My Top 10 Design Elements to Lift Response

Is your response rate getting a little stale? You can hit refresh with some simple design elements that work hard to communicate your message and get you better results. Sound good? Then let me share my personal list of 10 go-to elements, from proven classics to the try-something-new. 

How many could you use to lift response? Which element is my favorite? Read on and see.

1. The Box

Yes, thinking “inside” the box can get results! Proof: The continuing success of a direct mail classic, the Johnson box. Just put your offer or your main product benefit (or both) inside a box at the top of a sales letter and you’re off to a winning start. Or use an iteration of the box – the sidebar – to highlight other big benefits, as well as testimonials. Did you know: The Johnson box is now popular with email marketers, too. It goes by this name: the email preheader.

Johnson Box

2. Certificate Border

Put it around an order form or a product guarantee – create an “official” appearance, instantly.

Certificate Border

3. Circles & Icons

Want to give your money-back guarantee or limited-time offer a more commanding presence? Contain the important words in a circle. Or design a special icon, to really stand out.

guarantee icon

4. White Space

Too much text in a small area scares away most readers. Copy scattered here and there is confusing. White space calms things down and encourages closer reading.

5. Handwriting

When you want your message to be a little more personal, or you want a key benefit to pop even more, a handwriting script will do the job.

6. The Check Mark

To draw attention, inject positive vibes with a check mark. Next to a statement, it communicates an emphatic Yes! It’s especially effective in a short list of points — instead of bullets, use check marks.

7. Color

I could write a book about it! One huge color benefit: giving your message that extra push. Example: In designing a 3-color job for a financial client, I often pair black type with a color that brands the product by conveying trust or wisdom, like blue. Then, to move the call-to-action or the offer to center stage, I select a bright color (like red) that will stand out against the blue and black.

8. Graphs & Charts

Ever use a bar graph to pit your product against the competition? Or display all the good that donor contributions will do in a pie chart? These visual cues can speak volumes, with an air of authority. Plus, consider this: a simple infographic, to show how your product works and the flow of benefits to buyers.

Comparison charts

9. Bold Text

Sprinkle it judiciously in your promotions, and readers won’t miss what you most want to communicate when they scan the page.

10. The Arrow

Point to something and, snap, you pique interest. Maybe that’s why the arrow is my favorite design element – whether it’s used to direct readers’ eyes to a major benefit or deadline, or to provide a powerful call-to-action.


These are just a few easy ways you can employ certain design elements to refresh your response rate. If you need any assistance, just give me a call.

To Bold or NOT to Bold? The answer is not pretty!

As I was working on a direct mail package recently, a curious thing happened. The client kept asking me to make some of the important content “less bold.” In effect, to de-emphasize the marketing message. So why do it? Because, she explained, the bolded copy didn’t look pretty. Huh???

As direct marketers, we don’t go for ugly, but we may not always aim to be the prettiest, either. Our aim is to get response. And bold is a powerful visual tool to help make that happen.

Bold makes copy pop — thus making it more scannable.

The right phrases or subheads in bold direct the eyes of busy readers to quickly see what you most want them to see, at first glance. Result: Your promotion could get a more careful second look, instead of simply getting trashed right off the bat!

Take, for example, this two-color blurb from a flyer. Using bold (in green and in body color) makes the product’s competitive edge so much easier for the reader to spot.

Why XYZ Financial?
Most important are profits. XYZ Financial is one of the rare services that tells you not just when to buy a particular stock but also when to sell. Because profits are only theoretical until you sell.

Another example: Part of a fundraising letter, where bold is used to point out the benefits of donating.

I want to remind you that more than 60% of the kids in Honduras never reach the sixth grade. By donating now, you can provide what they can’t afford:  basic things like pencils and notebooks. Things that your kids may take for granted. With a $100 tax-deductible contribution, you can directly impact the life of a child in Honduras … you can directly impact the future.

But can you ever have too much bold?

Yes, just like you can have too much chocolate if you’re served 5 or 6 chocolate treats all at once! If you bold everything, nothing seems important – or inviting to read. Are there alternatives to bold? Sure. You can, for example, use ALL CAPS or italic, depending on how emphatic you want your message to be. Here is a hierarchy of choices:

  1. Bold with a complementary strong color
  2. ALL CAPS with a complementary strong color
  3. Bold in body color
  4. ALL CAPS in body color
  5. Underlining, but only in print materials.  (Not recommended for online promotions because it could be mistaken for a link.)
  6. Italic

What about paper considerations?

Good you asked! If you’re printing on uncoated stock, beware: inexpensive uncoated paper will absorb the color, therefore making colors darker. This can be tricky to fix, since all colors look bright when you view the job on a monitor. For example, this can happen:



The blue looks almost black when printed. Yikes, of course you don’t want that! The question then is, how do you know how dark a color will print? That’s why you need a designer — we can check it out, using our Pantone tools.

If you want to make some BOLD moves with expert guidance, let’s chat!

Vintage Jell-O ads offer a valuable lesson

Times change but some marketing tactics not that much!

I discovered that when I came across some 1920’s Jell-O promotions (a branding ad and a direct response ad) at an antique shop a couple of years ago. I was struck by some powerful marketing tactics Jell-O used then — tactics that still work well today, and that you could use to your advantage.

First, let’s look at the vintage Jello-O branding ad below.

Jell-O Branding Ad

Branding creates product awareness by forging an identity. With just a few words and an upper-class image, this Jell-O brand ad positions the product as an impressive delight that now ALL Americans can enjoy. Why now (the 20s)? Well, did you know that gelatin wasn’t always for the masses? It was too expensive, as well as too labor-intensive if you didn’t have servants! Jell-O changed that with its easy-to-make, easy-on-the-pocketbook product.

But Jell-O didn’t stop there.

What made Jell-O hugely successful back in the early 1900’s was the distribution of free recipe books.* And to help distribute these recipe books they used direct response ads — like the one you see below.

Jell-O Direct Response Ad
Unlike a branding ad, a direct response ad’s goal is to get the reader to take immediate action — like fill out an order form to actually buy the product, click on a button to learn more about an organization, call an 800 number or, in Jell-O’s case, mail a coupon to get a free recipe book. Another distinction: Measureable response. You get data with direct response. Instead of guessing, you KNOW what works and what doesn’t with your customer base. And you can collect their home and email addresses for future promotions.

Once you’ve targeted your audience, these two elements (which the Jell-O ad contains) are critical to the success of a direct response ad:

BENEFITS-HEAVY COPY: You’re asking people to act now. So forget the fluff and provide longer copy with solid benefits. Jell-O did (it doesn’t overtax digestion, nutrition experts say it provides good food value, it’s not just for dessert, etc.).

OFFER, WITH URGENT CALL-TO-ACTION: A free item — like the free Jell-O recipe book — is a great magnet for response. But other offers, like a limited-time discount price, also do the trick.

So, take a lesson from Jell-O: Brand your product for strong identity, but then use direct response to boost your bottom line.

*Wikipedia Jell-O article

Huh … Tootsie Rolls?

When I recently purchased paints online for a craft project, I expected to get just paints. But, when I opened the package, out fell a printed “Thanks for your order” card and — surprise — some Tootsie Rolls. Sweet … except that I don’t love Tootsie Rolls, getting loose candy during a pandemic concerns me, and the thank-you was, well, generic. So, I just tossed everything in the garbage.

That’s a shame, because I know the vendor was trying to create brand loyalty. And thank-you’s are an important, proven way to win more loyalty, whether you’re a business or a nonprofit. But you need to take the time to do it right.

So, how can you craft a thank-you that will appeal to even people who don’t love Tootsie Rolls? Here are some suggestions:

PERSONALIZE. To start a relationship, a personal message is best. But, if you absolutely don’t have time for it, add a short, handwritten message to your printed card. Something like –

Meryl, I’d love to see what you create with our paints — post on our Facebook page!
Preston Smith, Business Owner. 917-123-1234

Dear Meryl, your donation made our day.
With gratitude,
Brianna Smith, Executive Director. 917-234-4567

INCENTIVIZE. Give people a reason to come back.

Include a coupon or online coupon code with your thank-you note that’s good towards the customer’s next purchase. Or send a free sample – in the case of the paint vendor, it could be a special color paint or brush – as an added bonus.

Be sure to send a sincere note right away. Be specific: Include a contact number and ask the donor to follow you on social media. And … send a regular newsletter with updates on projects donors are making possible.

Yes, times are tough. So, remember, you want to be the organization that comes to mind first — and thank-you’s that personalize and incentivize can definitely help.

Connect Better With Your Audience By Keeping It Real

With so much in disarray, what makes you smile these days?

For me, it’s watching celebrities creating do-it-yourself programming from their homes. Gone is that polished look we’re used to — the beautifully done makeup, the shiny hair, the chic wardrobe. Now kids and pets stir about as stars work from their basements or elsewhere in their homes. Don’t they look more like us now — more relatable and real?


What gave me some of my biggest smiles: Seeing Jimmy Fallon’s daughter display her graphic design efforts — just like every other kid’s! And watching Jennifer Garner in her pjs, dog nearby, baking not-so-perfect English muffins for her family.

Being real and relatable should also be reflected in your business and nonprofit communications — emails, social media, blog posts and even direct mail. Show the people behind the business. Share that you are still working, staying safe, even making a difference. If your business is temporarily closed, now is a good time to be involved in your community, with your mask and all, and speak about those efforts online! Working for a bigger company? Take your customers behind the scenes and show how you are taking precautions. Or, in your direct mail pieces, have your CEO looking like the average Joe or Jane as he or she is out helping the community.

And if you are a fundraiser, be honest — tell your donors what’s going on. Many communities that nonprofits serve have been hit hard. So, in your newsletters and appeals, show and write about it the way it really is.

Now for MY “real”! Recently, I received a list of members from my local community center to call and find out if they needed any help in these tough times. This is a “real” photo of me making those calls.

Checking in on my community

Now’s a great time not to show the staged images of your organization. Show your more “real and relatable” side, and your customers and donors just might connect with you even more during this unprecedented time.

What you can learn from my ruined pants

Laundry Symbols
How many of these clothing care labels do you understand? I can guess the bottom right — hand wash, but others are Greek to me. Every time I do my laundry I debate whether it’s worth flipping through the 4pt type on the clothing tags, to correctly wash an item. Nah, no time, too much work. So I usually test my luck and hope I guess right. Well … that’s how I ruined my favorite pants!

This brings me to a critical question for all of us: Are we losing many prospects because we make them work too hard to get our message?

Whether it’s a logo, direct mail, an email, or a website, the primary goal of good design is the same: clarity, for quick communication. That’s why, when I start a project, I always aim for a strong statement of my client’s message with the least amount of content and design elements. My mantra for today’s “instant information” world: Less is More.

So now, let’s look at those laundry symbols again. They’re simple. They’re clean (pun intended). But some fail at instant interpretation … leading me to my next question: How can we make sure our creatives are easily – and quickly – understood?

My answer: Clarity Testing. Basically, it’s asking people who are unfamiliar with the project to do a test run of your creative. This way, you can step out of your bubble and get an unbiased preview of how those in your target audience might respond to your team’s hard work. Benefit to you: You can tweak where needed now and possibly raise your ROI later.

Consider doing a Clarity Test on:

LOGOS: When you present your design and tagline, take note: Can people understand in seconds (yes, seconds) what your company’s mission is? If not, pow-wow with your designer – pronto!

DIRECT MAIL / EMAILS: To up your response rate, give all your components a reality check: See how people respond to various elements. For example:  calls-to-action. Do a few versions of the reply form, and test which gets the most attention.

Consider doing a Usability Test on:

WEBSITES: Usability Testing is a twin of Clarity Testing. The web development team observes people participating in a test drive of your website to answer questions like: Where might users get lost or confused? What information is actually being read? What engages enough for users to click through?

Losing promotion dollars (or your favorite pants) isn’t funny. Want some free guidance in sorting out what can work for you from someone with proven know-how?  I’m offering a complimentary 30-minute review of your future creative, no strings attached. Contact me here. Happy laundering!

The laundry icons clockwise, starting at the top left: tumble dry low/cool; only non-chlorine bleach; drip dry; hand wash; iron medium temperature. To learn more symbols visit this webpage

[Interview] Branding WordCamp NYC

Meryl was interviewed by Winstina Hughes for 2019 WordCamp blog, regarding the design  process used in developing the branding for WordCamp NYC 2018. You can find the original post here.

Winstina: Last year I was proud to lead a talented team of 18 organizers who sold-out WordCamp NYC (WCNYC) 2018. Organizers put a lot of work into planning a great WordCamp. Meryl Randman, our design lead, was in charge of branding WCNYC 2018, and she shares her story and process flow in this interview. Here’s a behind the scenes look at how our brand identity developed and how last year’s branding has been fluid into 2019.

Winstina: Meryl, one of my first thoughts after my lead organizer application was approved is that I wanted our WordCamp to be memorable. I knew I wanted it to be symbolical and reflect the spirit of NYC. When we first spoke I told you my idea of adapting Fearless Girl. Looking back on it, I think I felt I needed a little fearlessness myself.

Meryl: I remember that. I did show you a rendering of the image but I was afraid that we would have legal issues. We then explored using the image of the iconic Wall Street bull. Which you can see below. Not sure why we moved away from that, maybe copyright? Regardless the logo below would have been very costly to print on t-shirts.
WordCamp NYC logo idea 1
Winstina: I’m not sure I remember why either. We knew for sure we wanted our logo to reflect the magic of NYC. I wanted something different from the NYC skyline.

Yes, so I came up with several directions. One was giving WordCamp more of a “camp” feel.
WordCamp NYC logo idea 2
Winstina: They were fun. I remember smiling when I saw them.

Meryl: My favorite was the idea to adapt the iconic “I Love NY” to “I WordPress NY”.
WordCamp 2018 logo idea 3

Meryl: I believe you asked if we can try a taxi image. So this is what I came up with.

WordCamp NYC 2018 logo idea 4

Winstina: In retrospect, I am deeply appreciative that you were so invested in creating a brand for us. Not just a logo. At the same time you were developing these ideas Bud Kraus, Avis Boone and I were narrowing down our venue choices to what felt right — Convene in Time Square.

Meryl: Yes, and you encouraged me to come up with a logo that was reflective of where the conference would be held. This made sense. There is a magic to Times Square – the lights, the crowds and taxis. I presented the logo to our team that we all now know. Inspired by the lights of Broadway and a street sign.

WordCamp NYC logo 2018 idea 5

Winstina: Know and love! … Meryl you are the first designer I’ve worked with and you will be a very tough act to follow!

“Oh no! …”

I was in a pharmacy today looking to replenish my supply of hand lotion. For an item so simple, there are so many choices. But what caught my eye the most was the one bottle of lotion on an otherwise empty shelf. There were other lotions to choose from, but those shelves were full. Suddenly my sense of urgency grew when a woman came and stood next to me — and patiently waited for me to choose. Now I had to make my decision —

“Oh no! If I don”t grab this bottle NOW I may lose out!”

Can you relate?

This is a everyday example of how visual cues and our emotions work to compel us to take action. We use the same techniques to elicit the same reactions in direct response creative.

Here’s how we do it. To elicit the “Oh No!” emotion with copy, we add phrases to our call to action like:

-Order now while there is still time!
-Don’t miss out!
-Time is running out!
-Offer expires XX/XX

But that’s only half of it. To be most impactful, you need to pair these phrases with specific design elements. Think of the bottle of lotion again sitting by itself on the shelf surrounded by empty space. There’s bold text on the package that was shouting out its benefits. If this same bottle of lotion was placed on a full shelf with the competitors’ brands, I would not have noticed it as quickly and strongly.

Now let’s apply this to direct response creative — how do you draw someone’s eye to the take an action with a sense of urgency? Just like the lotion, surround it with white (empty) space, then add bold and color to the text to make it shout out.

Still, there is one more element we need to add to make the strongest impact: the arrow. I equate this arrow to the woman standing next to me, directing my eyes to the solo bottle of lotion. It is the “big push” to get someone to see the call to action.



Arrows can be big, fingers pointing, colorful or not, or even small but — they all have impact. Why are they so effective?  It’s because people’s eyes will always follow where the arrow is going.

Arrows can be big or small, colorful or not, even pointing fingers — but they all have impact. Why are they so effective? It’s because people’s eyes will always follow where the arrow is going.

If you are not already adding an arrow to your call to actions, try it. I am confident to say it would benefit your creative.

How to Give Your Images More Impact

An image, whether it’s an illustration or photo, adds a lot of value to any creative. If used correctly, an image could be the winning component that moves someone to take an action. The trick to making this happen is to add CONTEXT to your image.

But first, let’s see how valuable CONTEXT is for an image. Can you guess what the illustration below represents?

Stumped? That’s because the CONTEXT is missing. Would it help if I told you this illustration was used as a logo on the most popular website on the Internet? Now you have some context. But maybe not enough. What you may need is to see the webpage where the logo was placed. Then you wouldn’t think twice what the logo was for. (Read on to learn whose logo this is.)

Now, let’s look at this image:

A pot of stew on a stovetop. Pretty basic. Do you even say yum? Not very impactful. But we can change that by adding some CONTEXT. Look below: I juxtaposed an image of someone wearing a heavy coat and holding a cup next to the stew. Now, we react with a shiver as we look at those cold fingers and think how warming that stew would be! Much more impactful, right?

The more information you supply with an image, the easier it is to relay your message. When you are choosing your photos consider using images that contain these 3 CONTEXT elements:

  • Environment
  • Action
  • Lifestyle.

Now let’s look at the photo below.

Powerful. This photo contains all three context elements.

  • Environment – standing in front of a cloudy sky
  • Action – the child’s fist is hitting the sky
  • Lifestyle – notice the black plastic bag.

All you need to do now is to complement it with a strong headline and call to action and you have a winning creative!

Now back to the first illustration. It’s the logo Google used on their website on Father’s Day. Notice the colors and the height of the hands?

So, the next time you are choosing images, consider one with CONTEXT, to create much more impact.
Photo credits from top: Stew:, Annie Spratt, Porapak Apichodilok

How Cubism Is Like Direct Mail

Do you enjoy viewing paintings by the masters such as Rubens, Michelangelo, and Vermeer? Most people, whether they are art aficionados or not, can connect with these painters, since their style of rendering the figure is very life-like.

What about Picasso, and the style of Cubism? I smile when I hear people who are not trained in the arts say, “I can do that.” And “This painting is not pretty.” But for those who fully understand the intent of a Cubist painter, that changes everything. They understand that Cubism is about multiple perspectives, meaning that it fuses the past and present, and different views of the subject at the same time.

Direct mail also uses a multiple perspective approach, and the most brilliant pieces are not necessarily the prettiest. Sometimes the creative appears so simple that, again, I smile when people say, “I can do that.

For a piece to be successful in direct mail you need to look at past, present and future simultaneously. From the past, you need to analyze the data of what worked and what didn’t. In the present, you plan the timing of the mailing, and how to get someone to open the envelope and respond. For the future, you need to think about how to retain that person for future purchases or fundraising efforts.

In the Cubist painting above, notice the face is rendered in different perspectives. The lips and eyes are drawn as if you are looking straight at the person, but the nose and ears are in side profile. Direct mail requires you to look at different angles also. Angles such as — Who is your audience? What is the goal of the mailing? If it’s for marketing a product or service, what are the benefits and offer, while for a nonprofit, it’s what would make someone feel as if they are making a difference?

When you take this Cubist approach, you too can become a master — a master of direct mail.

One Minute Critique

Take a look at this magazine subscription card above that I came across (I removed all references to the title and publication).

While keeping its simplicity, the above card can be improved dramatically to elicit a stronger response. I took the liberty to rework it below. Here’s what I did.

1. Knowing there are only seconds to grab someone’s attention, I didn’t want to hide the best component of the offer. It needs to be emphasized. A proven way to do that is with a burst.

2. “Free” is hidden under the “Yes” copy. I moved it to a more prominent position and made it much bigger. As all direct marketers know, “Free” is a very attention-getting word.

3. I emphasized the “Free” component even more by adding an image of an iPad. This gives prospects a better idea of what they will receive.

4. The title, “Special Subscription Offer,” is fine. If you can give a sense of timeliness to it, even better. Is there a holiday coming up that you can tie it to? Here I changed the title to “Special Holiday Offer.”

5. There are two offers on this simple card: one on the top and one on the bottom. Also, the strong selling point “SAVE 69%” is smaller than the rest of the copy. If someone is considering the offer, I want to make it as easy as possible for the person to select the best option. Therefore, I put both offers together and enlarged and bolded the “Save” copy.

6. Finally, I added an arrow next to “Best Deal.” Arrows have a way of attracting attention–let’s use them!

Fall email2

Now look at both cards. Can you see that the bottom card’s message is much stronger and easier to figure out quickly? These changes are just a starting point. Even more can be done.

Direct response creative (whether it’s email, direct mail, a landing page or banner ad) can be a very effective tool in bringing in new revenue, subscribers and members to your organization–when done properly.

Don’t Litter Between 11AM-12:30PM?

Look at the above sign. All other times it’s okay to litter?

We all know that can’t be and for those of us who live in New York City this is a very familiar sign — it’s the alternate side-of-the-street parking sign. But in this email the sign appears to be about littering, not parking. You may even wonder what the “P” stands for.

This is a perfect example of why these 3C’s — Context, Conciseness and Clarity — are so important in all creative. Let me explain how it applies to the above image:

CONTEXT — This sign is taken totally out of context. It’s not hanging on a pole on a New York City street and you’re not trying to find the best parking spot. When you are parking your car and quickly looking at this sign your eye only goes straight to the hours, because that’s the only thing you are concerned about.

CONCISENESS — This sign has two messages. “DON’T LITTER” is really not necessary.

CLARITY — The lesser message “DON’T LITTER” is really overpowering the real message. This is due to the strong design element of a broom popping out and directing your eye to the words “DON’T LITTER.” This confuses the real message of the sign.

These parking signs are bolted to steel poles, therefore they are only going to be seen where they are. But not all messages are like that. Always keep the 3C’s in mind with your direct response creative. Ask these questions:

1. How or when is a customer receiving your collateral? If it’s moved to another context will it have the same meaning? Also consider who and when your audience will see your mail piece. If people are reviewing their email quickly on their smartphone, is your message right to the point in the least number of characters?

2. Can you get your message down to its core? If your mail piece needs to have a second message, make sure it does not fight for attention.

3. Is it clear? I recommend getting a fresh set of eyes to review your message — ideally a person not at all connected to the project.

We’d love to help you improve response. Let us be the fresh set of eyes to review your current creative message.

Ugly and Unorganized Worked!

The artist and organizer in me is always looking for ways to make things attractive and neat. But if there is one thing I’ve learned early in my career in direct response: pretty and organized creative is not always what gets the highest response.

My early work experience at Time Inc., when sweepstakes were a driving force in obtaining subscriptions, made that clear to me. As I was reviewing one of their controls, I thought: This is one of the most unorganized mailings I’ve ever seen! Place this sticker somewhere to get the extra $10,000 bonus … place another sticker on some other form to get the free gift … here’s a list of your prizes, but if you want this specific prize then check a box, etc.

CONFUSING, BUT IT WORKED! Why? Because the customer was thinking: “If I can figure this out, I really might be a winner.” However, what worked for this particular sweepstakes package won’t necessarily work for the direct response pieces we mail today. Each kind of piece draws its own emotional response from the customer. To find out what elicits the right response in your customer, you must follow the direct mail mantra: Test, test, test.

Are You Turning Off Customers?

Judging Email Creative Based on “Images Off”

The default settings on some email programs are with images off when opening the email. Above are examples of 2 emails with “images off.” The top one (which I created) is an HTML-coded email with several grayed “images off” boxes. Note here that the message was still strongly evident — which will help pique someone’s interest to turn the images on to see the entire email. On the other hand, the bottom image has just one very large gray “images off” box. We have no idea what the email’s message is. This is not good, since there is nothing here to get someone to want to learn more.

Big lesson: Don’t risk losing your customers before they’ve even had a chance to read your email: Never use one big image for your email. Besides, the big image may take too long to download, which is another way to lose your customer.

Curiosity Opens the Envelope

Using Feel to Get the Envelope Open

A credit card company recently mailed me this envelope, which looks like a package due, to the label and kraft color. Upon touching it, I felt some padding inside. It certainly piqued my curiosity and made me think: Is there something special inside for me? I opened the envelope to find just a prominent credit card offer and some bubble wrap. Question: The package look and bubble wrap can certainly get people to open the envelope, but is the offer strong enough to get people to act? And will enough people respond to get a great ROI?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I will say this: including the padding in the envelope is a great trick to keep in mind, if you want to get people to open what you send them – which, as you know, is a critical first step to any successful direct mailing.