Designing for Direct Mail

Author: Roger Gimbel,

Direct mail is enjoying a renaissance as a proven marketing channel. Recipients open it and direct mail has a better conversion rate than email or social media platforms. Mail campaigns also allow marketers to flex those design muscles in new and challenging ways.

One challenge the marketers and designers need to consider is hoe to get your printed pieces ready for the mail stream and eventual delivery by the US Postal Service. Since the postal system is a highly automated process, all printed pieces have to conform to specifications and regulations.  This allows the USPS scanners and sorting machines can handle them.

For marketers, following these specifications will also help maximize postage discounts for your company or client. This means you must carefully consider the size, weight, thickness, and design aspects when choosing direct mail options.

It can be daunting if you’ve never encountered these regulations. Here’s a brief introduction on what you need to know.

US Postal System conveyer belt and tub


The same good design principles that apply to all printed pieces pertain to direct mail. Use a strong call to action, be clear, offer value, and be relevant. On top of those principals, the USPS has several technical requirements to which you must adhere.

Postal automation equipment cannot read addresses if they are printed on a dark background, so keep the area for the address and postal barcode white or light-colored. You should also avoid highly reflective stocks for the same reason.

Similarly, bleed-throughs can also cause readability problems so check your printing and choose the paper carefully. But be cautious. The mail handling equipment requires mail to be flexible as it passes over belts and rollers. Stock that is too heavy or stiff won’t pass muster.

Finally, consider aspect ratios, or the relationship of the height to the length. To avoid non-machinable surcharges, the ratio must fall between 1.3 and 2.5. Divide the length of the piece by the height and if the result is between those two numbers, it’s good. The USPS defines the length of a piece as the edge parallel to the delivery address. A piece with the address printed in portrait orientation or a square piece would not meet the standards necessary to qualify for the lowest postage rates.

Return Address Photo by Tareq Ismail on Unsplash


Strict postal guidelines may seem tedious and confining to creative designers, but understanding the requirements are important. The most beautiful and imaginatively designed mailpiece is useless if it can’t be delivered. The USPS will assess extra fees or reject mail entirely if they determine the pieces exceed their specifications. Either situation will cause problems for designers. Being aware of the rules before you start designing is a good way to avoid re-work and unpleasant surprises.


Position the postage indicia, the markings on the mail piece, in the top right-hand corner of the mail-piece. Permit imprints are square or rectangular boxes displaying the mailing class and identifying the mailing permit holder. They must appear on the delivery address side of the mailer. The USPS allows several indicia designs. See examples.



Designers won’t be addressing the mail-pieces – that’s the job of the print/mail service provider. But you do have reserve space for the delivery addresses and position the space correctly.

The delivery address must be placed in an area where the postal sorting equipment can read it. The USPS defines this space as a rectangular region that begins 5/8” from the bottom of the piece and ends vertically 2 ¾” from the bottom of the piece. Delivery addresses can appear anywhere within the vertical limits, but cannot be closer than ½” from the left or right edge of the mail-piece. Additionally, designers must leave room for the postal barcode which will be applied by postal equipment in an area at the bottom right corner of the address side of the mail piece. The barcode clear zone is 4 ¾” wide by 5/8” high. Leave that area blank.


The return address should be in the upper left corner, in the top third of the mail-piece, separated by at least 1” horizontally and vertically from the delivery address. Return addresses may include artwork or logos. All permit mail must include a return address.

The address-side of a mail-piece impacts the deliver-ability of the mail and the cost to do so. For a diagram that shows positions of the reserved areas, check out USPS Quick Service Guide 602. The US Postal Service can also furnish plastic overlay templates that include all the measurements mail-piece designers must follow. Ask for Notice 67, the Automation Letters Template

Photo by Tareq Ismail on Unsplash


You may opt to do a folded self-mailer, a letter sized mail piece that is folded into two or more panels. If you do, keep the following regulations in mind:

  • External panels must be equal or nearly equal in size
  • If your internal panel is shorter, it must be covered by a full-size panel
  • Folded self-mailers must not exceed 3 ounces in weight
  • Maximum thickness is .10”
  • Minimum cover paper weight is 100# basis weight or equivalent

The folding methods and the subsequent number of panels created when folding a single sheet of paper are:

  • Bi-fold: folded once forming two panels.
  • Tri-fold: folded twice forming three panels.
  • Oblong: paper folded once to form two rectangular panels with one elongated dimension and parallel opposite sides. The final folded edge is on the leading (shorter) side.
  • Quarter-fold: folded twice with each fold at a right angle (perpendicular) to the preceding fold. One sheet of paper quarter-folded creates four panels.

Keep in mind that gate-folds, accordion, or Z-folds are not automation compatible.


The address block must be on the middle outside panel and follow the placement rules. Open edges cannot be on the bottom of the mail-piece (below the delivery address). This must be a folded edge.

Folded self-mailers must be sealed. Some mailers use glue, others use adhesive wafers made of paper or vinyl (tabs). The USPS specifies the placement of the tabs. It is important to learn how the print/mail service provider will seal the self-mailer and where they will position the tabs. Paper tabs can obscure important information on the piece. Plastic wafers allow text and images to be seen, but are not allowed in the barcode clear zone.

A best practice for designing folded self-mailers is to confer with the print/mail service provider who may enlist the help of a Mail-piece Design Analyst (MDA) available from the US Postal Service before finalizing a design. This will save you time and money.



Let’s look briefly at how to create direct mail that engages your audiences.

If you’re working with a postcard size, you don’t really have a lot of room to play with, so you need to maximize its effect. Don’t be too clever. Focus on making your piece easy to understand in just a few seconds. Don’t make the reader work. Keep your design crisp, clean and sharp.

Include a call to action that is strong, easy to understand and execute. You have only a few seconds to make an impression. Do not overly complicate messages, or add too much copy.

If you’re working with variables, make sure the design adapts itself to the data to pack the right punch. Ensure all the information is correct. Nothing destroys the impact of a direct mail piece like a misspelled name or miss-targeted offer.


  • Indicia are markings on a mail piece, as opposed to an adhesive stamp, that demonstrate the sender has paid for postage. Indicia comes from the Latin word indicium, meaning distinguishing marks. Indicia is plural for identifying marks.
  • US Postal Service Design Requirements


These mailing rules sound complicated and intricate, and sometimes they are. The rules are necessary to ensure the postal service can process mail pieces quickly and keep postage prices low. An effective direct mail campaign combines brilliant design, compelling messages, and USPS services leveraged to maximize your budget and reach.

The US Postal Service offers many programs for marketers who mail in large quantities. Each has its own set of requirements that affect ultimate delivery costs. If your budget is tight, stay within the stated requirements and don’t exceed the maximum size specifications. Sometimes, though, it makes sense to incur extra costs to mail a piece that stands out. Just be sure the client understands the impact of design decisions that make it more expensive to get their message in front of their target audiences.

Remember that direct mail, even with all its rules, is still one of the most highly effective means of engaging your audiences. This is true for all demographics. A little extra effort will yield significant results.

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