I went postal and got paid for it
~ 16 August 2004 ~
Let’s cut to the chase: Designing for direct mail is often as respectable as telemarketing. You get paid to do it, but you don’t exactly boast about the privilege.
That aside, earlier I promised a write-up detailing a recent 6”×11” postcard project. Time to make good on the promise.
This article contains a few general tips for designing direct mail, coupled with a few morsels of design advice applicable to other mediums.
Surprisingly, there was a bit of “usability” involved — in an offline print piece, no less — that prompted a drastic redesign only days before printing.
Usability in print pieces? Yes, that’s what I said the first time.
Usability in Print
Two days before printing I received a colorful postcard of the same size as the one I was designing. After analyzing, I realized I was reading the back first. I hardly even read the supposed ‘front’ of the card. Further analysis led me to conclude that most of the mail I receive is address-side up, which is usually the back of a postcard. (Take note when you check mail today.)
So why not make the ‘back’ the front, if the back is generally the first thing ‘users’ (recipients) will see? After internal discussion, we decided to do just that. We completely revamped the layout and reversed selected elements from the front to the back.
Putting Your Money Where Your Mouse Is
Of the mediums I’ve worked with, direct mail seems to take the cake when it comes to judging a design solely by how well it performs in terms of lead conversion. Hence, you’ll often see superfluous usage of “Call today!” and “Hurry, this offer expires soon!” and the like.
This piece was no different. And it turned out to be a lot busier than I hoped it would be. I generally prefer a clean front with minimal copy, such as this one. However, this postcard was replacing a tri-fold mailer that included a business reply card (BRC) and couldn’t rely solely on brand recognition to encourage a reply. Meaning, we had to say a lot with little space, to an audience that knew relatively nothing about the brand.
Tips & Tricks
Enough preface. Let’s talk tips and tricks. Each of the points below refers to the diagram above.
1. The Indicia. When mailing more than a few hundred pieces, you’ll qualify for bulk rate postage. The visual at right is what is known as an indicia and is required for any bulk rate mailings. Guidelines for indicia can be found here: USPS | Canada Post
2. Postal Address. As mentioned earlier, we made the address side the front on this particular piece. That meant we had to work in space for the postal address. As a general guideline if working with a mailing or fulfillment house, you’ll need to reserve a space approximately 4.5”×1.5” in size.
3. Special Offer. Direct mail isn’t direct mail without a call to action. While working on this piece, close friend Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain was working on a DVD jacket. We were sharing designs for critique, and each design had a special offer that needed emphasis. Jesse beat me out on completing his design first, and his special offer “seal” was too good to pass up. So I blatantly stole the style and modified it for my purposes. (With his permission, of course.) With that in mind, don’t kill yourself when designing seals of these sorts. Make it original, but don’t let it eat up time. Find an existing style, copy and modify it, and move on.
4. Background Image. I’ll let you in on a secret: The inner glow (or inner shadow) is a technique I’ve used in much of my work, both offline and online. For example, it’s used to create the soft edges of this site. It does wonders for adding flavor with minimal work. On this piece, however, I wanted a rounded inner glow, something that can’t be accomplished using Illustrator or Photoshop defaults. So I resorted to using an oval marquee with feathered edge of 250px. After inversing the selection, I filled the area with a soft hue of blue. Shown below is the completed background image.
5. Vectorized Screenshot. Some time ago I wrote about screenshots in print, in which I praised an article by Kevin Potts, titled Capturing and Optimizing Screenshots for Print. I used his vector technique for this toolbar screenshot, but in the end reverted to a raster screenshot just before printing due to muted colors I couldn’t correct otherwise. But expect to see the vector technique surface again in the future.
6. The Virtual Sticky. In doing research for this piece, I happened on 3M’s Post-it® Notes for Direct Mail. Although not an entirely new idea, I was drawn to the added pull they would provide. Yet, after lengthy consideration, I couldn’t justify the added printing and application costs, nor could I ensure they’d even still be on the postcard by the time they arrived. So I cheated. I made my own note, and replicated an actual sticky note as closely as I could. Again, the concept of a fake sticky note is nothing new. But the idea was to create a note that looked real enough to make recipients think twice about its authenticity. In the end, it took an envelope warp, a couple of gaussian blurs, and six separate elements to produce the effect. Sample detail shown below.
Veer’s Brisa typeface rounded out the effect.
Interested in a printed copy of the postcard? I’ll email a personal copy to the first 20 people to request one by emailing me their mailing address (U.S. residents only). But hurry, this offer expires soon.
UPDATEAll 20 copies have been requested.
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