Design Postcards to Connect
Make sure your message is delivered by laying out and printing postcards correctly.
by: Cathy Palmer
Since the mid-1800s, postcards have been a
comparatively inexpensive way to send a short
message. But with so many modern options for flashy
digital interactive messaging, how does the humble
printed postcard survive? The reason is simple: You
can't avoid physical mail. Even if you just pick up the
postcard on the way to the recycling bin, chances are
you'll see something on it.
As designers, our job is to use our skills to use
that brief encounter to convey real information
and, hopefully, prompt an action. By following
a few design strategies and production criteria
when creating postcard layouts, you can offer your
clients an effective, lower-cost vehicle to get their
You can let your imagination run wild on the front
of a postcard (as long as nothing can be mistaken for
an address or indicia). However, the back side and
the card's overall dimensions must adhere to several
layout rules and ink and paper choices if the cards
are to be delivered as quickly as possible for the
lowest possible cost. These strictures vary across the
world; in this article, I'll focus on United States postal
regulations, but two tables do include information on
postcard sizes and rates around the world.
How to Design the Best Backs
Whichever side holds the ship-to address is
Design Postcards to Connect
considered the mailing panel
(more commonly, the "back")
and has the most restrictions for
positioning of graphic elements.
My recommendations in this article
will, for the most part, result in a
postcard back readable by the Post
Office's scanners. That lets you take
advantage of lower automation or
The address must be parallel to
the longest side, so that it's readable
when the postcard is horizontal.
(Cards that are
square, round, or
can ignore this
they'll be hand-sorted by the Post
Office.) The rest of the graphics
on the mailing panel can be the
same orientation as the address
or rotated, as long as they don't
interfere with the postal scanning.
In any print project, there are
three edges to be aware of: trim,
bleed, and live. The trim area is the
most obvious, being the finished
size of the printed piece. The bleed
area is larger and extends past the trim, allowing
images to appear right up to the cut edge. The live
area is the inner safety zone for important images
and information, where there's no risk that they'll be
shifted too close to the trim and risk being cut off.
Keep the Clear Zones Clear
There are no special
printing considerations for setting up the trim, bleed,
and live areas for postcards, but there are definitely
mailing guidelines for where ink is permissible.
"Clear zones" are locations that are reserved for
postal use, so don't place text or graphics in those
areas. Ink coverage less than 10% density is allowed,
so very light screened-back photos and tint colors might be OK, but it's safer to keep these areas entirely
free of printing.
To qualify for the lower presorted standard and
bulk rates, you must keep the postage, address, and
barcode zones clear of any unrelated printing. (First-
Class mail is less strict about the clear areas required
but does cost more to send.)
The upper right corner—1.25" down from the top
and 1.25" from the right edge—is a postage clear
zone reserved for the indicia (mailing permit imprint),
metered postage, or stamp.
The lower right corner—2.75" up from the bottom
edge and 2.75" from the right edge—is the mailing
address area where no other visuals except the shipto
address may appear. Because the indicia must be
positioned to the upper right of the delivery address,
the top of the address must start lower than the 1.25"
postage clear zone from the top edge.
An area at least 0.625" (5/8") across the bottom
(longest) edge of the mailing side should be kept
unprinted for the sorting barcode. The Post Office will
print a barcode here if the area is clear, or slap on a
barcode label to cover the area if there is any printing.
Either way, any artwork in that space will get covered
up, or worse, make your postcard unmailable.
Mailing Rates Vs Delivery Times
If your client demands postcard rates, which are lower than First-Class
mail, you must design within those parameters to avoid higher rates and
surcharges. But do prepare your client with the information that when
mailed First Class, postcards arrive at their destination more quickly and
with fewer quantity restrictions.
International Postcard Rates (As of 2/2010)
Make the Address Machine-Friendly
The mail-to address is critical to delivery. Follow the
recommendations below so that automated postal
equipment can read and understand the address text.
- Face: Serif and script typefaces may be difficult for pre-sorting scanners to read, so the Post Office recommends sans serif.
- Case: Uppercase letters are more evenly shaped and easier to scan, so use all-caps whenever possible.
- Size: 10 to 12 point is optimal for the postal scanners to read, so make that cap-height your minimum.
- Spacing: Overlapping characters caused by too much tight kerning/tracking can confuse the scanner, but extreme letterspacing can be a readability problem,
- too. Keep the horizontal letterspacing so that each character stands alone without overlap.
- Leading: If you don't use all caps, overlapping characters can happen between lines of text as well, so leave enough vertical space clear between lines.
- Underlines: Additional ink near the letters can confuse the character shapes, so no underlines.
The address locations are also important to
scanners. Including a return address is a great
opportunity for branding and providing contact
info, but be careful with the positioning of the return
address in relation to the mailing address. The relative
position of To: and From: will determine which address
the Post Office uses for delivery. Use the wrong return
address position, and all of your postcards might
mistakenly be sent to the sender!
Any text within 2.75" of the bottom edge will be
scanned as a potential mailing address, so keep your
return address above this area. Also, be sure your
message can't be mistaken for an address—don't
include state or ZIP code in your text, or it might be
Create Mailing Permit Indicias
An indicia is text
that tells the Post Office the details of how the mail
delivery is being paid for. (The U.S. Postal Service
calls it a "Mailing Permit Imprint," but for simplicity's
sake, let's stick with "indicia.") It should be in the same
upper-right location where you'd put a postage stamp.
Indicia text should be 10 to 12 points, all caps, and a
sans-serif typeface. The indicia imprint can be four or
five lines, as needed to fit in a compact area, and can
be enclosed in a box or not (designer's choice).
An indicia for outbound mail has several required
text elements, in this order:
- The RATE MARKING, showing the mailing service used.
- The words "U.S. POSTAGE PAID", usually with "PAID" on its own line.
- The CITY and STATE where the mailing permit's held.
- The words "PERMIT NO." and the mailing permit number.
Depending on the mail services you use, indicia Rate
Markings can include any combination of First-Class,
Standard, Bulk, Pre-Sorted, Non-Profit Organization,
and/or Customized Market Mail. A mailing permit has
registration costs and minimum quantities that may be
too much expense for a small client or project, so many
printers and mailing houses will let
Cards that qualify for the postcard mailing rate start at
3.5" x 5" size (the smallest allowed size of any U.S. mail
piece) and go up to a maximum of 4.25" x 6". The most
common postcard trim size is 4" x 6".
Any piece larger than 4.25" x 6" up to 6.125" x 11.5"
is charged the First-Class rate, even when it's a flat,
unenclosed card. Some standard trim sizes that mail as
First-Class include Large 5" x 7", Deluxe 6" x 8.5", and
Super Size 6" x 9" postcards.
International Postcard Sizes
In addition to width and height, depth (thickness)
also has minimum and maximum limits. A ¼" is the
maximum thickness for a standard piece of mail,
including postcards larger than 4.25" x 6". A card
thicker than that is considered a flat or large envelope,
with different postal rates. Standard mail has a 0.009"
minimum thickness if the piece is 4.25" x 6" or larger,
but mailers sized smaller than that are allowed to be
slightly thinner. Postcards within the 3.5" x 5" to 4.25"
x 6" range can be as light as 0.007 inches thick, and up
Design Postcards to Connect
to 0.016" thick. Less than that is just too thin and flimsy
to go through the mailing equipment. See Table 2 for
these numbers at a glance.
Proportion matters, too: The aspect ratio has to
fall within a certain range to be mailable at regular
postage rates. The aspect ratio (length divided by
height) has to fall between 1.0-to-1.3 and 1.0-to-1.25
inclusive, or it's considered non-standard. Anything
non-standard must be processed manually, which
costs more. Square or skinny shapes outside of
this range won't go through the automated postal
equipment, so those get a manual-handling surcharge.
: A free template from
the Post Office helps check mail
piece dimensions. To get an
actual template, contact a Postal
Business Service Center.
You can quickly evaluate your project against all
of these size criteria by using a free template from
the Post Office. The Dimensional Standards Template
(Notice 3A) is an easy way to check for minimum size,
proper height to length ratio, and thickness of your
mail piece. Just align your design sample over this
white plastic card and see if the corners fall within the
recommended dimensions (Figure 2). There's even
a slot to test the maximum thickness of your design
sample; if it fits through, it's OK to mail. Pick up a
template at your local Post Office.
Subscription cards inside magazines are an example
of Reply Mail—postcards meant to be sent back
to the source. The Post Office has a few options for
these kinds of postcards: Business Reply Mail (BRM)
and Courtesy Reply Mail (CRM). If your postcard
is sent BRM, the sender pays for return postage. If
the postcard is sent CRM, senders have to add their
own stamps. The Post Office delivers BRM and CRM
postcards faster than
standard mail, giving
a possible business
advantage of several days.
A third option, Meter
Reply Mail, uses preprinted
affixed to it that doesn't
get charged until it arrives
at the originator. But
since the MRM format
has no special limitations
to design around, I won't
cover it in this article.
There are so many
restrictions on BRM and
CRM card layouts that it's
best to use the official
Post Office digital templates (Figures 3 and 4). You can
download Mac and Windows files in several trim sizes
These well-structured documents have an Instructions
Layer, Working Layer, and Dimensions Layer. They're
available as Illustrator, Acrobat PDF, and Freehand files,
but unfortunately not as InDesign files.
There are more detailed layout guidelines for
BRM in Quick Service Guide 507
and for CRM in
Quick Service Guide 507b
. Check your postcard
project against all of these criteria by using the free
Automation Letters Template (Notice 67
Shapes: Beyond the Standard Rectangle
So far I've covered rectangular postcards within a
fairly narrow range of size and proportion. But you can
send almost any flat shape through the mail. In 2005,
the USPS started the Customized MarketMail (CMM)
program, which allows for die-cut "shaped mail" to
be sent through the postal system. The first oversized
specialty die-cut postcard mailed was shaped like a
box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Don't worry that odd postcard shapes will be
tangled in the mail sorter. Because these pieces are
sent express to each ZIP code distribution center and
then hand-sorted by the final postal carrier, they don't
ever go through any automated machinery. Minimum
dimensions of 3.5" x 5" and 0.007" thick still apply, but
the maximum size for CMM is 12" x 15" x 0.75" with a
top weight limit of 3.3 ounces. Uniform thickness is not
required, and attachments up to ¼" thick are allowed.
That means you can glue things onto your postcard,
such as a product sample. The only shape limitations
are the die-cutter tolerances at your print finisher.
CMM materials can be anything semi-rigid that
fits within the dimensional criteria. That means
materials that would otherwise be considered
unmailable are now open for consideration: clear or
semi-transparent; mirror-reflective; rough and heavily
textured; furry; fluffy; and spongy surfaces are all fair
game for CMM.
Having your odd postcard shapes gently handled
by people during every step of the delivery process
has its price, and some benefits. Between the express
delivery and the prioritized hand sorting, CMM can
actually be faster than First-Class mail. The postage
itself is not bad, but the cost of organizing and drop-
shipping each CMM ZIP-zone batch can add up. Note:
Due to the additional expense of drop-shipping to
each postal station, CMM is more cost-effective when
targeting specific ZIP codes than when sending to
scattered addresses across the country.
Because of the multi-stage delivery process, CMM
won't be returned to the sender, so you must include
"Carrier-Leave If No Response" on CMM pieces in the
location of the return address or under the return
address, in a minimum 8 pt font size. Be sure to leave
a 3.375" x 2.5" area to include the mailing address,
optional return address, indicia, and "Carrier-Leave If
Not just any mail house can participate in this
specialized delivery process. The postal service
requires the sender to be registered with certain
mailing capabilities confirmed. Check with your
printer to see if they have the die-cutting and mailsorting
capabilities required for CMM shipments.
The special standards for designing Customized
MarketMail are in Quick Service Guide 705a.
With a huge size, almost any shape, and minimal
restrictions on materials, Customized MarketMail is
the place where creative postcard inspiration can
flourish. CMM will cost you extra, but the dramatic
impact of sending attention-getting shapes in the
mail may be worth the expense (Figure 5).
Postcard printing is fairly straightforward. You can
output at your local press or find lots of affordable
options from online printers.
If you want the Post Office to process
your cards automatically, the stock must be between
0.007" and 0.016" thick, and bar-coded pieces more
than 4-1/4" high or 6" long (either dimension) must be
at least 0.009" thick. Rigidity is also an issue; make sure
the stock isn't too flexible.
In general, avoid patterns, textures, and colors
of more than 10% density from white. Within these
guidelines, there may be plastics or other non-paper
materials that qualify for postcard or letter rate. If
you use a stiffer plastic or heavily laminated stock,
the rigidity may bump it up to an "automated flat"
rate. Check stock samples with the Mailpiece Design
Analyst at the nearest Postal Business Service Center,
because only they can make the final call.
As you discovered in the section "Shapes: Beyond
the Standard Rectangle," paying a little extra for a "flat"
rate or manual handling opens up many more options
for mailing postcards made of different materials.
Flood varnishes or coatings can add a
nice look and feel to the finished card, but that's not
everything to consider. You may want to keep the
postcard surface uncoated or matte so it's easier to
write on, especially if it's a survey or appointment card.
For a calendar or reference postcard that's intended
to be kept and handled repeatedly, adding a heavy
laminate or UV coating will make the card more
Don't use metallic inks for addresses, because the
reflection makes the text unscannable. Also be sure to
keep the address color darker than the surrounding
area, with a color contrast of at least 15% from the
base it's printed on. Black ink for addresses is the safest
choice, and what the Post Office recommends.
There are amazing deals online for
printing large quantities of color postcards. Many
times, these cards are batch-printed with other
orders, so your postcard may be one small section
of a ganged-up press sheet. You may not have the
opportunity for exacting color adjustments and can
reasonably expect to get "pleasing color" results only.
If your project needs precise color execution, beware,
but if pleasing color is acceptable, then by all means
give these options a try.
As I've mentioned in previous sections of this
article, the Postal Service offers working template
files for BRM and CRM, and plastic templates with
measurements and guidelines. These are your best
bet to ensure that your design qualifies for the lowest
possible rates and the most delivery options.
Adobe's InDesign and Illustrator postcard templates
are problematic because they don't follow the best
practices described in this article. In fact, as Figure 6 shows, some of them wouldn't even
be mailable! However, they're fine for visual inspiration
before you get into production setup.
InDesign CS3 and CS4 templates are in Library >
Application Support > Adobe Templates > InDesign
in their respective version folders, with a postcard
example in the Business Sets folder. You can also
navigate to the InDesign examples by choosing File
> New > Document from Template. In Illustrator CS3,
check out Cool Extras > Templates to find folders
with Basic and Inspiration examples, and in Illustrator
CS4 look in the Cool Extras > en_US > Templates for
a few options.
The point of any postcard is to deliver a message.
Many marketing postcards are meant to be returned to
the sender so the message impact can be measured.
Whether they come back by mail or in person, you as
the designer can improve the return rate. For example,
use the Business Reply Mail (BRM) or Courtesy Reply
Mail (CRM) layout formats. Those little
black bars help with automated pre-sorting for return
delivery that can dramatically reduce time in transit.
A strategy that encourages in-person returns is to
design a postcard that takes on an additional role: an
event invitation can also act as an entrance ticket, a
sale announcement can do double duty as a coupon,
even a simple schedule reminder can become an active
appointment card. People lining up with postcards
in hand is proof that the mailing was effective.
Some postcards are sent out, and meant to be saved.
Beautifully designed postcards can earn a permanent
spot on bulletin boards, scrapbooks, walls or refrigerator
doors as art that constantly reminds people of their
source and message with creative visuals they don't
Better Postcards by Design
Based on its dimensions and setup, a mail piece
can qualify as a postcard, letter, automated flat,
Customized MarketMail or package. Add in lower
rates for pre-sorting and bulk quantities, discounts for
Non-Profit Organizations, and surcharges for manual
handling, and there are lots of factors that determine
the actual cost of mailing. Don't worry, there's a
friendly neighborhood Mailpiece Design Analyst
(MDA) to check your work and make sure it fits the
criteria. Run a sample of your project past the MDA at
any Postal Business Service Center for a free mailing
evaluation, find the one nearest to you at https://tools.usps.com/go/POLocatorAction!input.action
As designers we can create postcards that people
may glance at and toss out, or that catch their
attention with immediate visual impact. Beyond the
design of your message, there are plenty of ways to
layout your postcard for optimal results. With a very
straightforward printing process and a fraction of the
cost of other delivery options, these little mailers can
be valuable communicators.
Cathy Palmer is an award-winning graphic designer who has
worked in both the creative and production sides of publishing.
She currently provides digital media skills training and seminars
on graphics applications, teaching designers how to build smarter
pages and let their computers do most of the work so they can focus
on the creative stuff.
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