Off the Radar: Creative Mail Ideas

by Trish Witkowski,

I’ve been studying mail for quite a while now, and I’ve learned some neat tricks that I wish I had known back in my studio days. Yes, for those who don’t know, I’m a designer – a designer with a master’s degree in printing. So, my blood runs cmyk, but my soul is all flowy and creative. I was a creative director at a design firm back when making a living off of folding and mail strategy was a dream and a decade away. At the time, sending mail was just something we did: think up an idea, send it out, sell something, turn that marketing brochure into a mail piece…

Mail, to me, was a drag – risky, annoying in its requirements and completely uncreative. Now that I study mail, I realize how little I understood about it. So, I’m writing the article I wish I could have read back in those days.

Fun with the envelope flap

Modify the envelope flap to add interest and increase open rates.

Did you know that if you’re ordering custom envelopes, the shape of the flap can be changed to create interest? For instance, a pull tab can be added or the angle could be altered – or a curve even could be added. People are so used to seeing the same sizes and shapes that small details can catch the eye and send a message that something interesting is inside.

One thing to note: if the envelope contents will be auto-inserted by machine, ask the printer before modifying the flap. There are strict tolerances required for the process to work, and the flap size and shape have a lot to do with it.

A design also can be printed on the envelope flap, since First-Class Mail doesn’t require a return address. The USPS does recommend that a return address is included so it can return any undeliverable mail, but the placement can be on the front or back. So, why not make the back flap interesting? There’s also a lot of nice space below the flap, so why not put color or imagery there, too?

The back of the envelope is grossly underutilized, in my opinion. I’ve actually been noticing a trend over the past few months, and I call it “party on the back.” These envelope mailers are plain white window envelopes on the front, with full color designs on the back. Since you don’t know which way the recipient will pick up the piece, and since the non-address side with the envelope flap is the side the recipient needs to open, it’s clever to print a message, a pop of color or a pattern on the back.

Think outside the clear zones

Don’t send a plain envelope. If you want to put imagery or a message on the face of the envelope and it will be mailed at First-Class Mail rates, you have creative flexibility. Flexibility also can be found in the flats category, because there are far fewer regulations and the size is larger, which gives designers more area in which to be creative.

In general, the biggest thing to be concerned about is clear zones. Space must be left for the address, the postage and the barcode clear zone, which pretty much takes up the entire right side of the envelope.

But, once space has been allocated for these items, the rest is yours to play with – within reason. To be safe, don’t push too close to any of the clear zones, but have some fun. As you get into other classes of mail, the regulations get tighter, so ask the printer for guidance.

Add a repositionable note

Repositionable notes are a fun addition to an envelope. Handwriting graphics courtesy of

Sticky notes, called repositionable notes (or RPN) by the USPS, are a fun, personal-looking and mail-friendly addition to an envelope. A print service provider can print a sticky note and apply it by machine with standard labeling equipment. Common practice is to print a message on the note that looks like it’s a handwritten personal message. By the way, if you need handwritten graphics, try

Sticky notes can be applied to the outside of envelopes for letters or flats, and there are different guidelines for each type of mail. And, if you’re on a particularly tight budget but love the sticky note idea, an image of a sticky note can be printed on an envelope for a similar effect.

Custom windows

Windows on an envelope most commonly are used to show the address and the return address; however, windows can be a creative tool, too. Did you know a custom window envelope can be ordered? A custom window design can create something unique that gets a lot of attention – a unique shape, a larger view of the contents or a compelling fragment of an image. A trend right now is what I call the keyhole window. It’s a tiny little window that shows just a peek of what’s inside. Curiosity does wonders for increasing the opening rate on a mail piece.

Creative opening mechanisms

How many ways can you get into an envelope or a folded self mailer? More ways than you think. By adding a clever opening device, some intrigue and a little bit of fun can be added to opening the mail. Add a zip strip, a string pull, a snap off end or a pull tab. Ask the printer for help with the placement of the opening mechanism, because there often are production details to deal with to make it work, but these can be really fun.

Related to this, I’ve noticed a trend for using engaging pulls and zip strips to reveal messages, instead of as opening mechanisms. For example, a zip strip across the back of an envelope can reveal a message or the answer to a question. It doesn’t get the reader into the envelope, but it adds interest in the content by giving the reader something fun to discover.

Creative postage and address strategy

There also are some neat things that can be done with the postage and the address. These include custom stamps and limited edition stamps that catch the eye, precanceled stamps, multiple-stamp strategies, mailer’s postmarks, creative addressing techniques and more. You’d be surprised at what you can do to make your mailpiece look important and personal. Ask the printer or mailhouse for options.

Flaps on FSM

I like using flaps on folded self-mailers – flaps make for fun opening mechanisms and add interest. A flap is created when an extended portion of the address side panel is folded over to the non-address side for the closure of a mail piece. The edges must be sealed with tabs or glue to USPS specification for mailability/machinability, and there are requirements for length and height based on whether they’re off the top or side, so pay attention to those.

My favorite thing to do is to add a diecut shape to a flap. Shaped flaps require a continuous glue line along the edge, but you can do some really eye-catching things with a short flap that has a fun shape to it.

Postage-friendly creative mail formats

The format options for direct mail only are limited by your creativity, budget and the mail service level that is chosen. I could write for days about the different things that can be done, from simple to complex to dimensional and more.

One thing that tends to happen with creative mail formats is that people get excited about the design possibilities, but forget all about postage costs. Very commonly, the final product is in the shape of a square. I know designers love square-format design projects – I love them, too. And, hey, if money is no object, make a square, send it out and enjoy every minute of it. I think all designers have project-envy over those types of fortunate scenarios, but that’s not usually the case. Clients typically want to save money, so don’t pay the non-machinable letter surcharge if you don’t have to.

The Fall 2014 issue of The Binding Edge contained an article I wrote about the need to find ways to cut costs on postage so you can splurge on the format, while not compromising on the “wow factor.” The basic concept is something I call a Splurge/Save strategy. A Splurge/Save strategy involves converting a specialty format into a mail-friendly (i.e., machinable) size and shape. As a result, the customer gets a specialty format, but it can be mailed at normal, machinable or even bulk rates. In my opinion, it changes everything.

Rethink the Iron Cross fold to make it mail-friendly.

The Iron Cross fold is a great example. It’s a popular fold and commonly is designed in a square format. I think it’s the only proportion most people have seen it in, so by force of habit (or the chance to produce something square), the designer makes it square. However, the classic Iron Cross easily translates into a machinable, self-mailing rectangular format.

This is an excellent reminder to look at specialty formats differently and approach them with the intention of making them more mail-friendly.

Have fun (within reason)

Mail doesn’t have to be a drag. Yes, the regulations are daunting, but if you know what the options are and how to manipulate the medium of mail, great things can be created that sail through the mail stream and get the attention they deserve.

Trish Witkowski is chief folding fanatic at An educator, author, speaker and award-winning designer, Witkowski specializes in creative solutions for mail and marketing. She hosts the online video series “60-Second Super-Cool Fold of the Week.” Witkowski has an MS in printing and a BFA in graphic design from RIT. For more information, visit