How to Create a Laser-Cut Self Mailer Using Adobe Illustrator and InDesign

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

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Using Adobe Illustrator and Adobe InDesign I'll show you how to create your own stunning laser-cut self mailer, which is going to give your marketing materials that extra professional edge. 
In this tutorial, suitable for beginner-to-intermediate readers, we'll look at how to set up dielines correctly and talk about how you can adequately prepare your artwork for the printing and cutting process. 
Let's get started!
Before beginning any project, I start out with some good old-fashioned sketching. Sometimes I even make a mockup out of my sketch as well, which I did here. I decided to combine an iron cross fold, along with shape cutouts, a coupon pocket, and variable data name cutting. 

sketched mock-up

After deciding that the finished size will be 6 x 4” (mail-friendly), I did some basic math to come up with the approximate size (again, sketching here is helpful).  
If the finished piece is to be 6” wide and will unfold to three panels wide, 3 x 6” is 18”. If it is to be 4” tall when folded, and will have three full length panels plus the fold-up pocket when unfolded, I take 3 x 4” and add estimate about 2” for the pocket, for 14” total.
With an approximate size of 18” x 14”, you can now create your dieline. Create a new Illustrator document at this size. 
Begin by creating your Swatches for both the dieline and scoring (certain spot colors for each may be required by your printer). 

new dieline swatch

I begin by using the Rectangle Tool (M) to create five 6” x 4” rectangles and one 6” x 2” rectangle, and line them up next to each other to create the basic shape of the modified iron cross I had in mind. 
Next I make the 6” x 2” rectangle 7” in Width so that it has flaps, which will later be used to create the pocket. 
Use your Align Tools to make sure all boxes are lined up equally and all touching each other.  

align tools

Making sure your Rulers are showing, drag guides over to each of the overlapping lines for reference. 

rulers showing

Next we have to adjust the size of each panel so that it will fold easily and lie flat. 
First, select the far left box. With your Transform panel open, set your Reference Point by clicking the last square in the second row. 
Then change the size of this object to a Width of 5.95” and a Height of 3.875”

transform panel

This will make this inner folding flap slightly smaller than the outer panel so that it fits inside nicely. Make the same adjustment to the far right panel, but first set yourReference Point to the first square in the second row. 

transform panel

Select all the boxes, and using your Pathfinder window, under Shape Modes, clickUnite. This creates one big outer dieline. 

pathfinder window

Now that we have the basic dieline shape, we need to add our score lines. 
Using the guides you created, make score lines using the Line Segment Tool (\). Again, the color you use for your score line will vary depending on your printer’s requirements.

line segment tool

Then delete your guides so you can see your scores. 

delete guides

Next we’ll need to add some double scores to compensate again for the extra thickness created when the piece is folded. 
Start by adding another score slightly above the very top score. 
Then create another score slightly below the score line at the bottom of the center panel. Make another score slightly to the left of the left score on the center panel, and another slightly to the right of the right score on the center panel. This will create a little more room for the flaps when folded in. 

further scores

Do the same with the bottom pocket panel by adding a score line just above the horizontal score line, one to the left of the left side score, and one to the right of the right side score. Again, this creates room for the fold-up pocket and the items that will be placed inside. 

scores on bottom pocket

Next we’ll add our special die-cut shapes. 
I’ve decided on the far right panel that I’m going to have an oval. I start by drawing an oval to the same size as the panel, so I know it’s centered. 

die cut shape

Then I go back to my Transform panel and click the very center square for theReference Point. 
I change the size to a Width of 4.5” and a Height of 2.875”. Make sure this line is set back to your dieline color swatch.  

reference point

On the left panel I want to use a rectangle with beveled corners. I start by drawing a rectangle the same size as the panel. 

rectangle with beveled corners

In the Transform panel, with the Reference Point still set to the center square, change the size to a Width of 4.95” and a Height of 2.95”.  
For the beveled corners, first zoom in on the shape. 
Drag guides in 0.5” from the sides on the horizontal and down 0.75” on the vertical. 

drag guides

Using the Add Anchor Point function of the Pen Tool (P), add an anchor point at each of the eight places where the guides intersect the lines of the rectangle. 
Ensure you are making points on the path and not the guide—a little word will pop up with which point you are touching. 

add anchor points

Next, using the Delete Anchor Point function of the Pen Tool (P), delete all four corner points, leaving the rectangle with beveled corners. 

delete anchor points

Save your dieline. It should look like this: 

finished dieline

Open InDesign and create a new document that is 2 Pages, set up to 18” x 14”, with 0.125” Margins and a 0.125” Bleed. 

new indesign document

Open the Layers panel (Window > Layers) and create a New Layer labeledDieline

new layer

Next, using File > Place, navigate to your dieline and place it on this layer, starting in the very upper left corner, so it is centered. 

file place

Edit > Copy the dieline, switch to Page 2, and then File > Paste in Place
With your Reference Point set to the center, click Flip Horizontal (which can also be found in the Object panel under Transform). 

reference point
object transform

This is for the opposite side of the piece when flipped over. 
Next, go back to your Layers panel and Lock the Dieline layer. This will allow you to see where the dieline is on top of your art without moving it.
Switch back to Page 1. Make sure you’re working on Layer 1, and design the inside of your piece. 
Refer to your mockup so that the art is oriented correctly as it is folded. Though the file is set up to include 0.125” Bleed, this doesn’t account for bleed around the die-cut shapes. Make sure your art extends 0.125” past the dieline to have adequate bleed. 

mailer layer 1

I have decided to include a variable name cut in this piece utilizing digital laser-cutting technology called MotionCutter for this as well as the die cutting. I will use “Mark” as a placeholder (you’ll want to get specific information from your printer on how they need variable laser-cutting set up). 
This will be viewed when the bottom panel is folded up and the side panels are placed over the top. Therefore, it will be placed upside down in this flat layout.
Use a font that is laser-cutting friendly, which typically will have connector points to keep the middles of the letters intact. 
Change the Fill Color to [None] and the Stroke Color to your dieline Spot Color(as determined by your print provider). Make sure you take into account how high up the fold-up pocket will go so that your name isn’t covered up by this.  
Unlock your Dieline layer, move the name cut to the Dieline layer from Layer 1, and Lock the layer again. 

unlocked dieline layer

Go to Page 2, again making sure you’re working on Layer 1, and design the outside of the piece, referring to your mockup for panel orientation. For the mailing panel, make sure you’re following post office guidelines for address position and blank space requirements. 

page 2

I have also decided to cut out a small triangle on the pocket for part of the logo. I take the triangle and change the Fill to [None] and the Stroke to the dieline Spot Color. 

spot color triangle

To make sure it shows in the correct location on the opposite side, I select the green color box and the triangle and Edit > Copy
I go back to Page 1 and Edit > Paste in Place
With the Reference Point set in the middle, I then Flip Horizontal, and delete the green box. 
Copy the green box as well because it spans the whole length of the pocket, anchoring the triangle to its correct position. If I placed just the triangle and flipped it, it would stay on the same side of the pocket and change directions, instead of moving it to the opposite side of the pocket. 
On both pages, select the triangle, Unlock the Dieline layer, move the triangle to theDieline layer from Layer 1, and Relock the Dieline layer.
You can double-check what is on which layer at any time by clicking the eye on or off next to its respective layer.
Take a look at the final pieces below. First, you can see what it looks like folded up, with the address boxes, and as it would arrive to direct mail recipients. 

final mailer

Upon opening, the name of the recipient can be seen cut into the paper.

opened mailer

Finally, the fully opened piece can be seen below. For this project, I also designed corresponding laser-cut coupon cards that fit nicely in the pocket. Congratulations! You've mastered the art of creating a laser-cut mailer—fantastic work!

fully expanded mailer

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