Proven-Effective Direct Mail Design

by Karen J. Marchetti

How do you create good design for COMMUNICATING?

It shouldn’t be based on opinion or “design trends” — because we have actual proof of what techniques are more effective than others.  And that proof comes from testing, a lot of which has been done by Colin Wheildon.

Wheildon is known as the creator of the “direct mail design bible” entitled, “Are you communicating or just making pretty shapes.”

Colin Wheildon conducted studies that had people read material presented in different typefaces, layouts, and colors.

  • Then he tested the subjects to determine their understanding of what they read.  So all of his testing is based on actual comprehension of the words on the page — rather than someone’s opinion.

His results are statistically significant — and based on 9 years of research.

Whereas most designers have opinions or preferences as to what works and what doesn’t, Colin Wheildon’s studies make all those opinions obsolete by presenting the actual FACTS.

Some of Wheildon’s conclusions:

1.  Serif Type = Better Comprehension

A serif typeface like Times New Roman — long used in newspapers and books — is more than 5 times easier for average readers to comprehend than a sans-serif typeface like Helvetica or Arial.

2.   Use Reverse Type Sparingly in Direct Mail

Reverse type — white type on a dark background — makes “good comprehension” fall to zero! “Poor comprehension” rose to 88%.

3.  Black, Non-Bold Text Easier to Read

Colored or bold text is harder to read — and slower to comprehend — than black.

4.  Italics Type Works in Direct Mail

Italics can be used for emphasis — including entire paragraphs — as it doesn’t significantly affect comprehension.

5.  Ragged Right Text isn’t as Readable

Fully justified text shows the best comprehension levels, even over ragged right text.

6.  Avoid All Caps Headlines

All caps headlines reduce comprehension significantly.

7.  Avoid Vibrant Colors in Headlines

Vibrant color in headlines actually reduces readability and comprehension of the text that follows it! The darker the color of the headline, the greater the comprehension of the text following it. (Conclusion: when using spot color in a headline, choose darker colors.)

8.  10% Screen Behind Black Text Best

Black body text printed on a light tint — a 10% screen — is seen as the most attractive combination of text color and background. In fact, a 10% screen can act as an “eye magnet”, while retaining good reader comprehension. (The exception: using a screen that’s the same color as the type color, which doesn’t afford enough contrast and reduces comprehension.)