Utilitas, firmatas, et venustas: A Latin lesson for product literature designers

Written about 20 years ago, this essay has stood the test of time and continues to provide insight into building product sales and marketing.
I work for an ad agency that has just been hired to design product literature for a building product manufacturer. I have experience creating sales collateral pieces in other industries, but this is the first time I have done work for an architectural product maker. What do I need to know to meet the needs of my client's target audience: designers? - A.C., account executive

Like all sales collateral, building product literature must stimulate awareness of and interest to your firm's products. But unlike product literature used in other fields, building product literature must also provide designers with the information they need to engineer, detail, and specify products. While these objectives appear simple, designing an effective piece of product literature can be as challenging as designing a building.

Vitruvius, a classical Roman architecture critic, wrote that good architecture is characterized by "utilitas, firmatas, et venustas," which means, "utility, firmness, and delight." Like architecture, sales literature has to be useful; it must help someone evaluate and select appropriate materials for a project. It must have firmness; the information provided must be accurate, reliable, complete, and clear. Finally, the literature must also delight the senses by being visually attractive.Aesthetics are especially important if the piece is geared toward architects and designers. As visual thinkers, they are strongly motivated by pictures and the graphic appeal of catalogs. Whenever possible, the most important features and benefits. of a product should be expressed through illustrations or photos. Effective literature uses an architect's visual language for communicating information, such as isometric drawings that show several surfaces at once, poche patterns to differentiate materials, and other drawing techniques.

Text is important, especially in technical data sheets and engineering manuals, but not as effective as visual information. If architects wanted to spend their time reading, they would have gone to law school.

Media jockeys vs. technocrats
Although aesthetics are important, they can receive too much emphasis. "Media jockeys" - graphic designers and other ad agency staff - know how to get readers emotionally attracted to a product, but too often they don't understand the technical data. They may create a beautiful page full of exciting images but product selection data can get lost in advertising hyperbole.

On the other hand, many manufacturers are staffed with technocrats who are so intent on talking about roofing or windows that they forget that the product will be part of an entire building. Other technocrats have great product knowledge but can't write catalog copy that communicates information to someone considering their product for the first time. The best sales literature balances aesthetics and technology.

Literature sells
Most architectural and engineering firms have large libraries of product literature. There are so many products available that no individual can have a comprehensive knowledge of them all If building products are the palette with which designers create, then the more catalogs available, the larger the palette of design options. [Update: Today, every designer has an internet full of product literature, creating a different set of challenges.]

The brochure or catalog is often the manufacturer's only contact with a specifier. If an architect can't find information quickly and easily, the literature has failed to serve its purpose.

Different pieces serve different goals. The type of information that is helpful to a specifier early in the design process is different from the information needed during preparation of construction documents. In the preliminary design phase, general information is needed so product selection decisions can be made quickly. Later, designers need complete technical information and supporting documentation to detail and specify a product. Although general and specific information can be included in the same brochure, it is usually better to create separate pieces of literature for each.

Depending on the type of product, sales literature can contain details, engineering criteria, installation and operation instructions, warranty information, code approvals, and much more. An architect writing specifications for product material usually works from master specifications. But many products are not written up in commercially available master specifications, so manufacturers must provide guide specifications to help the architect.

The word "specifications" has two meanings when marketing building products. Design professionals use it to mean project requirements, and manufacturers use it to refer to product capabilities. Product literature must be written and organized so that specifiers can readily determine where the projects requirements and the product's capabilities overlap.

All the architectural product literature for a product line should be assembled into a three-ring binder. It's easier for architects to find a conspicuous notebook in their crowded offices; individual brochures are easily misplaced in project files. The binder on the architect's shelf also serves as an advertisement for the building product manufacturer.

Keeping up with concerns
The construction industry never stands still. New technologies are developed, building codes change, and manufacturers merge and downsize. Construction marketers should avoid using product literature that is more than five years old.

With changing social concerns, product literature now gives more emphasis to building materials' environmental features. Metric units are becoming more common, to accommodate federal construction policies and international construction. And for many manufacturers, it is also important to translate product literature, especially installation instructions, into Spanish and other languages to accommodate international markets and a changing labor pool.

Electronic media have already made a huge difference in how architects select products. A large number of building product manufacturers are currently evaluating the development of CD-ROM's or Web sites. [Update: Obviously out of date. If I wrote this today, it would talk about BIM and mobile apps.]

During the next decades, the nature of construction information will change even more dramatically. Architects and engineers will shift from creating paper drawings of their buildings to creating computerized building models. Manufacturers will provide computer models of their products to be incorporated into the virtual models. The challenge, however, will not be to put existing product information onto computers, but to use computers to create new relationships between suppliers and specifiers, and to add value by offering better access to information. [Update: This is still the challenge.]

Send us your questions about building product marketing and we will answer them. Send to: michaelchusid@chusid.com.

Previously published in Construction Marketing Today