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How Paper Impacts Color When Printing Direct Mailpieces
May 31, 2022

How Paper Impacts Color When Printing Direct Mailpieces

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Creating effective direct mail requires knowledge of the ins and outs of the printing process, from understanding “no-ink” zones to selecting fonts. But did you know that color plays an even greater role in graphic design and direct mail printing? It doesn’t matter if you’re mailing postcards, self-mailers, or letters. The colors and paper you choose can make or break an otherwise perfect marketing campaign.

What is color?

The Pantone website offers an accurate definition of color: “the aspect of things that is caused by differing qualities of light being reflected or emitted by them.” When light shines on objects, such as direct mail pieces, the color bounces off or is absorbed. The human eye only sees colors that are reflected or emitted.

The science of color is rooted in Isaac Newton’s 17th-century discovery that sunlight (or pure white light) consists of rainbow colors revealed when passed through a prism. While an infinite number of colors exist, he identified seven main colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Today, we recognize six (minus indigo) as part of the tiny visible spectrum of light. These colors have wavelengths from 700 nm (red) to 390 nm (violet).

How Paper Impacts Color When Printing Direct Mailpieces  image 2
Source: Who's Mailing What!

Paper stock affects the way colors print

The color you see on direct mail pieces and other objects varies widely. The resulting colors depend on several factors, including surface properties, lighting, and perceptions. While you can’t control people’s surroundings or how they see colors, you can choose paper stock carefully.

Paper stock brightness

All paper colors typically come in a range of brightness levels, from 0 (lowest) to 100 (brightest). Brightness refers to the amount of light reflected off the paper’s surface. Color images and illustrations are more vivid and pop out better when printed on bright white paper.

Paper stock coating

Uncoated paper absorbs more ink than coated paper, leading to dot gain (the spreading effect of printed dots). Most full-color direct mail printing for postcards, brochures, catalogs, and similar pieces uses glossy coatings, so graphics stand out more. If mailers are text-heavy, uncoated paper will be easier to read with minimal glare. Think of paper stock coating like comparing a glazed donut with a non-glazed donut.

Paper stock quality

Paper stock quality is often categorized in two ways: smooth or textured. Smooth paper stock is preferred for visual storytelling while textured paper is preferred for text-heavy mailers. Textured paper is also often picked for high-value mail as it's more tactile. Many retailers choose smooth paper with a glossy finish for coupons as it'll preserve contrasts and sharper colors.

Once you know which stock quality you want, then you have to consider paper thickness and its weight. Paper thickness is expressed in points where a point is equal to .001 inches. So paper that is 10 points is .01 inches thick. Business cards are a great comparison tool to figure out your desired thickness and most are printed on 12 or 14 points.

Lastly, paper weight needs to be considered. Chances are if you've refilled printer paper in an office you saw something like "60# text" on the wrapper. This denotes the paper's weight, which is measured in stacks of 500 sheets. Standard printer paper when stacked 500 sheets deep weighs 60 pounds, therefore it's displayed as 60#. Most often, 120# cover is used for postcards.

In summary, understanding your paper stock choices can help ensure your mailpiece prints the way you want it to look by taking into account its weight, paper quality, brightness, and coating.

How Paper Impacts Color When Printing Direct Mailpieces  image 3
Source: Who's Mailing What!

Why digital colors don’t look the same when printed

Each color in the visible spectrum is monochromatic, meaning it has a unique wavelength and can’t be divided. However, Newton found that you can create different colors by combining light (e.g., blue and yellow makes green). A color wheel helps you select harmonious color combinations for your direct mail printing and designs. It’s also necessary to understand the color mixing schemes in graphic design.

RGB (red, green, blue)

RGB refers to the light-based additive color mode that emits bright red, green, and blue light. These primary colors are added together in varying proportions to produce a range of colors (or gamut). White is a combination of all three, and black is the total absence. RGB is universally accepted for digital media on monitors, TVs, cameras, smartphones, scanners, and other displays.

CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black)

CMYK is a pigment-based subtractive color mode consisting of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. These four colors are subtracted (absorbed) from natural white light into pigments or inks. Mixing cyan, magenta, and yellow pigments produces black. Pure black makes shades darker and richer, whereas bare areas of paper serve as white. CMYK is typically used for four-color process printing.

RGB can create more than 16 million different colors. CMYK has a limited gamut, so it can’t produce colors as bright. If you use RGB photos or graphics for direct mail printing, CMYK ink colors will be duller than what appears onscreen. For this reason, it’s crucial to use the correct color mode or convert RGB colors before printing.

How Paper Impacts Color When Printing Direct Mailpieces  image 4
Source: Who's Mailing What!

Best colors for direct mail printing

When people receive direct mail, color is the first thing they notice. The way you use color is an integral part of the design because it has the power to evoke emotions. Although people may react differently due to personal experiences, culture, etc., colors have universal meanings.

  • Blue is a short wavelength color that’s cool and relaxing. It’s a highly favored color commonly found in direct mail marketing. Blue is associated with harmony, peace, stability, calm, and trust, perfect for health and wellness, banks, and insurance.
  • Green often comes in second place as a favored color. Green has always had an association with nature is very calming. It’s also been linked to inspiring creativity in people. Financial services companies use green to symbolize money, and environmental organizations use it to represent sustainability.
  • Purple stands for royalty, nobility, luxury, spirituality, and wisdom, to name a few. It tends to give off a feminine feel, so it’s usually limited to health and beauty brands targeting girls and women.
  • Red is a warm color symbolizing love and passion and bolsters excitement and energy. This bold color can be distracting, even to the point of reducing analytical thinking. However, it also creates a sense of urgency and stimulates appetites, so it works when selling to impulse buyers and hungry people.

When it comes to color choices for direct mail printing, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Experiment to see what’s most effective for your target audience.

Get consistent color results

Color is an essential part of the direct mail marketing process, from developing the design to direct mail printing the final piece. In fact, you can increase your direct mail response rate by leveraging color as a powerful psychological tool.

Lob offers automated direct mail printing solutions with a focus on G7 global color standards while minimizing environmental impact. When you use Lob, you’ll be assured of color matching and consistency across all mailpieces.

Schedule a demo to see just how to track direct mail using Lob’s intelligent direct mail and Address Verification APIs.

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