The Open Design Opportunity

By Sabine Lenz

I am waiting. It was supposed to happen years ago, but it didn’t. And I am still waiting.

By now, most of us have given up on the arrival of the so-called “Paperless Society.” We know we could not survive without access to e-mails, research on Google, downloads of important PDFs and yet, besides all these indications, the Paperless Society never appeared.

What seems even more surprising to me is that rather than less, we consume even more paper. In 2005 for example, the U.S. produced 195 billion envelopes, a 16 percent increase from 1995.

And where there is an envelope, well, there is postage of course, but in many cases there is design as well.

Never underestimate the power of an envelope

If you are as environmentally conscious as I am, you open your mail right next to your recycling bin. Some pieces don’t even get a second look before they are tossed. So it takes a special letter, a special envelope to make me stop, look and see what’s inside.

These are design opportunities waiting to be seized. Not only is the envelope responsible for the first impression – your client’s image, so to speak – but it also decides whether your message gets read in the first place.

It takes a special letter, a special envelope to make me stop, look and see what’s inside.

It helps if the envelope is not of the standard #10 white variety. Thankfully, the selection of papers, unique papers, available to you is steadily increasing and with this comes more options for envelopes.


As with any printed piece you design, the paper your envelope is made of should reflect the personality of your message. It can be luxurious (metallics), intriguing (translucents), solid and trustworthy (felt and other embossed finishes) or serious and sophisticated (linen and laid).

There are baronial envelopes (pointy flaps) and A-sized (square or straight flaps). Catalog envelopes have the flaps on the short dimension, while booklet envelopes have flaps on the long side. No matter which shape you prefer, there are generally two ways for you to go when it comes to envelopes:

Pre-converted envelopes

Envelopes that are pre-converted are ready-made and ready to print. Stocked by your merchant or envelope converter, these envelopes are readily stocked in quantities of 100-500 per box. And with the option of ordering smaller quantities online, pre-converted envelopes can be time and budget savers.

The selection of unique papers available is steadily increasing-- and with this comes more options for envelopes.

With varying shapes and stocks, there are thousands of combinations to choose from. From the pale to the vibrant and the ultra smooth to the textured. But due to the fact that these envelopes are pre-made, some design restrictions will incur. No bleeds or heavy ink coverage for example, and embossing or foil stamping can be a challenge.

Custom made envelopes

Even though the word custom might imply that you can let your creativity flow, be aware. Factors like minimum orders starting at around 25,000 envelopes and lead times of 4-5 weeks can prove to be an obstacle.

And then there are the new shape-based mailing regulations.

Designing with postal “opportunities” in mind

As if there were not already enough rules and regulations to confuse the left side of our brain, on May 14th, even more limitations and rate increases came our way.

While odd and larger sized pieces have always shipped at a premium rate, the new regulations give a strong financial incentive to change from flat (9” x 12”) to standard #10 envelopes --from larger to smaller options.

Look at the new postal regulations as a new opportunity for your design talent.

This does not mean that the Postal Service wants to dampen your creative spirits. Rather, look at it as a new challenge --a new “opportunity"-- for your design talent.

Where ever your envelope design takes you, compliance with automated mailing standards should be your number one goal when it comes to larger mailings. The non-machinable surcharge for a first class single piece is 13 cents. Yes, that is per piece.

For an overview of standard envelope shapes and sizes, go to:

For pre-made envelopes in small quantities and unique substrates, visit:

For rate and other mailing inquiries, go to:

The answer to your prayers

No matter whether you design a lot of direct mail pieces, or if you just come across the odd envelope design, 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 your paper selections for acceptable thickness, background color, flexibility, rigidity and barcode print tolerances.

They will also review artwork before printing. Rey Valdez, MDA in San Francisco, 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.

The paperless society might never arrive, and with the great paper and envelope options available to you, I hope it never will.

Sabine can be reached at [email protected]