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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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Custom Printing: Thoughts on Brochure Folding

I get a lot of promotional mail in the course of a week, and I try to be mindful of which pieces spark my interest and why. Granted, since I get a lot less physical mail than email, I am far more likely to take the time to look closely at the print mail: its design, its format and folding, and the paper. It’s a tactile experience. Internet mail, ads, and anything else on the Internet lack one important quality for me: the sense of touch.

When I think about it, one quality of a good direct mail piece, one that piques my interest, is how it folds. Not just the physical experience of folding the paper, but the use of a unique fold to convey a message that’s congruent with the text, images, paper selection, and color usage in the brochure. After all, a good mail piece has to do more than just look attractive. It has to use all the elements of aesthetics to underscore its tone, its message, its purpose.

I went online recently to look for special folds for this blog article. First of all, that in itself is ironic: using the Internet to research commercial printing. Not long ago, I would have pulled out my sample boxes in which I store examples of print books, brochures, boxes, and all number of other printed paper products. But I wanted to collect some ideas quickly, so I checked Google Images.

What I Found and What I Learned

I was looking for a few golden rules of folding to share in this PIE Blog posting. Here are some thoughts that came to mind:

Do Something Different

I found an interesting fold based on a triangle. Most brochures are rectangles. You fold them up and they are tall rectangles, and you open them up and they’re wide rectangles. But they’re still rectangles. In contrast, the sample I found, when unfolded, had a tall left trim margin and a short right trim margin. It was a triangle.

The brochure comprised ten panels, five on each side. Overall, this was a “Z” fold or accordion fold brochure. Each panel zig-zagged back and forth. Every other panel had a large grey ink solid extending the length and width of the panel. The front and back panels on the far right were very small; the front and back panels on the far left were very tall. When you stood the open and unfolded brochure on its side, it had an almost architectural look, like a multi-level building with sloping roofs.

Or here’s another one. Several rectangular cards were wrapped in an outer sheet. No big deal. But in this case, the outer wrap had been set at an angle to the interior cards before being wrapped around them. This slanted treatment created an almost floral pattern of petals around the central stack of cards. This made it unique.

Again, do something different, and people will notice.

Make Sure the Fold Supports the Message

The accordion fold (zig zag) noted above might have been ideal for a building company or an architectural firm. (Online I couldn’t see in the small image exactly what the brochure promoted. I’m sure such a fold would be appropriate for a number of situations.)

But on a more basic level, it’s important to use the folds and treatment of the brochure panels in a functional way. The step-down accordion fold brochure had alternating gray panels (and white panels) with type reversed out of the gray panels. These obviously (even in a thumbnail-size image) contained a particular kind of highlighted text that differed (in terms of content) from the main text of the brochure. The gray panels highlighted this text and set it apart from the other brochure text (on the white panels) because of its different design treatment.

Approaching the design in this way helped group the copy in the brochure into digestible chunks. People have more to do these days, so they have less time to read brochures. They usually need to skim (or even just glance at) the text. Good design involves using folds in a brochure (and the panels it creates) to lead the reader through the content of the brochure. The reader appreciates this guidance, and you can ensure that your copy is read.

Another way to approach this is to consider how the folded brochure opens and what panels the reader will see first, second, third, etc. In my opinion, making such a decision online is not wise. Use the online thumbnail images to get ideas, but make paper folded mock-ups as you design brochures to see how the actual, physical brochure will fit in the hand of the reader, and what she/he will see first, second, etc. This is also a good time to check your swipe file (all the custom printing samples you liked over the years and kept for future reference). You can even call your commercial printing vendor or paper merchant and ask for ideas (and printed samples). Remember that, above all else, print is a physical medium. Make your design decisions using physical samples.

Consider the Physical Requirements and the Cost

Remember the cards wrapped in the paper that had been folded at an angle around the card stack (noted above)? This was stunning, but depending on the equipment and skill level of your custom printing supplier, it might have been either very expensive or impossible. Therefore, involve your printer early, and ask what he can and can’t do. Better yet, make a paper mock-up and share it with a number of print vendors.

If you have multiple panels in a brochure and these panels wrap inward (called a barrel fold or wrap fold), ask your printer how to size each panel. That is, the inner panels must be narrower than the outer ones, or the fold won’t work. If you make all panels the same size and then position copy and art on these equal-sized panels, once the brochure has been trimmed and folded by the printer, the copy and text will no longer be centered on each panel. Avoid this nightmare. Once you have confirmed the overall design, ask the printer for the exact width of each panel (remember, the height will presumably be the same).

Collect Samples/Get Ideas

Here are a number of ways to get ideas for current and future projects involving folds:

    1. Start a swipe file. Keep every piece of folded promotional mail that you find in your mailbox and really like. But go beyond that. Be able to explain (to yourself) why the design decisions (folds, format, trim size, paper, typeface, images) support the message.


    1. Ask all printers and paper merchants you work with for printed samples. Then keep what intrigues you in your swipe file.


    1. Check online. Google “brochure” and “folding.”


  1. Look up Foldfactory. They have good videos accessible through YouTube. They regularly highlight intriguing folds and explain how to do them and why they are effective. What’s nice about an online video is that you see exactly how the folded brochures work when unfolded. This is akin to what I was saying earlier about making physical mock-ups. Something may look good in an online photo, but unless it can be physically created and easily operated (and your printer can produce it for you within your budget), it’s not right for you. You can get a good idea of all of this through Foldfactory videos. There are probably other, similar videos you can find online as well.

All of this should give you a good start. The take-away? Involve your commercial printing supplier early and throughout the process (to get intriguing ideas, prices, and suggestions for how to make the novel ideas work).

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