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Should Direct Mail Design be Ugly?

July 1st, 2008 by Bob Bly

“Ugly works” in direct mail design, writes my colleague Denny Hatch in his latest column in Target Marketing (7/08, p. 50).

His premise: direct mail should be intentionally designed to look ugly and junky, because it will increase response.

The reason (here Denny quotes his former boss Lew Smith): “Neatness rejects involvement. If a thing is too neat, a reader will look at it and say, ‘Isn’t that nice?’ and move on.”

Old school DM experts have preached the “ugly direct mail design is best” rule for decades.

But … I can’t help noticing that most of the winning direct mail promotions that cross my desk today are not ugly. They are cleanly designed and easy to read — not at all “junky.”

So let me ask you, Gentle Reader: which school do you stand with?

Do you, like Denny, deliberately create direct mail packages that look crude, ugly, and cluttered — in the belief that “ugly works”?

Or do you find today’s direct mail prospects respond better to a more professional and sophisticated graphic approach?


This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 1st, 2008 at 12:40 pm and is filed under Direct Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

31 responses about “Should Direct Mail Design be Ugly?”

  1. Ken Norkin said:

    Most of the direct mail I write is b2b lead generation. I don’t think my clients’ prospects have time to wade through a cluttered design — intentional or not — looking for a reason to respond to an offer or otherwise seek my clients’ help in solving their business problems. So I side with the organized approach to design.

  2. Dianna Huff said:

    I agree with Ken. I worked with a B2B DM expert and her advice was to always make a letter look like “real” business mail, not junk mail.

    I know I open stuff that looks like it needs my attention versus stuff that looks, smells, and screams junk mail.

  3. S.P. Gass said:

    If ugly means that an envelope looks like it might be a personal letter and not an ad, I’m sure it would get opened more often.

  4. Jim Logan said:

    I’m not sure what “ugly” is in this context, but I’ve found a direct mail letter that looks, feels, and reads like business correspondence gets the best result in corporate offices.

  5. Gerold Braun said:

    The question is: What is Denny Hatch’s definition of ugly? Does it mean “spill some coffee over the letter” or “do not make it look to perfect”?

    Lately i tested a letter, and the ugly-factor was that i used out-of-date typewriter-font Courier against “beautiful” Times. Ugly won.

  6. Jodi Kaplan said:

    I know of a recent case (not an ideal test, as there were more variables than just design), in which an event company sent out two versions of a brochure for a conference. Both were self-mailers, but one was ugly, two-color, plain paper (matching the company’s previous mailings) and the other was beautiful four-color on glossy paper with a generic photo of business people (which looked nothing like anything else they sent).

    Ugly won.

  7. RonniC said:

    Surely the design of your package depends on the product/service/organisation and the target market? Ditto the copy? (I take ‘ugly’ to mean that the mailing looks like a dog’s breakfast!)

  8. Bob Bly said:

    I think by “ugly” Denny means: (a) typewriter typefaces used in letter, (b) simulated handwriting, arrows, underlines, and other graphic devices, (c) uncoated paper stock rather than coated or glossy, and (d) a slightly amateurish (or at least non-slick) approach to design. Gerold: I’d love to see more typeface tests for letters. I always recommended Courier or Prestige Elite, but some think years of PCs and Word have trained readers to prefer desktop fonts like Times Roman over typewriter. Your test proves that is not always the case.

  9. Ken Norkin said:

    Handwritten arrows, circled text or margin notes strike me as exactly the techniques that can support the organization of a message and help a reader to quickly see the important points. I don’t think they’re necessarily ugly. They can be, but don’t have to be. So who knows what Denny Hatch meant by “ugly”?

    One letter I did with arrows, circles, notes and a typewriter face for a corporate financial software program pulled a few tenths of a percent lower response (requests for free trials) than the control, but had a higher conversion of trials to purchase. Client was counting leads, not sales, so my version lost. Go figure.

  10. David Fideler / Core Message Analysis said:


    After reading your post, I did a careful reading of Denny Hatch’s article. His point about getting the reader’s attention is of course true.

    Whether a junky looking mailing will produce a better response is dubious.

    Part of the answer to that question depends upon your target audience as well as the quality of what you have to offer.

    If you are pitching a very high quality offering or brand, and the mailing looks ugly, it would most certainly work against you. (I’m trying to picture Apple or Gevalia Kaffe sending out a cluttered, ugly looking DM piece, and can’t get my mind around that . . .)

    David Fideler

  11. Mordechai (Morty) Schiller said:


    I think David hit it. It depends on your audience and your message.

    Still, I think the point of the “ugly is beautiful” idea is in in opposition to the designeritis that plagues so much of our industry. Give me a buckeye ad that informs and convinces any day over an hyper-designed ad that overwhelms the message.


  12. Chui said:

    If I was selling $100 branded perfume over direct mail, I’d make the ad look cheap because it convinces the reader that they are buying trusted products from a discount mail order company, one whose margin is so thin they couldn’t bother with hiring a designer.

  13. Elizabeth Adams said:

    Hello, Bob …

    “Personal” might be a more useful term than “ugly” for getting a handle on what’s really going on, here.

    Back when I had my direct-mail business, I hired a supremely-talented friend of mine who had 13 years experience in running an ad agency with his partner who, sad to say, got tired of it and closed it down, leaving my friend out looking for a job.

    So he comes into my shop and takes one look at my sales letter and (tactfully) tells me I could be doing much better.

    Just between ourselves, I didn’t see how. Every letter I ever wrote got between 20-21% response, except one, and it got 40%.

    But I’m not an advertising genius, right?

    And I try to keep an open mind.

    So I said, “Tell you what: You design a letter you think will do better, and we’ll split the weekly run between the two, 10,000 with yours, and 10,000 with mine, and see which one does better.”

    So he got to work, and I must say, Bob, that his finished product was just simply awesome.

    The logo he designed was a knockout, no question about it. But in the back of my mind, I am thinking … hmmmm, so my prospect is going to turn her envelope over and slit it open and take out this letter and what she is going to see is this logo ???

    But I kept my thinks to myself. What do I know, right?

    The rest of letter was right up to the standard of the logo. He used Times Roman so it looked very professional, whereas I always used Courier so it would seem like a personally-typewritten letter.

    He used three colors of ink … black for the body copy and blue for most of the headlines and red here and there for special emphasis. It looked really classy.

    In comparison, mine looked very ordinary. Humble, even. I only used one color: black. I did put the first few words of my paragraphs in bold, as I often do here, but that was all, and it was just to help the reader’s eye more easily navigate the text.

    There’s lots more to tell about how the other elements of this project were handled, but the one word that best describes his finished product is “slick,” whereas the one word that best describes my finished product is “personal.”

    Which performed better?

    Well, his tanked! Absolutely tanked. Less than one-half of one per cent response. The national average!

    Since I needed 3% to break even, you can imagine how much money I lost mailing out 10,000 of his version!

    So it’s a good thing mine pulled its usual 21%!

    But I should probably tell you …

    He also rewrote the body copy. So it wasn’t just that his letter *looked* slick, it’s that it actually *was* slick, too.

    I wrote heart-to-heart … I *cared* about the future of my customers, and I *shared* with them how I felt my product would help them make it better.

    He wrote brain-to-heart … he used all the tricks an experienced copywriter can (if he chooses) pull out of his bag for the purpose of manipulating response. He must have been in the audience when Olgilvy said, “The four main motivators of the nineties are fear, guilt, greed and status, in that order,” because he surely did bring every one of them to bear.

    He wrote the kind of letter I hate to get! And that I instantly toss in the trash as soon as I sense that kind of language coming up!

    Whereas I, you see … well, I wrote the kind of letter I would love to receive, only I never do, because nobody ever bothers to write them.

    Well, hardly anybody, anyway.

    There is one I know I would have loved to receive. It has the distinction of being the longest sales letter ever written — 24 pages, if I remember correctly — and everybody told him it was too long and that he shouldn’t send it … but he sent it anyway.

    It was written by a man who had always longed to go on an expedition to the South Pole but who couldn’t possibly afford such a trip on his meagre salary, so he had the happy thought of designing an expedition as a unique vacation for heads of corporations and pricing it in such a way that he could go along, too.

    He only sent out a few hundred copies to executives whose names he had personally researched; and, since there were only so many seats, naturally he was obliged to mention that, if you really want to go, then you’d be best advised to reserve your seat as soon as possible.

    Well, guess what?

    He got *hundreds* of *fully-paid* reservations by *express delivery* just a couple of days later!

    He was obliged to return all but just a few of them.

    And he got to go to the South Pole!

    Whether you’re writing to an individual (B2C) or to a corporation (B2B), it’s going to be *a human being* who ultimately reads your letter, right?

    So what I say is, if you were *that* human being, what letter would *you* like to receive?

    Remember the South Pole!

    Warmest Regards …



    P.S. Here is a helpful little tidbit:

    Back in the day when I was on the receiving end of direct-mail letters, I used to say to myself, “Well, it’s no wonder that the national average response rate is one-half of one per cent. Only an idiot would fall for this stuff.”

    So if we know that ½ a person out of every 100 people is an idiot, then what do you suppose the other 99½ are like?

    Believe it or not, there is actually an answer to that question. Jerry Clark does a beautiful job of explaining it in his audio CDs entitled “The Magic of Colors.”

    I don’t recall the exact percentages, but “most people” are “yellows” and the next most are “blues” and down from there it’s “greens” and the least — the fewest number — are “reds” but get this:

    It’s the “reds” that tend to wind up writing most of what the rest of us think of as “hard-sell” copy.

    And the reason it contains lots of what the rest of us would call “challenges” is challenges are what reds respond to … what “turns them on,” you might say. Like, “I bet you can’t (whatever) as much as I can” is language that “reds” understand … and “bait” that they rise to.

    And an absolute turn-off to the rest of us!

    So when I began to wonder how many people out of 100 might possibly be like me, I sat down and wrote the letter I wanted to receive so I could send it and find out.

    And the answer turned out to be about 20.

    Outside of direct-mail marketing, I believe it’s more like 45 and, since I did have one project that returned 40 out of 100, I have grounds for believing it.

    But this is all in retrospect. I didn’t find out about Jerry’s theory of personality types until long after I’d sold my direct-mail operation.

    Now that I know about it, though, I’m inclined to say that it plays a part in this discussion.

    What I mean is, if you know your intended recipients are going to be corporate accountants (who tend to be “greens”), you’ll probably get a much higher response if you study the green personality type, and then sit down and write the letter you would want to receive if you were one … assuming you’re not one already, in which case you’re in clover!

    But I would still make it look personal … neat and tidy, perhaps, since it’s going to greens, but definitely personal.

    Just my 2¢.


  14. Kevin said:

    One story I heard was of a realtor that sent out very plain mailer, introducing himself. Zero response. He then re-printed and distributed the same again, this time crunching them up into a ball first. However he added a permanent post-it note that said “Please don’t throw this away. It’s important”.

    Many believed this guy was going through their trash! However he got noticed and lots of people started calling. It just proves it’s not the always the message, or even the media – It’s doing something different, to get noticed…

  15. Denny Hatch said:

    It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks. “There are two rules and two rules only in direct marketing,” said freelancer Malcolm Decker. “Rule #1: Test everything. Rule #2: See Rule #1.” You can’t judge good direct mail; it judges you. Cheers.

  16. Kashif Tufail said:

    Understanding your audience is the key. In my 8 years of practical experience as a marketing manager at an apparel manufacturing company in Pakistan. I figured out our audience to be between the age of 40 to 50 (which is a logical age for a B2B decision maker or influencer). They are mature people with a built-in action oriented approach. They’d respond only to a professionally written, personally addressed, three-paragraph business letter with to-the-point information and requests to take any specific actions. They would not like to be persuaded or motivated via colorful graphics and layout design (a brochure or flyer type) to choose your company as a vendor. Further to this, repeating your mailings with a little variation in the body, but keeping the subject and your signature the same every time would stir their interest (if possible, hand-sign your letter or use an image of your hand signature if you are using a merge). Next important thing is the timing. In my case, my customers would not add any new vendors into their vendors’ portfolio until they’ve started experiencing or expecting a change in their existing business. For instance, they might be working on introducing a new line or style for the coming seasons, expansion plans or might be experiencing any quality issues from their existing vendor(s) etc. These changes do not occur very often and can be expected every three to six months. Therefore, sending a personally addressed business letter every month with a specific purpose (for instance, updating them of a new change in your operations which would benefit their business, requesting their time to meet one of your representatives or sales directors or CEO) would start generating required response as the time goes by and your corporate brand has built some equity in their brains. KISS principle is the key. I do not agree with the word “Ugly” here since, by playing this clever and tricky words’ game, you can impress your general readers but not your target audience in other businesses.

    If response is the real concern, try cold calling with a combination of direct sales letters.

  17. Mailing Services said:

    Does anyone know of a site with some good examples of direct mail? Basically, what worked for someone in the past.


  18. James Decker said:

    Cheap, ugly or amateurish is just that. Why should DM get a free pass? Every point of contact with an audience is equally important. Anything resembling a brochure, newsletter or report deserves credible design. I’m not talking award-winning “design”, just clean, easy to read and attractive.

    If you’re a serious, professional organization then how you communicate with your audience should reflect that. Period.

  19. Ellen Norton said:

    It’s been a long time but I still think it shouldn’t be “ugly”. It’s pretty simple.

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