how your catalog turned out.

Stefano Bernardi
Stefano Bernardi

Stefano has worked on numerous mid to large–sized InDesign projects for Alstom, DeLonghi, Philips, and many others before starting Redokun in 2015.
As Redokun’s Co-Founder, Stefano spends most of his time helping customers to optimize their InDesign work-flow. He also holds in-house InDesign courses for companies in the Venice, Italy area.

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