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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Brochure Printing: No More Z-Fold Self-Mailers

I had a close call with a print brokering client recently, and it has made me doubly certain that US Postal updates are vital reading material and not spam.

The Problem with the Fold

In a recent blog I mentioned that a client has been producing a Z-fold (or accordion fold) brochure yearly for a few years now. It has been a self-mailer, closed on both the top and bottom with wafer seals. To make this clearer, picture a twelve-panel piece (six on each side of the sheet, with alternating back and forth parallel folds) starting with a flat size of 10.2” x 27” and folding to 10.2” high x 4.5” wide. The commercial printing job is produced in four color process ink on 80# white gloss cover stock.

After reading an update by the US Postal Service in January, I had been concerned, or at least wary. The relevant piece of information from the USPS newsletter was that self-mailers had to have a fold at the bottom and be wafer sealed at the top in order to be automatable and machinable. That is, to reap the highest discount for bulk mail, folding and tabbing had to happen in this manner.

But a Z-fold mailer has no fold at the bottom (or long edge). Since the panels go back and forth in their accordion fold sequence (leaving both sides without an actual, closed fold), the postal requirement would not be met. I thought I had read this somewhere, but I wasn’t really sure, so I was relieved to hear that my client had asked her mailshop.

Keep in mind that the commercial printing supplier had already provided an estimate for the Z-fold self-mailer. After all, he could produce the job as specified. He had done it for at least the two prior years. But the mailshop caught the error (and the US Postal Service Business Reply Mail Specialist would have done the same), fortunately before any ink had been put on paper.

What If We Hadn’t Caught It in Time?

There’s always that “what if.” Let’s say the client had approved the job and the commercial printing vendor had produced the Z-fold self-mailer. What then? Picture a mail drop at the Post Office rejected for not meeting spec, or picture a larger postage bill due to machinable and automatable requirements not having been met. In the worst case scenario, my client could have sidestepped this at the last minute by placing the Z-fold mailers in custom envelopes. This would have cost more (the cost of approximately 4,500 printed envelopes), but it would have solved the problem.

What Are My Client’s Options?

Fortunately we have a little time. We caught this early. My client suggested a barrel fold (all panels parallel folded in the same direction, in contrast to the back-and-forth folding of the Z-fold (or accordion fold) piece produced in prior years.

I asked the custom printing supplier for some suggestions as well, and I worked out a few myself.

First of all, my client had mentioned the possibility of a partial Z-fold brochure, with the first four panels (eight actually, since we’re talking about both sides of the press sheet) folding back and forth, and the remaining two panels (actually four, two on each side) wrapping around the piece. I checked with the printer, and this would work (i.e., there would be no extra cost because the job fit on the folding equipment and all the folds were parallel).

My client could also do a barrel fold, or she could even fold the piece in thirds (the outer four left panels folded from left to right, and the outer four right panels folded from right to left), and then she could fold this in half.

As confusing as this must sound, the gist of the matter is that the printer could fold the panels individually or in groups of two or three (per side of the sheet) for no additional cost. And as long as there was a fold on the bottom (long side) and wafer seals on the top (other long side), the self-mailer would be postal-legal and would reap the automation discounts.

If This Happens to You, Make a Mock Up

One day all of this may happen to you. Hopefully it will be during the preliminary design stages of the job. As you decide how to solve the problem, first make a physical mock-up of your brochure printing job. If you have a twelve panel brochure (six panels on each side), make a little sample out of paper. Then fold it in different ways until you like it.

How Will You Know You Like It?

How you will fold the piece depends on how you want your reader to digest the information in the brochure. Group your copy by relevant subject matter, and, as you try different folds, consider how your reader’s eye will absorb the content. Do the folds contribute to this, or do they impede understanding? If they will confuse the reader, do something else.

Also consider grouping information by making some panels a solid color and reversing the type out of the solid. Or use screens of a color in the background. The goal is to put the content of the brochure in a logical order, in small chunks, to aid the reader’s comprehension. Make sure the folding (which is part of the design) reinforces this goal.

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