Mail art is what first inspired me to learn calligraphy. I love the concept of surprising someone with a gorgeous and unique delivery! There are some truly beautiful (and — let’s be honest — intimidating) examples of mail art online, so the goal of this post is to build up your confidence to send mail art yourself. It doesn’t have to be perfect; the whole point is to tap into your creativity and give someone else a happy surprise! Below, you’ll find some tips to get you started.
1. Make Sure the Zip Code is Crystal Clear
One of the first stops for envelopes in the US is the sorting machine. The sorting machine “reads” the zip code on your envelope, and the envelope is organized accordingly.
If the zip code isn’t legible, there’s a greater chance that your envelope won’t reach its destination. Keep that in mind as you create the envelope art! You can go wild with the design and the lettering, but do try to make sure that the zip code is easy to read.
2. If You’re Sending International, Write Your Return Address on the Front
Theoretically, USPS would like to see us put our return addresses in the upper left corner of every envelope. In reality, I usually write my return address on the back flap without any trouble.
Last year, I tried sending some mail art to Australia. As per usual, I wrote the recipient’s address on the front, and my address on the back. The machine, grasping for an easily recognizable (US) zip code, used the zip code on the back of the envelope to send the mail art right back to me! Now, I try to always write my return address in the upper left corner for international mail.
3. Double-Check Postage Rates Before Sending
In the US, we have all sorts of rules about postage rates. As of this moment, a standard letter (normal size, under 1 oz.) costs $0.50 to send. But — add a wax seal to the back, and you need to pay a non-machinable letter fee of $0.21. The same goes for irregular-sized envelopes and envelopes with an unusual orientation (like the one below).
You have to be wondering at this point how to check the postage rates. Instead of going to the USPS website, which will probably confuse you more, try this unofficial US postage rates website. The man who created it actively updates the site every time a rate change occurs. The postage rates are clear and easy to find, and you can always email him if you have a question!
4. Experiment with Different Envelopes
Envelope variety has risen to meet the demand for mail art, and so you can now buy envelopes in pretty much any color! There are also a lot of different sizes available. Take advantage of the selection, and get a few assorted envelopes to experiment with!
My favorite place to buy colored envelopes online is Paper Source. They always send high-quality, calligraphy-friendly envelopes. I also have successfully purchased from Neenah Paper and envelopes.com in the past.
5. Don’t Overthink It
Listen — “mail art” has “art” in the name, but that doesn’t mean that every piece you produce has to be a masterpiece. Sometimes, simple mail art is the best kind of mail art.
So — if you’re stumped, take the pressure off of yourself to come up with something novel. Instead, make a few paint splatters, doodle some random sketches, or draw some spirals. Accept your work the way it is once you finish; some mail art pieces will inevitably be better than other pieces. As long as you enjoy making it, that’s what counts!
6. If You Don’t Have Time, Print Your Mail Art
Whenever I send mail to a loved one, I want the envelope to look special. The reality of the situation, however, is that sometimes I don’t have an hour to make a complicated piece of mail art. In that case, I rely on my printer.
There are several free printable mail art envelopes available on the TPK website, and I’m perpetually designing more. I really appreciate the convenience of being able to print, fold, glue, and send when I’m short on time!
7. Be Smart with Glue
Decoupage is a great way to add something special to an envelope! However, you have to remember that the machines at USPS don’t give your envelopes the white glove treatment. So, when you glue things to your envelope, make sure that you glue them well!
If there’s an opportunity for the machine to catch on an unglued loose edge, it absolutely will. Pay special attention to making sure the edges of your decoupaged graphic are very secure, and you should be good to go!
8. Use a Variety of Postage Stamps
You can transform an otherwise plain envelope into envelope art by being thoughtful with a postage stamp collage! A lot of people don’t realize this, but unused postage stamps can still be used today for whatever value they have written on the front.
If you’d like to learn more about making postage stamp collages, you can read the How to Make a Stunning Postage Stamp Collage blog post. Vintage postage stamps aren’t costly, and they add so much personality to your mail!
9. Don’t Get Too Attached
Remember: the point of mail art is to send it on its merry way. You’ll probably never see it again, plus there’s about a 6% chance that USPS will lose it (last I checked, they have a 94% delivery success rate). After you make a piece of envelope art, take a picture of it, be thankful for the enjoyment that you got out of making it, and send it on its merry way.
To me, the main point of mail art is your own creative experimentation. Mail art allows you to explore new techniques, play with lettering, and come up with artistic layouts. If, for some reason, the envelope doesn’t make it to its recipient — don’t sweat it. Life happens, and if you enjoyed making the mail art, that’s what’s really important.
10. Be Bold
There are times that I post photos of envelopes, and people on Instagram ask me, “Can you actually send that?” Well, sure! Why not? At times, USPS has shocked and delighted me with what they tolerate! Anything’s worth a try.
I’m not encouraging you to aggravate the post office, but I am saying that you should exercise your creativity. I mean, take a look at some of Schin Loong’s pieces on her Annoy a Postman page! Schin actually has a fairly high delivery success rate for the project, and she was going out of her way to push USPS’s limits. For those who are afraid that USPS will not deliver your masterpiece, I like what Donovan of The Letter Writer’s Alliance has to say: “The glorious thing about mail art is that even with [USPS’s] rules, as long as something has the proper postage and is addressed correctly, odds are good that it’ll get delivered.”
If you’ve never created mail art before, I encourage you to give it a try! There’s something so satisfying about spending time, energy, and creativity to make someone else’s day. You might be surprised to find out who appreciates it … my former landlord loved all my “rent check” envelopes! Just remember: keep that zip code clear and put on sufficient postage, and your chances of delivery are excellent.
Thanks very much for reading TPK, and enjoy the rest of your week!