Direct mail art is more challenging than you may at first think.

And it’s more impactful that you might think.

Many direct mail campaigns have been crippled or destroyed because the artist violated critical rules that have been proven successful.

So that your next direct mail campaign doesn’t die at the hands of bad design, follow these 15 rules …

Rule #1: Copy is king!

The designer’s job is to make the king presentable. Everywhere the king goes, people must notice, think of him well, and want to get to know him.

With few exceptions, copy must always be given visual preeminence.

When other visual or graphic elements dominate, regardless of how beautiful they are, they serve only as a distraction.

Rule #2: Always Use Serif Typestyle For Body Copy

Always use serif type for body copy.

But never use italic type for chunks of body copy.

Times New Roman is the standard typeface for easy reading. It’s the most basic, simple readable typeface that exists.

However, when used in large point size, Times New Roman is boring and uninviting. So, select a different typestyle for headlines and subheads.

Other typestyles that have most of the positive features of Times New Roman, including large x-height, but with a more inviting appearance when used at headline sizes, include:

  • Garamond,
  • Palatino,
  • Clear Face, and
  • Galliard

The only time to consider using sans serif type is when creating headlines and subheads.

Examples of san serif headline typestyles include:

  • Helvetica Black,
  • Futura Extra-bold, or
  • Franklin Gothic Heavy.

Rule #3: Never All Caps Your Headlines and Subheads

Never put your headline in ALL CAPS.

All caps are too hard to read and are interpreted as yelling.

Use initial caps only for quicker reading.

Rule #4: Type Size for Body Copy

For optimum readability, use 10 to 11 point type size.

For the mature market, we often use 12 or 13 point type size – and it produces better response than smaller type.

9 point is the minimum. It’s usable, and sometimes necessary.

8 point type is too small for paragraphed body copy. But it can be good for captions, addresses, and other non-body elements.

Rule # 5: One Point Leading for Body Copy

Leading is the space between words and lines.

Set solid or one point leading to fit more type. Ascenders and descenders will not touch when using one of the optimum typefaces mentioned above.

One point leading helps readability where there’s room, and is even more necessary with wider columns.

Rule #6: Ragged Right

Avoid the temptation to use right margin justification. It looks impersonal.

The same goes for centered blocks of copy.

Rule #7: Indent All Paragraphs

Indenting paragraphs helps with readability.

Also, add leading between paragraphs equal to about one third of the point size to the type being used.

Rule #8: Use Optimum Column Width

The optimal column width is 35 to 55 characters.

On a 45 pica page width: 11-point falls best on two columns, 10-point on two or three columns, 9-point on three columns.

Rule #9: Avoid Long Paragraphs

At the most, use 5 or 6 lines per paragraph.

But, be sure to include 3 and 4 line paragraphs as well.

Short paragraphs make the copy more inviting. Long paragraphs turn off the reader.

Rule #10: 5 Things To Avoid in Body Copy Format

  1. Type printed in anything other than black, especially reverse type (white type on a black background).
  1. Type printed over a dark benday screen or on a dark paper.
  1. Large sections of italics (use italics for emphasis only – bold italics often works better for this).
  1. All caps (except to emphasize a few words at a time).
  1. Bold type (except to emphasize a few words at a time).

Rule #11: Use Warm Colors

Use warm colors.

Avoid cold colors.

You probably don’t need to use a four color process, unless color photography is necessary to sell a product that must be shown in color.

Using four colors usually doesn’t increase response enough to offset the extra expense. There are exceptions, of course … such as food products, jewelry, and fashion.

Two or three colors is usually optimum. One of these will always be black for body copy.

Rule #12: Use Photos of People

Pictures of people catch more attention than most any other subject. Even a hand holding the product is better than just the product alone.

Outline photos – those with backgrounds knocked out – often catch more attention than a traditional rectangle frame.

Use photos to draw attention to the copy, not from the copy.

Rule #13: Caption Every Photo

Every photo should have a caption.

The photo and the caption should stimulate interest in the copy adjacent to them.

Rule # 14: 3 Must Haves On the Order Form or Response Device

  1. Always leave plenty of room for people to fill in their address, phone-number and especially credit card number, if you use a mail-in option.
  1. Use pictures or symbols of telephones, computer, and credit cards.
  1. Use a certificate border around your coupon when copy refers to the order form as a certificate.

Rule #15: Make Eye Flow Easy Using These 9 Tips

Busy isn’t necessarily bad.

Give your reader a lot to feast his/her eyes on.

  1. There’s usually a lot of copy and very little room … so, be willing to sacrifice white space to have room for readable body copy and attention-getting headlines.
  1. Break up a page visually with the use of large numbers (2 to 4 lines high, with copy wrapped around).
  1. Use large asterisks, one or two lines high, in place of bullets.
  1. When using bullets, use big cap-high bullets, and print them in color.
  1. Box some copy in order to emphasize it. Or indent both sides.
  1. Print sub-heads in color.
  1. Always try to show a photo or illustration of a premium being promotion. Design premium book covers, with very large type, that will be readable when the book is shown three-quarters of an inch high.
  1. Use an official looking certificate border, around a guarantee, when space allows.
  1. Direct the reader’s eye towards your target with devices that catch attention: arrows, solid areas of heavy color, bright colors, irregular shapes, anything at an angle, sunburst pictures – especially of people, large phone numbers – with telephone symbol, clip art symbols of credit cards, etc.

When to Follow These Rules:

An old design axiom is that “form follows function.”

The function of art, in direct mail, is always to generate a response. So, each design decision, including a decision to break a rule, must have increased response as its purpose.

Try to defend every design decision based on the criterion.

Need a higher response? Call me at 301-212-5727 or email me at I’d love to talk to you about how we can improve your response rates.