Colin Wheildon on Direct Mail Design
In 1995, journalist, designer and editor Colin Wheildon added “international author” to his curriculum vitae with the release of “Type & Layout: How Typography and Design Can Get Your Message Across—Or Get in the Way.” In-the-know designers and marketers responded by adding his treatise to their repertoires. What made Wheildon’s concepts so intriguing is that they were based not on his own design aesthetic or anecdotes, but rather on a nine-year study into the readability and perception of various typographic elements.
A decade later, Wheildon joined with writer and editor Geoffrey Heard to expand on his earlier work. As Wheildon explains, the revised edition, “Type & Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes,” adds to his original with “greater detail about my methodology and the advisors who helped me put the program together; important additional material by Geoffrey Heard on applying the guidelines which emerged from the research; on the physiology of the act of reading; and on the effects of the printed word on non-fluent readers.” Wheildon now pauses to reflect on the study that drove this important work and its implications for direct mailers.
TG: How did you go about putting together your study?
CW: I was a newspaper and magazine journalist, designer and editor for most of my working life and, as a result of being the son of a printer, I’ve always had an interest in type and layout. My father had a set of design maxims (e.g., serif text is easier to read than sans serif), and it always troubled me that they were just that: maxims, not supported, apparently, by research. … My motivation was the need to be sure the design work I was producing was working. When I started the study, I was designing leaflets, brochures, annual reports and marketing materials for a major motoring organization, and I needed to be able to justify in my own mind any design decision I made. I also wanted to be certain I was producing successful material, whether it was sales-oriented or information-oriented.
One day I came across a book on print design by Edmund C. Arnold, then professor of mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University. I wrote to him, asking if he could steer me towards the research [that] guided him. Sadly, there was none, he told me, but through our correspondence, he convinced me to undertake research myself. … I devised my own test papers; conducted my own interviews, and collated my own results. It took me nine years of testing, retesting and collating before I could call a halt and start to circulate my findings.
TG: What were the most interesting results?
CW: To me, the most interesting finding of my studies was how easy it is to turn off readers and potential readers by questionable design. I also was very interested to learn that many of the design precepts I employed contributed to the above, and were therefore counter-productive. Also of considerable interest to me was that my father was right: serif type in continuous text is easier to comprehend than sans serif.
TG: What are the implications for direct mailers?
CW: I believe the most important finding for direct mailers is, again, how easy it is to turn readers and potential readers away. [People] must be encouraged to read your material and act upon it. I believe that a design that comes between the marketer and the customer is a waste of money and, equally important, the waste of a marketing opportunity. I believe my research is important because it lets the designer know that if he or she disregards the guidelines enunciated in my findings, that not only is there a penalty in reduced comprehension, but also the extent of that penalty. I also believe my study is important because it’s immensely practical, and because it’s probably unique.
I say “probably” because about 13 years ago David Ogilvy told me that in the 1930s, George Gallup—then research director at Young and Rubicam—came up with almost identical findings to mine on most of the elements I researched. Gallup measured the readership of advertisements and found that certain techniques out-performed others, but he didn’t, as far as I can determine, measure the effects of individual typographic elements.
TG: What advice would you offer direct mail designers?
CW: Keep it simple and test your material before you burst into print. A cautionary tale: I have a copy of a direct response newspaper advertisement for Land Rover four-wheel drive vehicles. It shows the vehicles on a dark landscape with the text reversed onto the dark sky. The text includes a coupon for the potential customer to complete and mail in to receive additional material about the vehicle. The advertisement elicited a very poor response, the reason being that to fill in the reversed coupon, the reader needed to use a white ink pen, and who has a white ink pen handy? I rest my case.
[From the March 2006 issue of Inside Direct Mail, a sister publication to Target Marketing. To learn more about Inside Direct Mail, visit http://www.insidedirectmail.com.]