January 27

The Paper Catalog: Dinosaur or Template for Today’s Website Development?

By Philip Sorrells

January 27, 2021

The Paper Catalog: Dinosaur or Template for Today’s Website Development?

When I first started working as an engineer, I shared an office with three other engineers. We took turns using a single computer (and shared two ashtrays, all of which were full all the time!). We also shared dozens and dozens of vendor catalogs printed on paper. I honestly cannot remember a single day when I was not thumbing through a catalog for some reason. Most were well-worn, with pages of important information earmarked. We made photocopies and, yes, we sent faxes of those photocopies and handwritten notes.

Much later in my career I became a product manager and had the responsibility for publishing my company’s catalog. What an undertaking that was! We would take each page, tape it on the wall of a conference room, and have the engineers and sales guys review them. They would walk in with sticky notes and mark up everything that was out of date and needed to be changed. From start to finish, these projects would take weeks to finish. And guess what: As soon as we said the catalog was “done,” it would need to be changed! It became outdated the minute it seemed finished.


We did our last full-up catalog around 2004, notable for its complete integration into the company website. Today, I am a huge advocate of what I keenly call a “single source of truth” philosophy. Simply put, your web site should always be the single source of the most accurate, dependable, and up-to-date information – not just for your customers, but for your internal people and sellers as well.

Of course, print catalogs are not completely extinct. Lots of firms still publish them. And even more publish “catalog light” documents such as product finders and brochures. Why do they still do this in the digital age? The best reason is that they have customers who still want, expect, and need them. That’s reason enough. But the worst reason is, “We’ve always done it that way.”

Today I admire a good website as much as I loved a good catalog back them. As we build websites and digital search technology, there are three lessons from the good old days of the paper dinosaur that still are essential.

Some Things Aren’t Obsolete

First – In the print days, most of the great catalogs had some interesting facts about the company I was dealing with. It was good to understand them, what they believed and how they did business. It wasn’t a huge amount of information, just a few pages and lots of pictures. A good website also has this.

Second – and particularly important. Great catalogs follow a clear search taxonomy, an orderly scheme of classification and structure. This well-thought-out architecture enables readers to easily find products and from that to drill down into sub-groups and individual members of the family. The taxonomy made sense. It was not based on their brand name or a marketing spin. And it was consistent. Every year something would change, but the taxonomy – it was steady and constant.

Third – Great catalogs became LEGENDARY catalogs because they included helpful, useful information. I remember the Decibel Products catalog (purchased by Andrew Corporation, a telecom manufacturer, and later by CommScope). It had an amazingly helpful section of definitions and application notes. It was information that was totally USEFUL. And it had the added benefit of showing that the folks at Decibel were experts and trustworthy. Being USEFUL is a great way to build your company’s brand.

Does your modern, sophisticated website contain these three crucial elements from the days of the dinosaur? If not, Forward Vision has a cadre of experts who know how to create modern, digitally enabled sites with the bones of great story telling and that are visitor-friendly, easy to navigate and offer helpful information. Contact us for website development today and let’s explore how to create your single source of truth.

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