Mail Piece Design Tips - Midwest Direct


November 6, 2015

Mail Piece Design Tips

Read the updated Mail Piece Design Blog here

A lot goes into creating a great mail piece.

Before we jump into this discussion, it’s important to distinguish between direct marketing design (“Hey, that looks awesome, and it generated great customer responses!”), and technical design – as in giving the USPS what it wants for processing and postal discount purposes.

Both components are critical when designing an effective mail piece. For our purposes here, we’ll discuss letter and postcard design – leaving flats and parcels for another post.

Mail piece design can be an intimidating topic, so we’ve broken this down into three parts:

  • Direct marketing design tips
  • USPS automation-compatible design tips
  • Resources

Our goal here is providing you with a solid mail piece design overview, as well as some great resources … all in one convenient spot. You may want to consider bookmarking this one!

First, let’s talk marketing mail piece design.

Direct Marketing Mail Piece Design Tips


mail piece design tips 5


> Copy: The undisputed king

The best direct marketing plan authors typically start with copy and build around it. So when we talk design, we logically start by talking copy. First thing’s first – we need a great headline. It’s the first thing you read, and if that doesn’t pull you in, you’ll probably throw out the mail piece. Give your headline the largest type on the page, and DON’T USE ALL CAPS! (It’s actually harder to read, and can be considered RUDE or SHOUTING).



mail piece design tips 8


> Messaging: Stay focused

The purpose of direct marketing is to generate a response. Make your offer compelling, and instantly clear. A simple message, uncluttered and easy on the eye, will produce better results than attempting to cram too much information into your limited, precious space.

> Strong call to action

When writing your call to action, our advice is to steer your visitor to a personalized landing page, or pURL, where you can capture your prospects’ data and capture their attention. Fostering a sense of urgency with offers, expiration dates, or limited spaces will also prompt prospects into action.

> Did we mention that content is king?

A wise writer once said good copy puts the reader first, your offer second, and the company last. Work on relating to your customers, and articulate their “pain points.” Your customers want to know you understand their struggles and relate to their needs.

> Get personal!

Variable data printing allows you to create a personalized message for every prospect. This intimate form of communication – done in moderation – creates a feeling of one-on-one communication. Just don’t get too personal … there’s a line between customization and creepy.


mail piece design tips 6


> Keep it simple, smarty

When summing up copywriting as a central design element, keeping it simple is a great golden rule. Trim, edit, trim some more, then shorten! It’s far harder to write short than to write long, but it’s worth the effort. That’s why we strongly support an integrated marketing campaign that quickly steers a visitor to a personalized landing page, where you can make a more elaborate case.  The same goes for a phone number – prominently display your phone number, prompt a phone call, then close the deal.

After you’ve developed compelling copy, it’s time to work with a designer to highlight and visually construct your key messages. Remember, any design element detracting from your primary goal – eliciting a response – is poor design, regardless of the visual appeal.

Specific Graphic Design Tips

Most of these tips are coming right from the mouth of our own creative director, who does dazzling work in addition to being our print production manager.

Yes, a picture really is worth a thousand words. Choose artwork carefully, and try to build your design around one standout image or theme. Just make sure your images are high resolution. And similar to the copywriting rule of simple is better: When designing, less is often more … and white space is your friend!

Keep in mind people love to see pictures of other people, but stock photos stick out as having a canned feel.  We recommend investing in your own pictures and adding a tagline under the images to draw more interest.

> Can copy be quickly scanned?

During the design phase, double check your copy to make sure the key points jump right out and are constructed in a way that offers readers a quick summary. Use design elements to steer readers’ eyes directly to sell points. Sidebars and pull-out infographics are great ways to summarize important info. Speaking of scannable copy, never bury contact information as part of a paragraph – set contact info apart, as one of your main design elements. Call us at 1 800 686 6666 for help with your mail piece design; that kind of blends right in, no? This stands out a bit better:


mail piece design tips



Call Midwest Direct for help with your next direct mail campaign: 


1 800 686 6666


> Avoid these design faux pas

  • Fancy fonts look cool, but conventional fonts are easier to read.
  • Never use reverse body copy – white copy that is set against a color background. Unless, of course, you are building a website from 1998.
  • A lot of research has proven that certain colors sell better than others: Warmer reds, oranges, and yellows pull more sales than relaxing colors (blue and green).


mail piece design tips 9  Grrr.

> Guard your brand

A final design note: Always protect your brand’s integrity and maintain consistent use of images, logos, fonts, colors, etc. Brand consistency should travel across all mediums – direct mail pieces, websites, signage, print ads, etc.

A few quick tips on actually executing your campaign:

  • Use great data. A superbly designed mail piece sent to a crummy list equals an unfortunate waste of time. Your mail services provider should be able to help scrub your list or provide one for you.
  • Follow up. Campaigns are called campaigns for a reason – the very name implies an ongoing effort. FYI: Your prospect is probably most receptive 10 – 15 days after a direct mail piece is delivered.
  • Stick to a schedule. Several mailings in sequence, building on a theme and creating brand awareness, pay off.
  • Use a professional. Here at Midwest, our copywriter is known to mock up truly pitiful design pieces (in Word or PowerPoint, no less), much to the horror of our creative director. Yes, the technology is there – in theory – to make everyone a designer. But we strongly urge you to use a professional – especially if your mail services expert offers writing and design assistance as a value-added service. The same goes for designing your overall campaign. Mail can be hard. Professional partners can take on the lion’s share of the load, making it much easier for you.


Okay, let’s talk USPS automation-compatible mail piece design

When we talk direct mail piece design, most of us are talking about the look, feel and effectiveness of the piece from a marketing standpoint.

The USPS has a very different definition of design: To the Post Office, it’s all about production processes and automation compatibility.

The USPS is interested in improved delivery service, machine compatibility, and postage discounts. They don’t care how pretty or clever your letter is, it’s all about being USPS-compliant. The goal is to achieve automation rates, by conforming to specs and employing an Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMb). Thus, designing with the back end in mind – from the very start – will save you incredible heartache, time, and energy.

> Mail piece fundamentals

The most fundamental part of any mailing is the mail piece itself: Properly designed mail pieces make it through machinery, qualify for discounts, actually get delivered, and please the Post Office to boot. This helpful link to Postal Explorer is a good place to start, and will “help you understand the Postal Service’s Business Reply and Courtesy Reply design requirements and will help you design reply mail pieces to qualify for postal discounts.”

> The many faces of mail

Next, it’s wise for designers and mailers to review the elements on the face of a mail piece. Clear space, barcode placement, return addresses, endorsements, it’s all here.

> Hold on: Is it even mailable?

The first question the USPS asks when reviewing your mail piece is “Is it mailable?”  Here are some mail piece basics every mailer and designer should know:

All letter-size mailpieces must be:

  • Rectangular in shape
  • At least 3 1/2“ high
  • At least 5” long
  • At least .007” thick*

*It’s our experience that .007 is too thin to make it through a mail sorter properly – .009 is a more realistic number.

The Post Office summarizes: “Mailability refers to a mail piece that falls within the minimum or maximum size standards.

When considering minimum standards, one must determine if a mail piece is at least ¼” inch thick or at least .007 inches thick, and must observe the orientation of the delivery address on a mail piece.”


 mail piece design tips 2



 mail piece design tips 3



> Avoid Non-Machinable pitfalls

Considering that mail must run through machines – lightning fast, automated mail presorting machines – you really do want your mail piece to be automation-compatible. So, what makes a mail piece non-machinable (and thus vastly more expensive to mail)?

  • Clasps, seals, and square letters that tumble and spin through sorting machines, for starters.
  • Also, mail with loose items inside, pieces wrapped incorrectly in plastic, incorrectly tabbed mail and mail constructed with the wrong dimensions are also tickets to more postage.

> Accurate addressing

The USPS considers the delivery address to be the most important information on your mail piece.

Mail sorting machines read mail pieces starting on the bottom and scan first for the city, state, and ZIP. Then the machines’ readers look for a delivery address: If the camera is confused by any other information or graphics, your mail might be missorted. More addressing guidelines, directly from the USPS, include:

  • Always put the address and the postage on the same side of your mail piece.
  • In a letter, the address should be parallel to the longest side.
  • All capital letters.
  • No punctuation.
  • At least 10-point type.
  • One space between city and state.
  • Two spaces between state and ZIP Code.
  • Simple type fonts.
  • Left justified.
  • Black ink on white or light paper.
  • No reverse type (white printing on a black background).
  • If your address appears inside a window, make sure there is at least 1/8-inch clearance around the address. Sometimes parts of the address slip out of view behind the window and mail processing machines can’t read the address.
  • If you are using address labels, make sure you don’t cut off any important information. Also, make sure your labels are on straight. Mail processing machines have trouble reading crooked or slanted information.

> Barcode placement

It’s imperative you put your barcode in the correct spot – the IMb is what qualifies (or disqualifies) you from automation prices. The USPS asks that:

  • The rightmost (last) bar in the barcode must be at least .5” (1/2”) from the right edge of the mail piece
  • The leftmost (first) bar must be less than 10.5” from the right edge of the mail piece and at least .5” (1/2”) from the left edge
  • The top of each bar in the barcode must be less than 4” from the bottom edge of the mail piece

Here are more details on designing letters and postcards for automated processing.

> Business Reply Mail

mail piece design tips 4

Visit the USPS for more information and design templates for business reply mail. 

> When it’s time to design …

We strongly urge you to consult Midwest early in the design process, prior to submitting your piece for printing and /or mailing. Whether you need help with marketing design, copywriting, or navigating the hundreds of complex USPS design regulations, we can save you vast amounts of time and money. Mail can be hard, and we are really good at it!

In addition, here are some great resources to help you navigate mail piece design and the USPS:

USPS Plan & Design Guide

“All the information you’ll need to develop and execute a successful, cost-efficient mailing.”

USPS Quick Service Guide

Physical standards for commercial letters and postcards

USPS Advertise by Mail

A visually sharp, easy-to-navigate guide for finding vendors, planning direct mail campaigns, Every Door Direct Mail, postage options, managing business mail and more.


mail piece design tips 7


In summary: Go for both design elements – marketing and technical!

A sharp-looking mail piece that ends up getting shredded in mail sorting equipment is a tragic thing.  Likewise, envelopes that glide breezily through sorters, but reach consumers with a soft, dull thud are equally worthless. So, start your design efforts with both marketing effectiveness and with USPS specs in mind, and you’ll experience the glorious harmony that occurs when both mail piece design elements are married together in USPS-marketing bliss.

Mail piece images above, as well as some of the specific mailpiece regulation language, is taken from the USPS’s Mail Piece Design Course and related online resources. The USPS has a fabulous philosophy on training – they actually want you to use their materials and become educated!

MWD has hosted the USPS’s ace training teams at our Cleveland facility; and, we’ve used their online library of materials to provide training ourselves for staff and clients. We strongly recommend you take the mailpiece design course when you have the time, or give us a call us to see when we’re hosting our next Mail Design Professional session.

tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,