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Top 10 Direct Mail Design Mistakes to Avoid

Production Solutions

Have you ever spent hours of time orchestrating a marketing campaign only to find out in the final stretches that one of the brilliant creative concepts doesn’t meet the USPS requirements around mail piece design?

Or even more disappointing, you’ve actually printed, imaged, and inserted a direct mail campaign, only to find out the that the postal clerk called out a violation that will require additional postage monies to mail. Bummer, right?

Well, the USPS PCC (Postal Customer Council) had a great idea and pulled together a cheat sheet of where things most often go wrong when designing and producing mailpieces. Luckily for us, many of these errors can be easily avoided with the proper foresight and upfront planning. So, without further ado, below is list of the Top 10 Direct Mail Mistakes.

#1Not Meeting Minimum and Maximum Mailing Dimensions – If you ever find yourself questioning whether a mailpiece you’re designing or have produced meets a certain USPS processing category, its best to share a sample with a postal expert to confirm.

You might consider reaching out to a USPS MDA Mailpiece Design Analyst through the MDA Support Center by dialing 855-593-6093, or by sending a request via email to This group of experts is dedicated to giving you direct and timely feedback. Their hours of operation are Monday-Friday from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm Central Standard Time.

#2Black/Dark Colored Background Mailpieces must meet contrast and reflectance standards as outlined in the Domestic Mail Manual (DMM). Addresses and barcodes cannot be read by the automation equipment if printed on a dark or black background.

If you’re producing an outer envelope or mailing vehicle that is any color other than white or a very pale tint, you’re going to want to take a full mockup, imaged with the ink that will be used on the address block, to the USPS for review. They’ll be able to give you feedback around whether the address block – especially the barcode – is going to be readable by their processing equipment.

#3 Screenings/Imaging – Print reflectance difference requirements must be met by both the barcode and the surface on which it is printed. This ensures that the barcode can be successfully read and interpreted during processing.

Similar to #2 mentioned above, if you are designing a mailpiece that has screens, security paper/printed image, or dark fibers contained in the paper, you’ll want to take a full mockup that mimics the imaging you will use on the mailpiece to the USPS for them to review for any potential problems. The goal is to design mailpieces that are “automation” compatible. If a mailpiece cannot be processed efficiently on the USPS equipment, you may be penalized with higher postage costs and slower mail delivery, or even worse – denied mailing at all.

#4 Return Address Placement – Be mindful of where you place the return address on the face of the mailpiece. Not only is it important to include a return address, but you want to be sure it’s not placed too close to the OCR (Optical Character Reader) read area, which is the area that your outbound delivery address is located. The delivery address on a letter-size mailpiece should always be within the OCR Read Area.

The OCR is going to pick up your delivery address block information during USPS mail processing. Believe it or not – when the return address isn’t placed properly some unfortunate mailers have found their mailings being sent to their ‘return address’ and not the household of the recipient they intended because the USPS equipment read the wrong address.

#5 Text or Graphics in the Barcode Clear Zone – Building on the importance of a clear zone around the OCR Read Area and the Barcode Clear Zone, pay attention to any additional marketing text or graphics that come too close to these areas. It might be a fantastic graphic design, but great design won’t offset the cost of additional postage.

#6 Postcard Design – Postcards seems so simple, don’t they? It’s just a sheet of paper, so what’s the big deal? We often get asked questions around postcards and the most common is around the mailpiece dimensions.

Here’s what’s important: The only formal USPS Postcard postage rate is for 1st Class mail; there is no specific “Postcard” rate in Marketing Mail. If you intend on mailing a postcard as 1st Class mail, you’ll need to fall within the minimum and maximum size requirements below and pay attention to the thickness of your paper. A 1-ply postcard, which is the most common, needs to be .007” thick. This is generally equivalent to a 7 pt. paper stock. But, for mailers that typically mail under Marketing Mail rates, the postcard needs to conform to the letter rate mailpieces design specifications.

#7 Insert Shift – This is an unavoidable result of inserting a component into an envelope because the insert(s) always need to be shallower than the width of the envelope opening. The address vehicle will be the top-facing component in an outer envelope with a window, so we must consider that “float” or “insert shift” that will occur and observe if the float will cause an issue with readability of the address block.

Be sure the vendor responsible for imaging your address vehicle has a production run sample of your windowed outer envelope onsite when they are preparing your imaging setups. They should test placing the imaged address vehicle, along with all of the other components of that mailpiece, into the outer envelope and tap several times to the left, top, and right. With each tap they should review to see if the address block, including the barcode are falling too close to the edge of the window. If they are, they must adjust the placement before going into production. Keep in mind that the barcode in an address block barcode may appear:

  • Above the address line
  • Below the city, state, and ZIP Code
  • Above or below the Keyline
  • Above or below optional endorsement line

#8 Folded Self-Mailer Construction Do you have an upcoming self-mailer you’re designing? If so, contact your production firm and/or a USPS MDA for guidance at the onset of planning as the rules are a bit complicated. The USPS has a handy Self Mailer Guide which is a good place to start to understand the design requirements:

#9 Address Placement for Enveloped, Polywrapped or Card-Style Flats and Bound or Folded Flats – As with item #8 above, this is another case where you will want to ask for guidance if you’re not familiar with the design and addressing requirements.

#10Procedure for Requesting a Uniquely-Assigned BRM ZIP+4 Code All BRM (Business Reply Mail) must contain a uniquely assigned ZIP+4 Code to separate the BRM from the customers regular mail. This is so the USPS can obtain payment for these mailpieces. To obtain a uniquely assigned BRM +4 the customer must do the following:

  1. Open a BRM permit or bring in a receipt from an existing BRM permit from another Post Office to the Post Office where the BRM will be returned. Also bring a letter of authorization from the permit holder showing the name, address, and telephone number of the local agent authorized to receive the BRM.
  2. Complete Section 1 of the PS Form 6805 and bring it to that Post Office. In some larger Post Offices, the customer will need to bring it into the Mailing Requirements office.
  3. The clerk will complete Section 2 of the form, verifying the permit is current, sign Section 2 and fax it to the District Address Management Office.
  4. The District AMS office will issue a unique BRM ZIP+4 Code for the customer, sign Section 3 and return it to the clerk that signed Section 2.
  5. The clerk will notify the customer and provide them a copy of the completed form, the instructions for the ABRM tool, the phone number (855-593-6093) and the email address ( of MDA Helpdesk if help is needed with the ABRM tool. The post office will retain a copy of the PS Form 6805.
  6. Once the customer receives the completed form they may create their artwork with the ABRM tool.

Whew! That was a lot!

As you can see, there are many important things to consider during mailpiece design. We encourage you to share this with your creative teams and designers. Of course, at Production Solutions we are always keeping an eye out for these errors, and so much more. If you have any questions we can help!