The Anatomy of Direct Mail

The Anatomy of Mail

So you want to design, print, and mail a postcard to your customers with a captivating message and a look which is eye-catching yet functional?  Well these days there are plenty of folks out there who will sell you their design, print, and mail services.  Knowing a few bits of knowledge will help you to save time, money, and most of all hassle at the post office!

The Elements

The USPS requires certain elements to appear on your mailpiece for various reasons such as: processing using automation, revenue protection, who it gets returned to if it is undeliverable, and identifying who sent the mail. These Elements are not glamorous or fun like your artwork and message but they are necessary and easy.  The language used by the USPS is not always straight forward and is riddled with acronyms.  Hopefully, as you read on, the mystery will melt away leaving you feeling confident you are speaking the right language to the right people!

Indicia –


 (Definition) -

-        Signs, indications, or distinguishing marks

-        Markings used on address labels or bulk mail as a substitute for stamps.

The indicia on your mail tells the USPS:

-        The Class of mail (Marketing Mail (Formerly known as Presort Standard), First Class, Nonprofit Org, Bound Printed Matter etc.

-        The City, State, and sometimes Zip Code from which the mailing was actually mailed from.

-        The permit number (account) from which the funds to pay for the mailing came from.

All bulk mailings must have an indicia printed on the direct mail piece.  The placement is usually in the upper right hand corner of the mail piece or the upper-right hand of the designated address area.  There are exceptions and variations as with everything that is USPS, but this is the normal rule of thumb.

The indicia is just the name for the artwork, what it points to and indicates is the postage permit account (which has to be setup first) from which the postage is debited from.  You may use anyone’s permit account with permission from them to do so.  Jefferson Letter Service is a Mail Service Providers (MSP) and will readily allow you to use our permit so you don’t need to pay to activate and maintain one for yourself or your company.

Return Address –

Kind of self explanatory but let’s explain anyhow.   The return address is the address that any mail which can not be delivered for any reason is returned to.  However, not all mail is returned to sender because it is dependent upon the class of mail and/or other marking and services added to your direct mail piece.   There are also times when a return address is required and other times it is not:

Required – First Class mail, Nonprofit mail, Official Mail, when an Ancillary Endorsement is used (“Return Service”, “Address Service”, “Forwarding Service”), and more which can be found using this link

                              Not Required – Marketing Mail

The return address is normally placed in the upper left corner of the mail piece or in the upper left of the address panel.  There are other places it can be and usually will be accepted so long as it is obivious.

Bottom line, make sure you have your return address on the piece and in the correct location always and you will avoid headaches!

Delivery Address –

There are very specific rules about how your delivery address must appear and where it is placed.  Not allowing enough room in the right place for the delivery address can cause your mail piece to Non-mailable or Non-machinable.  Non-machinable means you pay more postage and Non-mailable is certain to cost you even more money because now your direct mail piece is rendered useless. The basic rules can be found in Exhibit 2.1 from the USPS

Just know you should allow a 4 inch x 1 inch clear area for delivery address and this space will also accommodate our next element, the barcode.

IMB Barcode –

The Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB) is the barcoding technology used by the USPS.  This barcode contains all the information the USPS needs: where the mail is going, what class of mail it is utilizing, any additional services, and mail tracking. Your MSP will take care of producing and printing your IMB and all you need to do is make sure you leave the 4 inch x 1 inch clear area for both the barcode and address.   

There is another option for where the IMB can be placed on your direct mail piece.  This option is usually only used on postcard size (e.g. 4 x 6) pieces but can be used for any letter-size piece.  If you are crunched for space in the clear area for the address and barcode you can optionally place the barcode in the lower right corner, and the entire barcode must be within the barcode read area defined by these limits:

  1. Horizontally, the leftmost bar must be between 3-1/2 inches and 4-1/4 inches from the right edge of the piece.
  2. Vertically, the barcode must be within the area between 3/16 inch and 1/2 inch, both measured from the bottom edge of the piece.

The barcode clear zone is then the bottom 5/8 inch of the card extending from the right edge of the piece 4-3/4 inches which leaves a clear zone around the barcode.  If you are to utilize this barcode placement you will need to make sure your design accommodates the clear space.  The delivery address clear area can shrink down to 2-1/2 inches by 1 inch because the address is the only thing to be printed in this clear space due to the barcode having its own clear space.


This is just the very basic elements on your direct mail piece but knowing the elements and planning for them is foundational first step from which your design will build on with the confidence of USPS compliance.

Chad Watson

Chad Watson has been a Mail Piece Design Expert and consultant at Jefferson Letter Service since 2010.