An Eye on Design: Helping Your Graphic Designer Create the Direct Mail Piece You Need

An Eye on Design: Helping Your Graphic Designer Create the Direct Mail Piece You Need


Special thank you to the following for their contributions:

  • Holly Champagne, a 35-year graphic design professional and owner of Champagne Creative which has been recognized locally, regionally and nationally for their work, including national first place recognition for their corporate identity programs, advertising programs, corporate brochures, consumer packaging and annual reports.
  • Marcy Westphal is an award winning visual graphic designer with over 23 years of experience in the design and print industry. Marcy is the owner of Thrive Hive Design, an Indiana based company who provides buzzworthy design to all clients. To connect with Thrive Hive, email


As a former annual giving director, I loved to scour my pile of direct mail samples (or look through an online compilation) to find some inspiration for an upcoming project. I’ll fully admit to being a student of the “copy and steal everything” mantra of CASE. When resources are limited, it can be difficult to come up with a unique idea with so many good concepts already out there. It can feel like searching for the needle in a haystack.

How your piece is laid out can be a “make or break” point for your recipients. Your choice of imagery, and the length (and font size) of text will likely determine if your message is read or makes a quick trip to the recycle bin.

Whether you are starting a large scale campaign or an individual project, coming up with that fresh idea will be necessary at some point. It is likely impossible to have that “earth shattering” design for every piece you do. Many times, it’s a simple refresh of what’s been done in the past or maybe rearranging where certain elements fall on a page.

Of course it’s easy to fall into the loop of “this is what we’ve always done.” In these situations, sometimes a fresh set of eyes is what is needed to spice things up. This could be a different designer within your organization/institution or hiring an outside designer who may be able to provide a unique perspective and bring it to life on your page.

No matter what route you take, here are a few things to be mindful of:


Come in With an Idea

According to Holly Champagne, “One of my biggest hurdles is when a client says ‘We don’t really know what we want.’”

Coming in with the blankest of slates will only lengthen the amount of time to design. When working with an outside designer, time is money so it’s in your best interest to provide as much detail up front as possible.

Here are some things you should be aware of as you start working on a project with your designer:

  • Type of package. Is this a self-mailer or a letter? What are the dimensions? What type of outer envelope is being used (windowed or close-faced). What about the reply envelope?
  • Reply mechanism. Is there a tear-off from the letter or a separate pledge card. Does the constituent name and address on the reply portion layout properly for a windowed envelope?
  • Final Content. Proof your content multiple times by multiple eyes. Making changes after layout has been completed can affect your timeline (and possibly the final invoice).
  • Are your pictures high resolution? Were they taken with an actual camera or a smartphone?
  • Variable data. Confirm where and how variable data will be used. Is it just the ask ladder? Is there written content that will utilize variable fields?
  • Budget: Contact your vendors before the project is started and ask for a ballpark quote based on your specs. Have you considered postage costs in your budget?
  • “An idea.” Do you have an idea or concept of what you would like to see? Can you sketch it or provide some other type of visual? (It doesn’t have to be pretty.)

The more details you can provide of what you want this piece to look like or accomplish, the faster of a turnaround you are likely to see. Creating, reviewing, editing and finalizing your draft takes time and needs to be accounted for in your timeline. Whatever you can do to set-up your designer for success from the start will smooth the overall process significantly.

“It helps to come in with a concept but be open to other ideas as well. If you are working with a creative team, they might suggest an alternative route that you hadn’t thought of. Trust their expertise, your project will flour­ish from working together,” said Westphal.


Develop a Relationship

Direct mail campaigns are rarely a “one-and done” experience. As one direct mail piece is heading out to the printer, the process starts all over again for the next project…if it hasn’t already.

Champagne manages numerous clients in both business and non-profits and recognizes there can’t be a cookie-cutter approach to design. It’s more than just sending a style guide to ensure the colors, fonts and logos are used correctly.

She remarked, “My biggest thing is to start the relationship early. What I need to find out is who they are. Getting to know the client and the company. Find out their target audience and what their goal is.”

Remember earlier when I said to come with an idea? Establishing a good relationship with a designer may help build off your idea into something better. It can also help come to a better understanding when they create something that doesn’t fit what you were thinking.

Champagne agreed. “You need to listen to what the client wants, not want you want to do. I am not designing for me. I am designing for them.”

Westphal added, “I have worked with several clients that have come to me to ‘fix’ the project they hired someone else to do. They thought they were saving their company money but in the long run they ended up throwing money away on a design that didn’t work for their needs.

“The best advice I can give would be to choose your creative partner based on how well they understand you and the vision for the project. Never make your decision based off who can give you the best deal. Budget is part of the equation but should never be the driving factor.”

The relationship you build with a designer helps establish an understanding of how you communicate your ideas with each project you work on together. Additionally, some of the questions posed in the prior section are more likely to be asked (or answered) as you work through the mental checklist of to-do items for each project.


Don’t Design Mail Like an Email

With the abundance of social media pages, internet advertising and e-solicitations, there may be a greater emphasis within your organization to focus efforts on web-based designs. It’s important that your direct mail piece doesn’t look (or feel) like a web ad with some text pasted around it. After all, you can’t measure paper dimensions in pixels.

Direct mail continues to be the best way for your message to reach your audience. A good designer should know how to “flip the switch” when moving from web-based designs to working on paper.

With inboxes cluttered with advertisements, political reminders, messages from school teachers…and the list goes on…if an email is opened, it’s is likely looked at quickly and moved on from. The messaging is short with little visual appeal to catch your eye.

A mail piece is physical. You can feel it in your hands. With the right copy and imagery, it can tell a story. A good designer knows how to use the entire page and turn a great story that is both short and concise into something that is both memorable and relatable to the reader.

“Keep your messaging simple and digestible. Opt for bullet points rather than paragraphs of text. If you have to use blocks of copy, see if your designer can break it up with visuals like photography, illustrations or iconography,” Westphal mentioned.

“People want to read and not get lost in the gray matter. They want to learn valuable information about the organization and why you are asking for their support,” said Champagne.

A few things to take into account before sending your final draft to your print vendor:

  • Make sure to use original picture files. A photo that looks great on the web is likely to look grainy on paper. Copying a picture or image directly from the web may not provide the required resolution needed for quality print.
  • Ask for a second set of eyes. Have a co-worker look over your content before sending it to the printer for final production. A designer will likely do this for you, but it doesn’t hurt to have a fresh set of eyes look as well.
  • Provide bleeds and trim lines. Web images don’t require them so they can sometimes be forgotten when finalizing a printed piece. Not accounting for that at the beginning may affect the layout if it has to be fixed later.
  • Clearly mark variable fields. Whether it’s one field or multiple fields, be sure they are marked properly so the printer can match them easily with the data file.
  • Confirm file types. Every print vendor has different requirements on how to send files and what type of design files they wish to receive.

These points may seem minor, but can make a big difference when trying to meet a deadline.


Graphic design is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to your direct mail piece. Be certain to include design work as part of your production timeline. Maintaining a solid relationship with your preferred designer will keep you’re your projects moving along to meet your deadlines and get your piece in the hands of your constituents when you need it there.

If you are in need of graphic design assistance, please contact JHL and we can get you connected with a designer who can best meet your needs.

By Dan Krueger 10/1/23



Copyright by JHL Digital Direct. All rights reserved.

Copyright by JHL Digital Direct. All rights reserved.