A Direct-Mail Designer’s Open Letter (to Copywriters)

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youvegotmail.pngWe write plenty here about writing copy, but not so much about how it should look when it hits the mail (or the web).

Lucky for us, direct-mail designer Carrie Scherpelz has stepped up to put it to us straight.

Carrie, take it away…

An Open Letter to Copywriters
(From a Direct-mail Designer)

by Carrie Scherpelz

For most of my thirty years as a graphic designer, I had observed that designers rather than copywriters took the lead on creative projects. That changed about eight years ago. At the time, I was an art director at American Girl magazine.

I was asked to collaborate with a well-known national copywriter on a direct mail promotion for American Girl. The copy for the promotion had been written, and my job was to design print-ready components for a 6×9 package based on the writer’s detailed sketches. Hmmm, I thought, what an odd way of working. The designer always does the drawing, not the writer . . .

Game for this unusual challenge, I started the project in my usual way by creating eye-catching designs based on the sketches and sending pdf concepts off to Texas for the copywriter to review. When he responded with his feedback, I began to learn that good direct mail design is different from what most designers do.

Some of my design elements got in the way of the message, I was told. Directed by the writer, I made changes that stripped down the design.

He specified new colors that he said got better results. (How did he know that?!) I was required to use Courier as the letter font, not Times New Roman. He didn’t want me to add graphics or photos to the letter either. (Amazing! I was sure that no one in the world would read a boring 4-page letter with no graphic relief.)

When I balked at the writer’s art direction, I learned that direct mail results are measurable.

Colors and fonts had been tested and found effective. There was no arguing with the arithmetic of response.

Many of my colleagues in design prefer not to work within direct mail’s constraints to their creativity.

Perversely, I found that I loved direct mail design. Maybe it was my competitive side kicking in: I wanted to beat the control. Or maybe it was because I have always been fascinated with human behavior and what motivates people to take action.

Or not.

Maybe I just like direct mail design because I love to read and write. I like to think about a writer’s copy and then design a clear and compelling format for it. Unfortunately many designers pay little attention to words and readability.

A block of copy is sometimes treated as just one more graphic element to place within the stylish, distinctive design of the piece.

As a result, colors and patterns often compete with the copy, confusing and even obscuring the message. Branding can also get in the way of presenting a direct mail offer. I try to avoid these pitfalls and do my best as a designer to sell the copy.

Someone once said, “Great design may save bad copy, but bad design will destroy the most brilliant copy.” As a designer, I find good copywriters to be very controlling.

And rightfully so.

Last modified: April 23, 2017

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