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Spice Up Your Publications: Design Brochures, Books, Direct Mail

The first complete season of the television show Northern Exposure on DVD comes wrapped in an adorable miniature orange sleeping bag with blue type. This is good marketing. I’m sure it was expensive to produce, but I’m also sure that many people who had never heard of Northern Exposure bought the product just for the packaging.

Or consider direct mail. You have only a few seconds to grab your reader’s interest when your promotional piece arrives—unsolicited—in your reader’s mailbox. Your prospect will look for any reason to throw it away. How can you keep this from happening?

The bottom line is that if you’re doing the same thing from one marketing campaign to another, or if you’re producing the same books and book covers repeatedly, you will lose your audience. If you’re not excited, they won’t be either.

Personally, I learned design by observing. I learned to look all around me, to pinpoint the design work that really turned me on and then articulate why it did so. You can do the same.

If you’re designing a book, go to a bookstore and look at all the covers.

  • Take the books off the shelves and look at the design grids, the typefaces.
  • Think about the paper used, the coatings on the book covers. Are they dull or glossy?
  • What does the paper feel like in the books you especially admire? Think about paper texture.
  • What images are on the covers and how are they rendered? Duotones, process color? Sometimes a book cover with a black-and-white, selectively hand-colored, or sepia-toned photo can be far more dramatic than books with four-color covers.
  • Consider the dimensions of the books. Do they have an unusual shape or size? Are they more rectangular, oblong, square, larger or smaller than the other books on the shelf?

For ideas on designing a direct mail piece, go through your own mail for a week and throw out everything you don’t love (except the bills, of course). If you’re like me, you may find one piece a week you consider attractive. Then ask yourself why.

  • Is the photography unique?
  • Does the image get you to think about a topic in a different way or see an object or event through new eyes?
  • If so, how? Is it the way the photo is cropped? Sometimes an image that is tightly cropped or that bleeds off the page in an unexpected way can capture your interest. Sometimes less is more.
  • Think about how your eye moves across the page.
  • Think about the visual expectations the piece sets up and how or whether it thwarts these expectations (like point/counterpoint in music).
  • Is the piece humorous? Why?
  • What about the typefaces?
  • Do the letterforms work as designs in themselves? Are they informal, intimate, or brusque?
  • Think about the paper. When everything else in the mail is on gloss stock, a thick, uncoated sheet with a texture that makes you want to run your fingers back and forth across the paper can really set a piece apart from the rest.

Other sources of samples—and I’m a great believer in maintaining a “swipe file”—include printers’ samples, images from the Internet, printing and design magazines, and samples from paper merchants. Sometimes these last are far more interesting than printers’ samples because these are the paper manufacturing professionals putting everything they have--from their copywriting skills, to their photographic skills, to their design skills, to their paper-selection skills, as well as lots and lots of money--into persuading people to buy their product. Also, I look at signage and displays in shopping malls. New print design trends show up early and powerfully in clothing stores frequented by teens and young professionals.

Wherever you get your ideas, when you’re looking to adapt them to your own uses, ask yourself the following questions: Is it good/unique design/production, and how did the designer achieve the desired effect? If you’re worried that a particular effect will be costly, such as a cut-out (diecut) section of a printed piece, just ask your printer or paper merchant. Probably, he/she will have a sample showing how someone else achieved a similar effect in a slightly different way, an economical way that fits your budget.

It’s all about getting ideas, and they come from diverse sources. Go to a museum. Go to a mall. Learn to look. Then learn to turn a concept into a printable piece. Keep a swipe file, but also learn how to adapt an idea to your particular design problem. Think in terms of the building blocks of design and production: type, grids, color, paper. Analyze what you see and like, and break it down into its component elements. And expect this to take time—and be exciting and inspirational as well.

Remember two final things.

  • First, nothing is new. Everything that looks new is built on something old. Take something you find and do it slightly differently. Marry an old concept with a new design technique. Experiment. Play.
  • Second, remember that you are designing for a specific audience, not just for the love of design. If your typeface is very small and your audience is made up of senior citizens, you will lose them: If they can’t read the brochure, they won’t buy the product. If you’re trying to persuade teens to buy something, and your design is stodgy, you will lose them as an audience, too.

You must understand how your audience thinks and feels, what the features and benefits of your product or service are, the design elements that facilitate communication with your audience, and the technical aspects of print production that make your brochure, book, or signage able to be produced for your budgeted cost.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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