Based in the Chicago suburbs, industrial parts supplier McMaster-Carr rests a single boast beside its plain logo: “over 510,000 products.” This figure is no less imposing than the great book that houses them.
Published for more than a century, McMaster’s thick yellow catalog is a familiar sight to anyone who has spent time in a machine shop or carpenter’s office. It is a feat of materials science that the catalog holds the same information as the website. Indeed, when the inventory crested over the half-million mark, new paper was developed so that the catalog could continue to be published in a single, seven-pound volume.
The catalog’s design is as industrial as the products it sells, with incredible attention to detail. The product images are actually photographs, retouched by hand to be readable and high-contrast. There are diagrams to show how different parts fit together, instructions for use, cautions and qualifications. Copy editors describe precise points like materials, power requirements, complementary tools, available colors and sizes. Layouts are completely bespoke—thousands of pages of concentrated information design.
Making all this information available for online retrieval is no simple task, and the company marshalls a small army of library scientists, designers, photographers, copywriters and the like to address the myriad and minute details involved. Search logs and usage flows are pored over in detail. Data is worked and re-worked to fit not only on a webpage, but on a paper “view catalog page” at top-right to help customers determine where to find things in the physical book.
Idle reader, you are invited to choose any path from the long list of product categories and investigate in great detail such topics as tapping screws, pressure gauges, welding masks, bathroom stall partitions, rope, chisels, oil drums, shovels, saws and solvents. The abyss yawns before you. Your petty, three-category boutique apparel website is as dust. Your fingers, swiping at the trackpad, become numb, longing to parallax scroll back into the light. Tremble! Tremble before the might of McMaster-Carr!