Successful direct mail is aimed at getting people to read rather than just “look” at your direct mail piece. However, reading requires work for most people, so opening and reading mail can be a challenge at the end of a long day.
The goal of designing mail is always to encourage reading and to make reading easy. Specifically, a designer should try to draw attention to the copy, make reading easy by applying basic rules of layout and typography, and help communicate the writer’s message.
Here’s Five Steps for Easy Reading
1) Encourage the reader’s eye to move left to right. That’s the natural eye movement for people in Western cultures. That’s why using serif type is a good idea for body text — the serifs (the little horizontal lines on the tips of letters) form a lateral line for the eye to follow. Type should never be set top-to-bottom or at an extreme angle since this interrupts the natural eye movement. Type should be set flush left and ragged right in most cases, especially in letters. This helps the eye when it comes to the end of one line of type and skips down to the next.
2) Avoid anything that makes the eye stop, unless you want it to stop. Weird type or extreme letter spacing creates “fixations” where you don’t want them. This slows reading and interferes with comprehension. On the other hand, you may want people to pause for a split second on key words or an 800 number. Italics, underlines, bold, and large type will make the eye stop where you want it to.
3) Design copy in logical chunks. This is primarily the job of the writer, but the designer is usually responsible for how headlines and subheads look. Most people read and understand copy better when they are able to take in chunks of information. For example, if a headline reads “Now you can get 12 issues for $12,” you might break the copy into two visual chunks: “Now you can get” on one line and “12 issues for $12” on the next line. You could also play with a second color or larger type to emphasize one chunk while downplaying the other. Ellipses (…) and dashes (—) divide copy into easily-absorbed chunks better than commas, colons, and semicolons: “Now you can get … 12 issues for $12.”
4) Stay away from unusual looks. For most text, especially body text, you should not set type in all caps or italics because that masks the look of words and makes them less recognizable. Lower-case with an initial cap is best for most sentences, including headlines. For numbers, remember that spelling the number helps readers move faster, but if you want them to notice the number, use numerals.
5) Remember that your readers may have tired eyes. Help them by using type that’s large enough to be read easily — 9 to 12 points minimum for body copy for average readers, but slightly larger for older or very young readers. Break long blocks of text into smaller paragraphs, indent paragraphs, and space between paragraphs to give the eye visual rest. Black type on white paper is easy on the eyes. White type on black or a colored background is okay for short bits of text, but exercise restraint with this technique.
None of this means that a designer shouldn’t be creative. It simply means that they must consider who is reading and how they read. It’s important to create the right look and feel for a direct mail piece, but ultimately everything should be geared for easy reading.
Direct mail design looks simple to the untrained eye, but it can be a challenge. Just as a copywriter cannot write words at random, a designer cannot design at random. There is always a purpose. And that purpose is to get people to read and respond.