Tagged: Design

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

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.

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Getting the Most Out of Sales Letter Layout

We all know the rule. Great design can’t do diddly to help bad sales copy.  Great sales copy can often succeed despite bad design. But when great copy and great design work together? Watch out. So how can you make sure you’re getting the best work from the person who will layout your lovingly crafted sales letter?

It can be tricky, yes. But not impossible. 

Let me just rattle off a few quick insights from a few years of plying this trade… 

  •  For one, always, always… always… ask that your designer reads the copy. I’m blown away by how many don’t. And it shows. Boy does it show.
  •  Fancy design isn’t always good design. Your first aim is readability. Your second is to make sure the copy isn’t obscured by the design. Good design makes the copy feel easy to read.
  •  If you throw a designed piece of copy onto a table with other pieces of finished direct mail designs… and it disappears into the pile… you’ve got a problem.
  • No screened images behind text. No screened images behind text. Did I mention? Please avoid screened images behind text.
  • When in doubt, cut graphics before cutting copy. Really. By the time the designer gets a piece, the copy should be airtight. Or close to it. Graphics are less important than the written message. That’s just the way it goes.
  • Designers need to understand the motivations of the target market just as much as the marketers and copywriters. There’s no way to be a good designer when you’re working in a vacuum.

 I could add more. But that’s good enough for now… don’t you think?

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The Things Copywriters Wish Designers Knew

With online direct response giving good ol’ fashioned print direct mail a run for its money, you’ve got double the dealings with designers when it comes to getting  your copy seen by the general public. So what is it you’ll want any designer you work with to know?

First, the general rule is that good design can’t make bad copy work, but bad design can destroy the performance of good copy. So it matters. Just know how it matters. But what else can you do to make sure you get a “good” design for any sales pieces you write? To start, you’ll at least want your designer to know the following… 

  • Fancy design isn’t always good design. Your first aim is readability. Your second is to make sure the copy isn’t obscured by the design. Good design makes the copy feel easy to read. 
  • If you throw a designed piece of copy onto a table with other pieces of finished direct mail designs… and it disappears into the pile… you’ve got a problem. 
  • No screened images behind text. No screened images behind text. Did I mention? Please avoid screened images behind text.
  •  When in doubt, cut graphics before cutting copy. Really. By the time the designer gets a piece, the copy should be airtight. Or close to it. Graphics are less important than the written message. That’s just the way it goes.
  • Designers need to understand the motivations of the target market just as much as the marketers and copywriters. There’s no way to be a good designer when you’re working in a vacuum. 

One last thing, but very important: Always, always, always ask that your designer reads the copy. I’m blown away by how many don’t. And it shows. Boy does it show.

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