By Ruth Hagopian

It might look hip and stylish to use black envelopes, fluorescent inks and ornate type when you design bulk mailing projects, but your client will pay the price in more ways than one.

“Designers get so caught up in the design, they don’t consider the mail-ability of the piece,” said Rey Valdez, a Mailpiece Design Analyst in San Francisco who works with West Coast businesses.

Designers get so caught up in the design, they don’t consider the mail-ability of the piece

Mailpiece Design Analysts are the postal service’s answer to your prayers. There are 160 MDAs in the U.S. standing by to advise printers, ad agencies and graphic designers on mailing issues, including testing designer’s paper selections for acceptable thickness, background color, flexibility, rigidity and barcode print tolerances.

They will also review artwork before printing. Valdez works with designers by appointment and likes to see a PDF of a design rather than a fax. “With faxes, there’s always a reduction in size and it skews what I see,” he said. But if there’s a question about closures or which materials are acceptable, he needs to see the actual items.

By visiting the Postal Explorer Web site at, you can find an MDA in your area. Just scroll down and highlight the mailpiece design section.

Assistance to reduce your rates

The U.S.P.S. wants to educate designers and print buyers on exactly what the post office equipment and manpower can and cannot do. Their recent seminar on mailpiece design in San Francisco focused on the requirements for processing mail without incurring any additional charges.

Those surcharges add up fast when tens of thousands of pieces go out. If they can’t be deciphered by machine, the surcharge is an additional 13 cents for a non-machinable First Class single piece rate and .058 cents per piece for non-machinable presorted letters. Add .042 cents to standard non-machinable mail and .021 cents to each non-machinable nonprofit piece of mail. It's easy to see how additional charges could be more than expected--maybe much more. 

The U.S.P.S. wants to educate designers and print buyers on exactly what the post office equipment and manpower can and cannot do.

The post office also has a number of free publications to assist designers including Publication 25: Designing Letter and Reply Mail, which will tell you everything you need to know about how to get the best possible postage rates. These publications will be sent to you upon request at the post office or online.

Beware of color and texture

The automation process needs contrast to read addresses at high speed and favors white or light pastel papers for legibility. Some papers with visible fibers are not acceptable, specifically those that contain dark fibers that, when scanned, may interfere with the mailing address.

For envelopes, beware of those printed with security patterns. The pattern cannot have more than a 15 percent contrast with the paper. Other envelopes that can’t be processed on the presorting machinery are polywrap envelopes, shrinkwrap or spun bonded olefin synthetic packaging.

The right kind of ink

The MDA will also test your ink color for acceptability. As with any scanning process, reds are a problem and some metallics can be used, but it’s necessary to submit swatches with the written address on them for a contrast test to the MDA office.

Type without tears

If you want your typography to be friends with the presorting machines, it’s simple. The post office advises you to use a sans serif, upper case typeface that’s 10-12 pts. high. Some recommended fonts that read well are Helvetica, Arial Black, Copperplate, Courier and Lucida Sans.

These common fonts are specified because they’ve had problems with other typefaces. Serif type and script are difficult to read and bold type is too thick. Letter spacing, condensed type and italic copy create irregular character shapes or overlapping. Also, don’t use underlines or grids unless they are screened back to 15 percent.

Your mailpiece shape

You want your mailpiece to look unique and attract your customers' attention. But an odd-shaped mailpiece may not only cost more to design and print, but also may be non-mailable (such as a round postcard) or subject to a surcharge.

New "shape-based" standards and pricing mean the shape of your mailpiece will determine the rate you pay. For example, shapes like squares and tubes are charged a higher rate or a special surcharge because they must be processed manually.

The post office will give you a Dimensional Standards Template to check your mail measurements and sizes are clearly defined for automated processing. Letter size mail must be rectangular in shape with 4 square corners and parallel opposite sides. They must be a minimum of 3 1/2 inches high, 5 inches long and .007 thick. The maximum size letter is 6 1/8 inches high, 11 1/2 inches long and 1/2 thick.

Surcharges add up fast when tens of thousands of pieces go out.

Be aware that minimum postcard dimensions must also be 3 1/2 inches high, 5 inches long and .007 inch thick. The maximum card size is 4 1/2 inches high x 6 inches long x .016 inches thick. If your postcard does not meet these dimensions, the Postal Service considers it a letter and charges letter rate postage.

Some tips to avoid surcharges

  • The minimum quantity that qualifies for an automated rate for presorting standard mail is 200 pieces or 50 lbs. For first class, it's 500 pieces or 50 lbs.
  • Avoid square pieces. They don't fit well into mail processing equipment and you will have to pay extra postage.
  • Always place the delivery address parallel to the longest side of the mailpiece.
  • Standard Mail parcels (including tubes and other kinds of packages) are charged a "residual shape surcharge," which covers the extra costs of processing bulky or odd-shaped items.
  • Don’t mail bulky, odd-shaped things like pens or bottle caps in regular letter envelopes. Not only will you pay more in postage, but these items may poke through the envelope, be lost, damage postal equipment or cause an injury.

Now that first class postage increased from 39 cents to 41 cents is a good time to understand and avoid excess surcharges. You’ll save time and money for your clients and their business mail will arrive at their destination on time and intact.

For more information, go to for products and services for household and business mail. At the Postal Explorer site,, you’ll find publications specific to the needs of domestic and international mail, while the rapid information bulletin board system ( presents programs, news, and FAQs.

Ruth Hagopian is a contributing editor at