Quick printers who offer design services to their customers have a big task when asked to prepare something that will be mailed. If your quick print shop offers mailing services, then mail piece design is part of the technical expertise your customers have a right to expect from you. And if you don’t offer mailing services, then you need to know about mail piece design as a defense—to keep a mail house or the USPS from blaming you for extra postage requirements.
So what is a mail piece? For most quick printers, it is one of four things:
- Postcard: A single ply, unfolded card. Depending on the size, postcards can be mailed first class using the subclass card, or they can be letter mail sent as first class presort or standard mail. Although postcards that are large enough may fall into the flat mail category, this is not common.
- Self-mailer: A folded single sheet or unbound multiple sheets. A tri-fold brochure is a self-mailer; so is a four-page newsletter that prints 11x17" and folds down to 8.5x11" or 8.5x5.5". Self-mailers can be mailed as first class presort or standard mail in either the letter or flat category.
- Booklet: Bound folded sheets, with or without a cover, such as an eight-page newsletter with two staples in the spine. As with a self-mailer, a booklet can be mailed as first class presort or standard mail in either the letter or flat category.
- Envelope with enclosures: Depending on their size, envelopes can be letter mail (for example, a #10 or 6x9" envelope) or flat mail (for example, a 9x12" envelope). Envelopes can be mailed as first class presort or standard mail.
Mail Piece Design
When a printer says “design a mail piece,” we mean the artwork—the color palette, symmetry, perspective, graphic elements, typography—in other words, the aesthetics of the mail piece. When the USPS says “design a mail piece,” it means how efficiently it can be processed on high-speed equipment—the physical characteristics of the mail piece, the postage payment method, and whether the address includes machine readable postage coding.
The job of our graphic designers and CSRs is to understand the USPS requirements for card, letter, and flat mail and to either design to be compatible with them or explain to customers the postage implications of deviating from the requirements.
Determining Postage: Physical Characteristics
The physical characteristics of a mail piece are what determine the amount of postage required to mail it. Those characteristics are shape, size, thickness, weight, and flexibility. The shape that works best for USPS high speed mail processing equipment is a rectangle, and rectangular shape is determined by the aspect ratio (i.e.: the relationship of the long side to the short side, with the long side defined as the side parallel to the address). To compute the aspect ratio, divide the long side by the short side. If the answer falls between 1.3 and 2.5, then the mail piece is a rectangle. Other shapes can still be mailed, but at a higher postage rate.
Here is a tip about shape: A postcard that measures 4.25x5.5" (i.e.: one-quarter of an 8.5x11" sheet) has an aspect ratio of 1.29. If a bulk mail acceptance clerk allows rounding up, then the postcard meets the minimum requirement of 1.3. But without rounding, the postcard is not considered a rectangle. If, however, the postcard is trimmed to 4.125x5.5", then the aspect ratio is 1.33—within acceptable tolerance. Since we all have excellent cutters in our binderies, don’t try the patience of the bulk mail acceptance clerk. Be sure your graphic designer sets the size and trim marks for 4.125x5.5".
The USPS processes mail on two types of equipment: letter sorting and flat sorting. Letter sorting equipment runs at speeds up to 40,000 pieces per hour and is substantially faster than flat sorting equipment. So, just as the USPS prefers rectangular mail, it prefers letter mail. Here are the dimensions of letter mail and flat mail: