Control-Beating Secrets from Magalog Master Rob Davis

Rob Davis has no formal education in direct-mail design. He's completely self-taught. Yet he's been working with top copywriters and setting records with his magalog designs since 1994.

Today, he shares his secrets with us.

IFD: How did you get started in design?

ROB: Pretty much by accident. I majored in banking and worked in it for a while. Then I moved from Hawaii to Vermont, where my brother lives. I was down to my last $10 when I got there, so my brother brought me into his business – marketing for a mutual fund company.

He showed me how to write copy, and I learned as I went. Every day, we spent an hour studying and discussing direct mail together. Over time, this gave me a pretty good foundation.

We created the promos from scratch, which meant designing them, too. While I was learning copywriting, I was also learning PageMaker. Design came to me a lot easier than writing, so I switched over completely.

IFD: When did you decide to specialize in magalog design?

ROB: Almost from the beginning – back in the early 90s, when it burst onto the scene as the hot new format. I liked the format instantly, because it offers a lot of real estate to make the sale. And it really pushes designer creativity, while sticking to solid DM rules.

IFD: How do you approach a magalog project?

ROB: When clients hire me, they're looking for something completely fresh to grab attention and beat the current control.

That's not likely to happen if I spin off of designs they've already done, so I don't do a lot of outside research. I don't want to be heavily influenced by other work. For the research I need, I spend time with the client, asking tons of questions. I spend lots of time reading and analyzing the promo copy. Sometimes the copywriter has specific instructions, but mainly I study the copy.

IFD: What's your routine for tackling a magalog project?

ROB: I read through the copy several times, highlighting key words and phrases to make sure they get emphasized in the design. From there, I lay out a template then flow in the copy.

I spend the bulk of my time formatting the copy until it stands alone without graphic elements. Once I'm satisfied with that, I create sidebars and put in placeholders for photos. Photos and other graphics come last, because I want them to be an almost invisible support for the copy being showcased.

IFD: How can a new designer break into magalog design?

ROB: First, make sure you're up to the task. Magalogs are much different from standard #10 packages. They take a lot of thought and commitment. But they're very rewarding from both a creative and financial standpoint.

Next, get on the mailing lists of companies that use magalogs. Study what they're mailing. Then, get in touch with a few of their marketing departments or with copywriters who are doing magalog copy. Ask if you can send them your samples. Don't worry if you don't have magalog samples, send what you have. Marketing directors will recognize your ability even if you send other types of designs. If your work is clean and done well, they'll see it.

Another idea: Take a #10 package that they're mailing. Turn it into a magalog and send that as a sample. And don't just show it to known magalog mailers. Show it to other clients and prospects who might benefit from testing this format – even if they've never used it before.

IFD: Any other advice to share on creating control-beating magalogs?

ROB: Once you land that magalog project, make sure your design is flawless before sending it off to the printer. Fixing a magalog at print stage is very expensive, so it's got to be technically sound before it ever leaves your computer.

Double-check to make sure …

  • graphics are all in CMYK instead of RGB
  • shadows overlap tightly
  • you've used good, reliable fonts – not cheapies that print poorly
  • colors are all set on “process”
  • sidebar backgrounds aren't too dark for the type
  • clipping paths on photos are set correctly so you don't have a white “halo” around the photo

It's a lot to think about. But if you turn in thoughtful, clean designs, you'll have work that'll make you proud and put you in high demand.

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Published: September 21, 2006

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