An open letter to direct mail designers

May 13, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Design 

letter to direct mail designersWhen I first published this in Direct Marketing Magazine many years ago, it ignited a firestorm of hate mail from designers and agency creatives all over the country. It must have struck a nerve. That’s what happens when you tell the truth.

Dear 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, 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 (yes, some heathens still use faxes), 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

Related posts:

  1. 4 winning secrets of superstar direct mail copywriters
  2. How to write a complete direct mail package
  3. Direct mail copywriting: an interview with Dean Rieck
  4. Is your direct mail copy headed for the trash?
  5. 10 secrets for writing “open me” envelope teaser copy

>>> Subscribe to blog by RSS or E-mail

Smart Comments

10 Comments on An open letter to direct mail designers

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tony Mack, John Domzalski. John Domzalski said: An open letter to direct mail designers: When I first published this in Direct Marketing Magazine many years… [...]

  1. Chris Mower on May 13th, 2010 10:05 am
  2. Great reminder post, Dean. Even though it seems like obvious advice, I’m surprised at how many people don’t understand it. There are many copywriters who are more focused on showing off their skills for their clients than actually trying to get their copy read and produce results.

  3. Dean Rieck on May 13th, 2010 10:13 am
  4. Chris,
    I just hope designers take it in the spirit it was intended. To be fair, I should write one to copywriters from a designer’s point of view.

  5. Mike Klassen on May 13th, 2010 11:54 am
  6. No hate here. Probably because I didn’t come from a traditional graphic design background. The only design I’ve ever known was from the DM world. And since I was first a copywriter, that may play into it as well.

    I had to chuckle a bit at your comments about sketches. Having a copywriter who actually has a vision is gold in my mind.

    I know from my writing days that it’s very common to have your own vision for the way the copy should look. But I rarely get layout suggestions from writers I work with. It does seem there’s a fear of stepping on the designer’s toes.

    I was thrilled with the last magalog I worked on where the copywriter did have a vision of what she wanted and wasn’t shy about telling me about it.

    The only rebuttal I might have relates to order forms. I’ve had so many clients who try to fit way, way too much on an order form. I think if I were doing a letter to copywriters (and more often clients themselves who do their own copy) it might address the need to really consider what has to go on the order form and what doesn’t.

    Sometimes it feels like we’re challenging the law of (print) physics trying to cram so much info into an order form.

    I touched on this general issue a bit in an article I wrote a few years ago about designers respecting what the copywriter does.

  7. Dean Rieck on May 13th, 2010 12:00 pm
  8. Mike,
    I’ve seen some of your magalog work and I’m a fan. I’m also a copywriter / designer so we both come from the same place on that. Why don’t you consider writing a letter to copywriters from a design perspective? I’d love to hear what you have to say and I’ll publish it here.

    [...] An open letter to direct mail designers Published: May 13, 2010 Source: Pro Copy Tips When I first published this in Direct Marketing Magazine many years ago, it ignited a firestorm of hate mail from designers and agency creatives all over the country. It must have struck a nerve. That’s what… [...]

  9. Kevin Francis on May 16th, 2010 9:23 pm
  10. Dean,

    Great post. Unfortunately, there are not enough people in the biz like yourself and Mike who understand that it’s all about results and that the copy and the design work together to achieve a result.

    In most cases, I don’t have the benefit of working with a good designer so I lay out what I want the finished product to look like (and I’m a big fan of things like “Copy Doodles”). However, I’ve lost track of the number of times when a client has their “designer” re do the layout and end up butchering the piece.

    Thanks for the post and saying very eloquently what I guess most copywriters would like to have said!

    Kevin Francis

  11. Dean Rieck on May 16th, 2010 9:50 pm
  12. Kevin,
    You’re right. And I feel your pain when it comes to having your stuff butchered. I guess that’s why designers like Mike are in such high demand.

  13. Mike Klassen on May 16th, 2010 11:17 pm
  14. You guys are very kind.

    I still feel I have lots to learn, but I’ve had more than a few calls where someone says something like, “I looked at your stuff and was relieved. Do you know how hard it is to find someone who gets direct market design?”

    It’s obviously a pain point for clients.

    Dean, you may have a good perspective on this as both a writer and designer, but my feeling has always been that there are very, very few resources available to direct market designers when it comes to learning from the pros.

    When I started as a copywriter, there were tons of people to learn from… Bob Bly, Clayton Makepeace, Joseph Sugarman, and so many more.

    But name all the experienced direct market designers with books/courses/seminars. There aren’t many. If there are, they’re keeping a very low profile.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to rub shoulders just a bit with people like Lori Haller and Rob Davis… two superstars in DM design. Their willingness to share was such a tremendous impact for me. I’ll never be able to repay them for their kindness.

    But beyond that, there’s not a lot of those superstar designers sharing what they know with the next wave.

    I guess my point relates to how newcomers to the field are going to learn what they need to know that isn’t centered around the “Madison Avenue” design where awards rule the day.

    Kevin raises another interesting point. It’s been rare where I get to work directly with the copywriter, which is a shame. Usually the client doesn’t keep the copywriter involved in the design process once the writing is done.

    My last magalog was a pleasant exception. I had recommended the copywriter because I’d known her for about seven years. We were able to talk throughout the process and I let her see my drafts and make suggestions before the client got it.

    It was one of the smoothest projects I’ve ever done and everyone (copywriter, client, designer) was happy. I wish more clients would let writers and designers talk on their own.

  15. K. Hill on Jul 19th, 2012 5:17 pm
  16. Thanks for the reminder post Dean. I think it’s important to stay focused on the end result…which is generating results for the client. When we put ego’s aside and keep that forefront (and have the design skills to back it up, of course), things work successfully.