An Open Letter to Direct Mail Designers

by Dean Rieck

Dear Direct Mail Designer,

When clients go to the trouble and expense of doing a direct mailing, they expect results. Response will be calculated. Orders will be tracked. Dollars will be counted. Profits will be measured a dozen ways. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars are riding on my shoulders — and yours.

So I'd like to make a few suggestions:

Read the copy before you start designing. Pour yourself a cup of coffee. Sit back. Read every word. Twice. Make sure you understand what's being said and why it's being said. Be clear on the benefits, the offer, and — most importantly — the action we want the reader to take. Every element of your design should help lead the reader toward that action. You and I are partners in generating response. I'm the voice and you're the body language. If we're not in sync, we'll blow it for the client.

Use my sketches as a design guide. I'll rely on you to lift my words from the page and bring them to life. But there are certain design elements that must be in place for a direct mail package to work. I'm not trying to tell you how to do your job. I'm trying to assure that the message comes across loud and clear through your design. Of course, if you have better ideas, let's talk about them.

Make everything reader friendly. Sales messages are transmitted through language, not images. The goal of design, therefore, is to encourage and support readership. This applies to most advertising, but it is especially important for direct mail. If people don't read it, they won't respond. And if they don't respond, the client won't make money. And if the client doesn't make money, I won't get hired again. And if I don't get hired again, you won't get hired again.

Design envelopes to get opened. Sometimes an envelope needs to explode with color and excitement. Sometimes it needs to look like a plain, white envelope. Sometimes it needs to be big. Sometimes it needs to be small. Sometimes it needs teaser copy. Sometimes it doesn't. There are countless ways to design an envelope, but the ultimate goal is always the same — to get the reader to open it. More often than not, this means a design you will think is ugly. But it's mail, not art.

Make letters look like letters. They should never look overly designed. They should always look as personal and real as possible. This means you should single space the whole letter with a double space between each paragraph. Indent the first line of every paragraph three to five spaces. Keep the paragraphs short — ideally no more than seven lines. Set the margins for at least one inch all around. Break page one and all right-hand pages in the middle of a sentence. Use blue for the signature whenever possible, but black is okay if we have to economize on colors.

And please, please, please use a 10 to 12-point typewriter typeface for most consumer mail. Yes, I know nobody actually writes with a typewriter anymore, but it generally makes the letter look and feel personal. For business-to-business, though, a Times or similar typeface may work fine.

Make order forms easy to use. If there are fill-in lines, make sure there's plenty of room to write — not everyone can write as neatly or as small as you. Do a mock-up to assure the order form fits into the reply envelope without folding. If fax return is an option, make sure the paper is thick enough and big enough to run through a fax without tearing or twisting. Be sure the whole design faxes clearly. Don't guess. Fax it yourself to be sure.

Design brochures to be read, not framed. I know that letters, envelopes, and order forms are not great artistic challenges. So you may be tempted to let loose on the brochure and strut your stuff. Don't. The brochure should illustrate features, list benefits, provide proofs, make comparisons, and list technical details to lend credibility to what the letter claims. Use photos, illustrations, diagrams, charts, tables, and other visual aids. Make it exciting, but readable. Usually, a simple, fact-filled layout is better than splashy graphics.

I'm not trying to win awards. I don't care whether people are impressed. My only concern is helping the client increase profits. I sincerely hope that is your concern as well. Because no matter how good my copy is, in the end, it all comes down to you, the designer. The success or failure of our project is literally in your hands.

Dean Rieck, Copywriter

Copyright © 2001 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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