Direct Mail: Which Comes First — Copy or Design?

by Karen J. Marchetti

When you’re concepting a direct mail campaign, the messaging should always come first. But once the overall direction is decided, which should come next — writing the copy, or mapping out the design? The answer: it depends . . .

Envelope Direct Mail

Envelope direct mail is typically referred to as “copy-driven.”

An envelope is usually used with a sales letter — and the sales letter is the “salesperson” in the package.

The copy in the sales letter should say exactly what a salesperson would say if face-to-face with the recipient. And so, the sales letter copy needs to address each step in the sales process, just as a salesperson would do if face-to-face.

With envelope direct mail, you want to map out the copy (the selling argument) first.

  • It’s the amount and type of copy needed that will dictate what elements are needed in the package — and how long each one needs to be.

Brochures and Self-Mailers

The purpose of a brochure is to be a “showroom” for a product or service. Similarly, you might use a “self-mailer” (a mailer that goes in the mail without an envelope) when you want to use a “showroom” approach in your mail.

With the “showroom” approach, you should map out the visual elements that will be needed in your showroom (charts, graphs, product photos, screen shots, etc.) first. Then, determine how much copy will be needed to go along with the visuals.

  • If your brochure or self-mailer will rely primarily on copy to get the desired response, then copy should be mapped out first, to determine how large of a brochure or self-mailer is needed.


Catalogs are typically referred to as “design-driven” (they’re “showrooms”). The design of a 2-page catalog spread needs to move the eye through the spread. And each spread needs to be interesting enough to keep the recipient engaged in the catalog.

The more profitable and best-selling products should be given more space, while less profitable and less popular products get less space. Once the designer knows which products will go into a spread, and how much space to allocate to each product, the design can be mapped out. Then, copy is typically written to fit.

  • With catalogs, the space allocated to each product is based on that product’s revenue and/or profit — not by how much copy the copywriter thinks needs to be written to sell the product.