Mastering the craft of correspondence

Designing mail correspondence that builds trust and inspires action

Think back to the last time you received a piece of mail from the government. Did you open it? Or toss it in the trash? Was it easy to read? Or did it take a couple of passes to actually figure out what was going on?

Correspondence from institutions can be particularly challenging for people to understand and navigate. And while many leaders spend time and resources thinking deeply about their digital touchpoints, physical mail still gets overlooked.

Our team has spent a lot of time thinking about the mail institutions send. We’ve partnered with them to improve forms and letters of all shapes and sizes, and spent many hours in conversation with those who receive them.

On our correspondence journey, we’ve uncovered a few themes that shape and guide our work. Many of these are tactical, like rules around calls-to-action, but there are also elements that can be a bit more elusive to define. Things like beauty and trust.

In this piece, we’ll touch on both these sides of correspondence, and offer guidance for how to reimagine institutional correspondence in a way that better speaks to the people who receive it.

one letter, one call to action

Whether it’s a renewal notice, voter guide, or public service announcement—the goal of most mailings is to inspire some sort of action. The question is, what action is most important for readers to take?

We recently redesigned Michigan’s state ID renewal mailings, in partnership with their Department of State. Before the redesign, the mailing contained up to 16 pieces of paper, including renewal information for many different use cases and other materials on state parks, organ donorship, and voter registration.

The original state ID renewals were complex in visual design and in information.

While all that information was well-intentioned, residents struggled to understand what to do next. What was required of them versus nice-to-know?

In redesigning the mailing, we paired down information to focus on one clear call to action—how to renew. Today, it’s a single piece of paper with personalized direction around an individual’s renewal case. Residents who receive the new mailing have shared overwhelmingly positive feedback, saying it inspires them to take action in a timely manner, right from home.

The new mailers contained concise language and a bold envelope color that clearly laid out the next steps to take.

design that builds trust

When so much of what lands in mailboxes these days is spam, how do you ensure your correspondence doesn’t get lost in the noise?

A design identity—which spans all of your organization’s correspondence—is one way we’ve learned to help mailings stand out.

Design identity includes things like your logo, colors and typeface, the way information is organized, language and tone, and form and envelope design. Together, these elements build cohesion across individual letters and unify your organization’s voice. They help set expectations (“the deadline is always in the upper righthand corner”) and build trust (“when I see that logo and envelope, I know it’s an important piece of mail to open”)—and allow readers to navigate mail more intuitively.

These are two forms from the MDHHS correspondence. Sharing a similar design style, these forms build cohesion and awareness that residents can quickly identify.

Beyond bringing clarity to your correspondence, a design identity can also help protect one of your most limited resources: time. By scaling design elements across all outbound communication, you free up more time for your team to focus on the broader message, rather than each individual design detail.

real people, real conversation

Government correspondence is often stuffed with jargon, acronyms, and complex language. That’s a lot to ask the average reader to try to understand.

Think about how you normally speak. Correspondence should mirror your everyday conversations, with shorter sentences and simpler words that everyone can understand. The simpler the language, the more likely your recipients will know what’s being asked of them—regardless of background, physical and cognitive abilities, or language preferences.

Just like in a real conversation, correspondence should also offer the recipient an opportunity to respond and advocate for themselves. Where and how can they ask questions, share feedback, or challenge decisions? Make sure your mailings offer a clear path forward.

This notice clearly articulates the reasoning behind a denial and immediately follows with instructions on how to take action.

know your constraints

The reality is, your organization’s technological capabilities won’t always align with your aspirations when it comes to correspondence. Government technology systems are often dated or limited in functionality.

In our work, we’re no stranger to limitations. (Whether it’s designing in black and white, not being able to use bullet points, or only having one font option to choose from - we’ve likely seen it.) While you can’t anticipate every constraint at the onset of a project, there are a few things we’ve learned to look for ahead of time to avoid setbacks.

  • Technology: What functionality and outputs does your correspondence engine support?

  • Printing: What paper size, layouts and colors are available?

  • Upcoming modernization: Will the system be updated anytime soon? If so, what capabilities will it offer?

When working within constraints, it’s even more important to lean into user testing. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, when you adapt to fit within constraints, you need to test to make sure your design decisions make sense to users. If they don’t, keep iterating. Second, if users continue to not understand something, it could be an opportunity to challenge those existing constraints—especially if they’re related to a major pain point.

weighing feedback

Many different stakeholders likely provide input on your organization’s correspondence. While getting feedback is an important part of the design process, it can also have a Frankenstein effect. If you’re not careful, internal jargon, regulatory fine print, and an added line here-or-there can morph a simple message into something complex.

Having a strategy for how to navigate feedback from stakeholders can help keep your process focused around the end user and goal. Here’s what works well on our team.

  • Listen for patterns: Is what you’re hearing a pain point for many? Or a preference for a few?

  • Anchor in the end user: Who does feedback ultimately serve? Internal teams? Or the people who’ll receive a letter or form?

Weighing feedback in this way helps us make decisions, providing footing to stand on when saying “yes” or “no” to stakeholders. Ultimately, it leads to letters and forms that have a more meaningful impact on the people they serve.

beauty and functionality, hand in hand

Though much of what our team has learned over the years has been calculated and measured—designing correspondence isn’t a science, it’s a craft. And part of what makes it powerful is its ability to use beauty to move people.

As human beings, we’re drawn to beauty. Beautiful designs catch our eye and are more appealing to engage with. They can convey not just the message of your mailing, but a broader story about how your organization cares about the people it sends correspondence to.

Yes, functionality and accessibility are certainly crucial to the correspondence design process. But so are aesthetics. What if we started to think about beauty, not as frivolous, but as synonymous with functionality?

With all this in mind, what can your organization do to further hone its correspondence craft? Is there a small first step you might take today?

Perhaps you sit with an existing form or letter and start to imagine how it ought to be. The elements outlined in this piece can be a useful starting place as you design, test, and iterate on more meaningful ways to connect with the people you serve.