Good direct mail design: let form follow function

Good direct mail design is like good design in other fields. The best work results from a designer who understands how design is used to accomplish something.

In other words, form should follow function.

In the case of direct mail, the function is to deliver a sales message to a list of recipients to persuade them to take some kind of action, such as placing an order, requesting information, or going to a Web site.

The wrong way to design direct mail is to come up with a “creative concept,” then force fit the copy into the design.

The right way to design direct mail is to understand the selling message and the goal of the mailing, then allow the design to naturally flow from these ideas.

For example, if the goal is to build traffic for a Web site, it would be silly to create an elaborate envelope package. Since you’re not asking for money and the action you’re asking for is easy, all you need is a small piece, such as a postcard.

On the other hand, if you’re selling a product with a $500 price tag, you shouldn’t try it with a postcard because you’ll need a lot more room to convince your recipient to part with his money, provide a means of response that may include a reply form, and include other information such as instructions or your return policy.

Always ask basic questions, such as: How much do I know about my recipients? Are they prospects or customers? How good is the list? How large is the list? What action do I want them to take? What is my price point? How much do my recipients already know about what I’m selling? How badly do they want it?

In general, the more you know about your ideal buyers, the better your list, and the more expensive the product, the more justification you have for using a larger more expensive mailing.

Other key design elements to keep in mind:

In a way, direct mail design is simple if you approach it with the right mindset. But like any other specialty, there are few who do it well.

Those who DO do it well are as prized as good copywriters by smart direct marketers.

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6 Responses to “Good direct mail design: let form follow function”

  1. Ted Grigg on August 13th, 2008 1:45 pm

    Great list Dean. Copy is indeed king when it comes to direct response. Design follows copy rather than the other way around.

    Occasionally, the design IS the concept and copy supports it. For example, the image of a $20 burning bill contains copy with the idea that you are wasting money if you are not using our product.

    But as often as not, if you cannot support the design with benefit copy, then think of something else.

    Most direct marketing creative directors came from the copywriting side for good reason.


  2. Dean Rieck on August 13th, 2008 2:14 pm

    I’ve come to think that copy and design are the same thing. You can’t have one without the other.

    I didn’t understand this until I started doing design and saw how dramatically it improved response rates to look at copy and design as two sides of the same coin.

  3. Direct mail isn’t dead: Creative guidelines for success - Marketing MO on January 20th, 2009 11:19 pm

    [...] Remember, direct mail doesn’t have to be expensive or tremendously exciting. To be effective, a direct mail piece just has to entice people to move one step through the sales process. Understand its purpose, and design it accordingly. As Dean Rieck of Direct Creative puts it, good direct mail design lets form follow function.  [...]

  4. The Direct Marketing Voice Links 8-19-2009 | The Direct Marketing Voice on August 19th, 2009 10:05 am

    [...] Good direct mail design: let form follow function [...]

  5. custom direct mail design on May 19th, 2011 2:02 am

    Running a successful direct mail campaign cannot be done by sending out generic mailers to your prospects who have different demographics. Custom direct mail design increases your return on investment with custom mailers as well as knowing your prospects intimately.

  6. Jennifer on July 13th, 2011 12:07 pm

    Just remember as you are designing that beautiful and effective direct mail piece that it should conform to postal regulations so that it will be cost effective to send it too. It’s a shame to see a beautiful direct mail piece chewed up by postal processing equipment because guidelines aren’t followed. (Size, shape, thickness, tab placement, clear space for bar codes etc.)

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