A Guide on Designing for Direct Mail

Responsive Design and Mobile Marketing

direct mail designIn a recent study, 50% of consumers reported that they pay more attention to direct mail than email, and online communications are less trustworthy than “snail mail”.

So with this built-in direct mail (DM) trust factor, it seems logical to maximize the quality of the DM we are producing so that we separate ourselves from the “noise” we sometimes find in our mailboxes.

Goals, strategy, audience, budget, and copy are all important elements of creating direct mail pieces, but for this post, we’ll focus mainly on design. We’ll touch on these additional elements briefly, as they relate to design.

Goals and Strategy

If you’re doing a direct mail piece, you’ve selected that tactic as part of a strategy to reach a goal. It’s important to keep these goals in mind when creating the piece, to ensure it fulfills its purpose.

For example, if you’re sending out a postcard to all new homeowners in a particular neighborhood to tell them about your veterinary practice with the goal of increasing your client base by 30%, this goal will help you decide how to design the piece.


Use data to target the right audience. This goes back to your goals and strategy. In the example above, you might purchase a list from a broker to reach new homeowners within a certain distance from your practice.

Understand who is in your audience – what are the demographics of the new homeowners? This information may influence your design.

How do I calculate a budget?

Talk to your printer and mailing house when planning your campaign for production suggestions.

• size
• printing specifications
• fulfillment and mailing specs
• postage

Once you have determined your target audience and defined your production parameters, you can go to your designer armed with the specific information necessary to design your piece. This way you won’t be wasting your time and money going in unnecessary directions.

How can my direct mail piece stand out in a crowded mailbox?

The Message

Cut through the clutter with a focused and compelling message:

Your Headline

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” – David Olgilvy

• Use a powerful, bold headline that tells your story and puts your offer out there. Keep it short and specific. If you’re mailing in an envelope, put your headline message on the envelope and repeat it in your letter or brochure.
• Use subheads to guide a reader through your text
• Subheads highlight your most important points.

Body Text

Being clear and avoiding jargon doesn’t necessarily mean talking down to your audience. A veterinarian may know that feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions can impair my cat’s quality of life, but I’d prefer to know that:

FORL is a chronic condition that can cause pain and behavioral changes such as a reluctance to eat. A yearly oral exam is recommended. If you notice a change in your cat’s behavior call for an appointment.

It’s not necessarily shorter, but the message to the consumer is up front and the bullet point highlights what you want to say.

Your Offer

Clarity is key. Make sure it stands out and is compelling. Remember your audience and what you’re selling. Be sure the offer is appropriate and compelling to your target audience.

Call to Action

What do you want the recipient of your direct mail piece to do? Make it obvious and easy.

• Call you (phone number in bold.)
• Email you (email address that is easy to read)
• Visit your location (clear street address, and maybe a map or image of your location)
• Visit your website (big bold URL that links to a landing page.)

Remember, if you don’t tell them what to do next; they might not respond.

Tricks of the Direct Mail Trade

Take advantage of technology that allows you to customize mailings and track data.

• variable data printing to customize and personalize your mailing
• QR code linking to a PURL or landing page.

Your online efforts should support your DM efforts and vice versa. The object is to use all of the tools available to create an integrated campaign.


Your brand, your brand, your brand

A brand is much more than just a logo. It involves your online experience, your retail or workplace environment, the tone of your copy; everything that relates to your business “personality”.

In terms of your direct mail, use your logo consistently on every component you create. When your customers bring your coupon into the store, make sure they see the logo that’s on the coupon on the store signage.

Keep the tone of your text consistent with your other communications. It’s all part of your brand – it all represents you!

The visual components of your design provide the initial impact of your mailing. Typography, your color scheme and use of white space and images all contribute to making your piece the one your prospects respond to.


Ever since we’ve been designing on the desktop, we’ve had the option to use a myriad of fonts on everything we do. Bad idea.

Pick a small combination of fonts – no more than three – that support your marketing and brand and stick to them. You might want to use a strong sans-serif font like the Helvetica or Frutiger families for your headlines and a softer serif font like Times, Goudy or Palatino for your body text. It’s best not to mix two sans serif faces or two serif faces on one piece. Go for the contrast between sans serif and serif.

font typography

Pick a color scheme that makes sense to your audience. Reds for a dentist or doctor is probably a no-no. If you’re a lawyer or an accountant, remember that people expect you to look professional, so that day-glo paisley background is out.

Keep it simple

Be clear and don’t clutter your message up with unnecessary design elements. A beautiful shot of a flower or a piece of furniture is as compelling as 10 tiny images that are so small a reader doesn’t know what they are.


Images for print are different than those we use for online work. If you download images from the Internet, be sure they are of high enough quality to be printed. If you’re not sure ask you’re printer to check before you run the job.

Find out if the images have any copyright restrictions on them. Check with the owner to see if they want a credit line in exchange for using the image on your mailing or if the image is for sale.

Use your space wisely

Remember that an area of white or a block of color can be as important as an area with text and an image. The goal isn’t to fill up the space; the goal is to use it to get your message out.

Make your piece appropriate to your audience and your goal. Many times you might like to use something with all of the bells and whistles you can buy and forget that what really sells is the mix of the right product, the right message and the right creative. With that combination, anything from a postcard to a 64 – page catalog can get you the results you want from your DM campaign.

Jay Moldave is the President of MoldaveDesigns, a marketing and design firm that has developed communications programs for small businesses, non-profits and major international corporations for over 30 years.

Image Source: © Africa Studio – Fotolia.com