Nov. 12 2008 09:13 AM

Direct mail designers and mailing experts need to consult more. And earlier.


In my many years on the creative end of the direct mail industry, I have yet to sit down with a mailing expert as part of a project team.


I hope to do so someday. Early in the project rather than later, it makes sense to bring together a group that includes the mailer as well as the designer, the copywriter and the production and marketing managers. Decision-making on a direct mail project would look a lot different with the mailer at the table.


Instead of striking off on my own to design a piece, my work would be informed by a mailing expert's input. We would discuss the many issues that affect the mailing of promotional pieces - size, shape, aspect ratios, color, paper quality, address area, etc.


Recently, I have designed several magazine promotional packages that resemble invitations or greeting cards. To create the effect of receiving personal mail, the copywriter and I specified a First-Class stamp rather than bulk mail indicia. A cost comparison with recommendations from the mailing department would be helpful to keep such projects on budget and on deadline. If necessary, the size, the shape or paper stock could be adjusted accordingly to make up for the additional cost of mailing.


Rebecca Sterner, a top direct mail copywriter, and I are currently redesigning a long-time control package we produced originally for American Girl. Thanks to input from the mailing department, we know that when we test the refreshed package, we can move the stock code number, previously part of the lasered address block, to the upper right-hand corner. The recipient will no longer see the stock code as part of the address. Instead, the number will be covered by a First-Class stamp.


In the graphic to the left, there are several postcards, part of a series I designed for Community Car, a Madison, WI-based car-sharing service. Postcard size is an obvious consideration at the concept stage of a project like this one. What is the largest format we can mail at the lowest cost?


Ideally, I'd like to ask a mailer some additional questions. How does shape affect the mailing cost? What about the weight of each card? Can we add a fold, die-cut or label to make it stand out in the mail?


Just as a production manager can provide the direct marketing team with advice on how to save money by ganging all four card designs in one print run, the mail expert could give me suggestions. What if money can be saved and drop dates be better met if the mailings are bulk mailed on a staggered schedule?


Unfortunately, there was not a mail expert at the table when this project was launched, and we made our own decisions. We happened to be aware of postcard mailing guidelines, but what if a creative team did not know that a 3/4-inch clearance is required across the bottom of the card mailing surface for the post office to place barcode labels? Space for copy on the back of small postcards like these is very limited. In a worst case scenario, without mailing expertise at the table, important words or images at the bottom of each postcard would have been obscured by the 3/4-inch barcode strip. Or if the lasered address blocks had been printed below the return address, the post office sorting machine would have returned all cards to the sender, obviously a disaster for the project.


What would it be like if direct mailers participated at the brainstorm stage of a direct mail campaign? In a multiple mailing promotion, the mailer's expertise would help guide the most economical series of direct mailpieces and the smoothest creative and production processes. Just as better buildings result when the architect, the engineer, the interior designer, the urban planner and the sustainability expert are at the table when the project planning begins, direct mail would benefit from a true team effort.


Carrie Scherpelz is a freelance direct mail designer in Madison, Wisconsin. She has experience in business-to-consumer, fundraising, magazine promotion and catalog marketing. Visit or email