Designing Envelopes

Now that electronic document delivery is here to stay, your clients are probably ordering fewer envelopes. But they are still an important part of their stationery suite, and when used, make an impression by mail, messenger, FedEx, what-have-you. A blank envelope with a sticker is not professional in appearance nor does it accomplish branding objectives. Because of sophisticated database management, targeted direct mail is successful and growing. With postage costs skyrocketing it is ever more important to make sure that your direct mail message that is in an envelope reaches its intended target. Good design helps achieve all those goals!

The unexpected thing about envelopes is they have a lot of design restrictions for an object that seems so simple. Although they are a natural item to want to get funky with, that comes with costs – sometimes steep. Everyone will have a story about an envelope that “broke the rules” and still makes it through the mail and yes that can happen. But if your client is going to be marketing through direct mail, those rules are going to stop a mailing in its tracks or cost a fortune because all the presort automated postage savings will not apply. Here are some of the most important things to know before you start designing for envelopes. There are critically different design parameters when you are designing for a standard envelope, or for a custom converted envelope. I will cover designing for converted envelopes in the next post.

  1. Not all of the envelope is available! This template from the USPS, www.usps.com shows which parts of the face of an envelope belong to the USPS. Always double check current rules at the U.S. Post office website as regulations are in a constant state of flux.

USPS Template


2. Understanding how envelopes are made will help you in your design process and will help you educate your customers on what you can do for them. Envelopes are die cut and glued from a flat sheet of paper. This process is called converting. Converting an envelope for a client is called custom converting. When you buy an envelope off the shelf, of any type, they are a standard size. The most commonly used business envelope is a number 10 (#10) which measures 4.125 in. x 9.5 in.

3. If you put a large screen or screened area on the front of the envelope, it cannot cross over any part of the seams. The printed image will show up differently over the seam. In the photo below, I have taken two envelopes, a side seam and a diagonal seam to illustrate what happens when you print a screen over a seam.


If a large screened area is critical to the design, see if it can be moved outside the area of the seam by checking the shape of both side seam and diagonal seam envelopes. If the envelope is going to be used in automated equipment for addressing or stuffing, you need to make sure neither seam presents an issue. If the screen cannot be relocated you will have to convert the envelope or change the design.

4. If any part of the design bleeds off the envelope it will need to be converted. There are some exceptions to this but they are so convoluted depending on the printing press and operator skill that’s it is just better to plan on converting. If you think about how a bleed works, it makes sense. On a flat sheet of paper, the bleed is trimmed away. You cannot trim an envelope because then it would have an open edge, so there you go.

5. If you print on the front and the back of an off-the-shelf envelope the price will go up A LOT. You cannot print the fronts and the backs at the same time so the price reflects that the envelope has to run through the press twice.

6. Nearly every single printing press that prints ready-made envelopes is a one-color or two-color press. That means a three-color envelope is going to be dramatically more expensive. If the three colors (or four or five) are in tight registration the envelopes will need to be converted. There are high-speed envelope presses that can print more than two colors in one pass, these normally require a large print run and the quality is not the same as sheetfed printing.

7. An image pressed into the paper by any process, like foil stamping and embossing, will show up on the back of the envelope, just like it shows up on the back of a sheet of paper.

8. Envelopes with clasp closures, button and string ties or other three-dimensional devices cannot run through an offset press and need to be printed with a method like letterpress. More to follow on letterpress printing limitations and challenges.

9. Window envelopes come in standard sizes and the window is in a standard position depending on the size of the envelope. Left and right window positions are available. The type of window film selected by the manufacturer depends on the characteristics required such as strength or clarity. Types of window film available include; cellophane, glassine, poly (polystyrene, polypropylene, polyester) and acetate, to name a few. Cello is the clearest of them all but not a durable as others. Glassine is vegetable-based and often found in recycled envelopes, but it is not as clear as poly. The poly’s each have traits that make one more desirable than another depending on the final use and manufacturing method. A window envelope without cellophane or poly costs the same as one with and is referred to as an open panel.

10. Standard envelope sizes come with standard flap styles. Envelope names such as Baronial, announcement, commercial, square and scarf are all terms that refer to the shape and or placement of the flap. Here are the most common flap styles with seam styles as well.

page 170 flaps

Have you had a crazy envelope encounter? I’d love to hear about issues or frustrations you have head designing envelopes.

[optin-cat id=243]


Similar Posts

One Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.