Contrast, Composition, Content or Content, Composition, Contrast

By Ari Weinzweig for Specialty Food Magazine
Editor's Note: In Part One of a two-part series on how content, composition and contrast can help you sell product and build awareness, we look at the graphic design process and how it should be structured for maximum impact.

You are probably familiar with this scenario. A person working the cheese counter runs up to the signmaker (the man or woman with the most artistic talent amongst your staff) and says, “I need a sign for that new cheddar. Can you do it by the end of the day?

The diligent, well-meaning artist races off to where he can do that creative work, spends four hours making a big beautiful poster, then hustles it back to the counter person, who looks at it and says, “Not that cheddar. The other one. Plus that sign is way too big—I only have a quarter wheel.

Talk about frustration! No one wins. The cheese seller has no sign. The signmaker is upset because he did four hours of creative work for nothing. And the business, having paid wages to accomplish little, loses big time.

Calling for Content
Even more frustrating is when the crew gets the product right; the drawing on the sign is great. But the copy? Not so good. No real information; nothing to make the customer want to buy the cheese. The sign is perfectly usable though, so it hangs above the counter. It gets attention but then accomplishes nothing. Sales don’t soar. The signmaker feels good about his art, but the sign isn’t very successful.

You can spin the same scenario with banners, newsletters, websites or any other design work. And it’s not limited to specialty food stores. This same disconnect takes place with well-known ad agencies that collect big bucks to do marketing work.

The problem is that the process was flawed. Ineffective design often happens because the signmaker/graphic designer/marketing person does not get meaningful content up front from the experts. Without that content, they rely only on their art skill, which makes for great art but ineffective selling.

Everybody who operates a business can benefit by working wisely with designers, even when they know nothing about sign making, ad creation or brochure layout. (Don’t be scared by the term “designer—it can mean a 16-year-old part-timer who gets assigned to make signs because he can draw well.) But the business owner or manager will not benefit if they send a designer off to design without any meaningful information on what they should be selling.

Teaching Merchandising: Contrast, Composition and Content
Five years ago, Becky Winkler, who co-teaches our ZingTrain “Award-Winning Merchandising seminar, introduced me to an approach that helps to make for effective (read “sells more product") design. The concept is called the “3 Cs, which stands for Contrast, Composition and Content. In a nutshell, it works like this: Your eye is drawn in by good use of visual contrast, your attention is held by effective composition, and the actual sale is made by the content.

In detail, it works like this:

Contrast: This is what catches your attention. It’s just “getting wild, doing something extraordinary or unusual in the design that will make consumers stop and notice a sign or ad. It could be bold colors; unique shapes; an effective color palette (like yellow with black); three-dim-ensional stuff stuck to the sign, and so on. Good contrast gets the customer to stop and take notice.

Composition: The composition holds your attention. To make it effective, we must prioritize things on the sign; organize it so the customer’s eye will go first to the most important information, making it easier to read the material.

We always have three pieces of information on a sign:

1. The name of the product (something meaningful, catchy, appealing)

2. A good reason to buy it (if unconvinced when you read the copy, the reason probably isn’t good enough)

3. The price (we want customers to realize the item is for sale and know up front what we’re charging)

Generally, the name is given the biggest size/priority/space. If the visual contrast caught your eye, the composition should hold it. For instance, if you see “Amazing Farmhouse Cheddar boldly stated across the top of the sign and you’re interested in cheese, we have your attention. Regarding the other two (a reason to buy and the price) sometimes the price gets more priority, sometimes the copy itself.

Content: Ultimately, the content is the point. It’s the copy. The information. The substance. The reason why the customer should spend money on your product when there are thousands of others for sale.

So, it’s kind of simple. The contrast gets their attention. The composition holds it. And the content sells them on the product.

Effective Design Works Best Backwards
Interestingly, effective design actually works in the other direction. It starts with content, moves to composition and only lastly gets into the contrast. Effective design always starts with content, not with images.

There’s lots of so-called wisdom about “selling the sizzle, not the steak. The “sizzle is the contrast; it’s hip, cool and looks inviting. But the design needs to start with the steak. A skilled signmaker never even thinks about the design of the sign—i.e., the contrast and composition—until they have a good sense of the content. Since their job is to sell the product, they need to know as much as possible. For instance:

• How was the product made?
• Why is it special?
• What does it look like?
• What does it taste like?
• What does it smell like?

The more information the designer has, the more effectively they will design. This is no different than what we’d expect of in-store staff. If they have not been well-trained in the details of what they’re purveying, they cannot sell effectively.

The designer should ask:

• What’s the price?
• How much are we planning to sell?
• What customers are we targeting?
• How will the customer use the item?
• What is the budget?
• Is it a profitable item?

Like any resource, the time and materials spent on marketing and design are an investment. And we should invest well—if the product’s potential sales are insignificant, we should not create a beautiful poster.

The designer should also know the following: How long will we carry the product? Should the marketing piece last a long time or should we make it inexpensive because we will only have the product for a few days? Will the sign be on the front door, where you have seconds for people to read it or will it be posted where customers are waiting?

Dining Before Designing
It’s a credit to everyone who’s worked on our posters, newsletters, mail-order catalogs, labels, menus, websites, seminar brochures, etc. that Zingerman’s has received a lot of recognition for design work. While all who’ve contributed are talented, it’s not just creativity that makes the work effective. They have been well-versed in not just doing “fun or “different layouts or illustrations (i.e. focusing on contrast), but rather in doing effective design. And one of the first things they learn is to always, always, always, start with content.

Before they start working on the newsletter layout, they read the copy to learn about the products we’re selling. They taste the food; they look at it, smell it and touch it. They’ll talk with the staff who purchase and then sell the product or meet with the chef who has created the monthly specials.

It’s not always easy for the designers to get this information from the food folks. Usually, we have it in deep in our heads where no one else can see it. We’re busy and think we don’t have time to talk to someone who’s already “supposed to know how to do design. It’s only through training and strong systems to support the people doing the work on both ends that we’ve improved the effectiveness of our design work.

Our system includes a “project worksheet. It’s not fancy but it does require us to communicate to the designer what we’re trying to accomplish. Only when the designer understands that content, our vision of the future, can she or he do a good job.

Our role, as the leaders and product experts, is to share the content of what we have to sell. We need to tell the designers about it, sell it to them so they’re as excited as we are, to communicate the financial goals; this provides a framework within which they can use their creativity to develop something special. Something that’s ultimately going to sell more food. (For a copy of the design worksheet, contact ZingTrain.)
So, to restate: The customer’s take on any poster or pamphlet starts with the contrast, then moves to composition, and only then gets to the heart of the matter, the content. But effective design work goes in completely the opposite order.

1. Content: Designer and product expert review the content. The product experts need to teach anyone we’re asking to do design why the products are special, how we see them succeeding down the road, why we’re excited about them.

2. Composition: Then we need to tell the designer how things should be prioritized, what we think are the most important points to convey. In other words, establish an information hierarchy so that the designer can organize things appropriately.

3. Contrast: This is where a designer will already excel, using their natural skills and training to create something special. When we’ve given them the material they need (content) and ranked it in order of importance (composition/information hierarchy), then they can do all that magical design that they know how to do so well.

When that happens, sales will go up.