But The idea for this blog started out as a simple question. I asked about a dozen very talented direct marketing art directors: What one direct mail design book do you still have and recommend to designers who want to learn the craft of direct mail design? Then things got interesting. The answers from these senior-level creatives were illuminating. They were varied, and showed how we’ve shifted to more electronic resources. Gone are the days of having relying on a direct mail design book to provide the answers we want as professionals. But running through all was a common thread about how we came to this business. We were trained ‘on the job’ in what works in direct mail design.
Their answers brought new insight into how designers become award-winning direct marketing creatives, and how creative inspiration and learning are changing. So the following is meant to help someone who really wants to learn to be a better direct mail designer, but may not have a mentor handy. Where do you go for information and knowledge? Trying to ‘hack’ your way into becoming greater is a recipe for disappointment. But there are some resources that kept coming up. Direct mail writing and direct mail design books that were mentioned as worth still keeping in the office, and worth sharing with other designers.
For instance, I heard from one designer who told me they were handed a taped-up, dog-eared copy of the great out of print book, Direct Mail Copy that Sells, by They don’t just keep it as a dust-gathering, nostalgic trophy. They share it with newer designers to help them learn the psychology behind some of the things done in direct mail.
No one really goes to design school to be a direct mail designer
At least none I’ve met in my career (and I’ve met a lot of people). There aren’t many, if any, college programs that graduate direct mail designers. Direct mail is not the “big show” young designers dream of. Inexperienced designers just think of it as boring, which it’s not. Or too restrictive, because it requires discipline to do well).
Your creative can and will be measured more closely than almost any other form of marketing. This is down-in the ditches, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-make-it-work design. It’s not for the feint of heart designer. Even decades after direct mail design has earned its place as part of an accountable media mix, direct mail sometimes gets a bit of the short end of the stick on respect. New generation of marketers, same misconceptions. I wrote about the voodoo math and misconceptions in an article on the PerezWorks site.
Fail forward less, and learn from books on direct mail writing.
The big advantage with a direct marketing creative book is that with most, it’s more than a gallery of images. You also get more of the backstory. Sometimes you also learn what was tried before and didn’t work, what the control was, and more. Reading all that detail helps you understand the problems that were overcome. It also lets you approach your creative and design problem with gained knowlege. You can avoid things that don’t work, and focus on new creative territory in your project.
Direct mail copywriters are the audience for most books. But as designers, you have a seat at the concept development table if you earn it. And to do that, you need to understand more than color and shape, you need to understand writing. When my writing partner and I worked together from the start of concept developement, I’ve produced my highest-performing, most-awarded direct mail designs. And I was thinking of the words to drive my designs, and how to the visual elements I was thinking of would plus my partner’s words.
These books about direct mail copywriting also go into the tweaks, twists, cost reduction steps you can use as a designer. We’re talking little moves that create big shifts in outcomes. Change the inks, stock, design, production method to save money on a winning package, and it wins bigger through greater ROI. If you do it right, you can accomplish the little moves without trashing your design. Even if your direct mail package doesn’t hit it out of the ballpark, but moves the numbers up only a little, you are still winning, and learning along the way.
The books: Two front-runners kept coming up
Several art directors I talked with mentioned the same two books still on their bookshelves.
Alan Rosenspan’s Confessions of a Control Freak is a direct mail design book that looks back on the foundations of concept, not just executional tricks and tips for designers.
Design formats for Boosting Direct Mail Response is an ebook featuring contributions by direct marketing creative experts including Carol W. Levy, top direct marketing creative director, direct mail designer and instructor.
And two newer books that earned high marks
Otis Maxwell’s book, Copywriting that gets RESULTS!
A 153-page fast-read, Copywriting that gets RESULTS! brings plenty of value and sound best practices gleaned from testing and actual examples. Maxwell is a veteran copywriter and gives first-hand knowledge and useful into creating advertising copy (and the design that supports it) than some clinical textbook could provide.
New Absolute Appeal: Direct Mail Design avoids mistakes other books make. This direct mail design book showcases work that performs, not merely what is aesthetically pleasing.
Hacks, YouTube, Lynda, an ebook tutorial, and more
The art directors I interviewed also shared their favorite online places they use to learn or get ideas. Here’s a short list of online resources and what I think about them.
Jay Huling shares tips and posts articles about copywriting and creative on his website. Jay’s content provides experienced insight on a larger world of marketing creative work, especially creative messaging.
Communication Arts lets you to search their galleries for showcased work. Search using “Direct Mail”. You can drill down to see closer views of components. Performance data or production information isn’t provided.
Direct Mail Formats: A Strategic Approach to Format Selection is a low-cost direct mail design book in Kindle eBook format. It explores 11 different direct mail formats. And it gives you reasons why different applications called for different formats.
The shrinking direct mail designer’s bookshelf
Are we as direct mail designers reading less? Are there fewer direct mail design book titles today? Probably, and Yes. The Web helps us access so much more content so quickly, and we are all in such a rush, we can’t always wait for a book. Like you, I use and read electronic media a lot more than print, and I’m very happy to have replaced boxes of ‘swipe file’ direct mail live samples with catalogs of photos captured using my iPhone. But with printed content, we consume and retain it differently. With a book, the information seems to sink deeper. And the lessons seem to stick more deliberately when I can highlight a key thought or phrase with a pen in my hand. Even when I’m brainstorming, breezing through a Communication Arts Annual can trip the little grey cells into creating new ideas.
No matter where you are in your direct mail design career, make sure you are always learning, always observing.
What direct mail design book do you still have and recommend to designers who want to deepen their direct mail design skills?
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