Folding Style: Standard Stepped Accordion
Subcategory: Stepped Accordions
Level: Intermediate
Uses: Print Marketing Promotion, Product Information, Packaging Inserts, Guides/Manuals, Events, Custom Direct Mailer

The Stepped Accordion Fold is a format that everyone who designs for print needs to know about. It’s a creative direct mail specialty format that comes without a lot of the usual overhead that specialty formats can carry, like die cuts and hand folding. Yes, there are some technicalities that can put you into these categories—but in general, Stepped Accordions are just a long rectangle of paper with parallel scores. Oftentimes, these are rotary scored and can be folded by machine in a skilled shop. If they’re folded by hand, it’s usually due to the quantity you ordered, rather than the difficulty of folding the piece by machine.

There are many variations for Stepped Accordion Folds —Standard (Flush), Wrapped Stepped, Staggered, Centered, Asymmetrical, Bi-Directional, Micro-Stepped, and more. However, to understand Stepped Accordions, it’s best to start with the Standard Stepped Accordion Fold and modify from there.

The Standard Stepped Accordion has stepped tabs on one side and the other side is flush. Classic tab depth is a half inch, but there is no rule on this. So, really, all you’re doing is playing with score placement to create a tapered or varying zig-zag folded effect. I’ve seen wide tabs and tiny little narrow (micro) tabs. It’s all up to you.

One other thing to note on the Standard Stepped Accordion configuration is that the art can be all on one side because all of the tabs are on side one. With different variations of this format, you may need to design for both sides of the sheet.

Here’s what the fold placement for the Standard Stepped Accordion looks like:

stepped accordion fold creative direct mail
Stepped Accordion Fold – Accordion fold brochure template

The samples below use the stepped tabs in very different ways—some carry typography, bold imagery, or simple color or texture. If you take a look at all of the samples, you’ll get a really good sense of how you can use this format in just about any scenario or vertical, and also how you can make it your own in simple ways that in many cases will not affect the production cost at all.

The Stepped Accordion Fold . . . 7 Ways!

Below, you’ll find 4 real-world examples of the standard, flush format Stepped Accordion, plus 3 BONUS examples of fun ways to modify it. If you find you like the steps, but you need a solid front and back cover (or self-mailing capabilities) instead, check out my post on the Wrapped Stepped Accordion Fold. It’s a great variation of the format.

Stepped Accordion Fold for Drama:

Sample: University of Massachusetts Amherst with Allied Printing Services

One of the things I really like about this particular sample for University of Massachusetts Amherst, is that the steps are used as a dramatic design element. They carry color and texture ONLY, and break up the content in creative ways, which creates interest while allowing the message and the campus photo to take center stage. When opened, the accordion panels provide opportunities to break up the information graphics and photos. This accordion brochure was printed 4-color digital on 80 lb Uncoated Cover.

Stepped Accordion Fold for Product Promotion:

Sample: Designed exclusively for Black Button Distilling

Here’s a great example of using the Stepped Accordion Fold to promote a line of products in a stylish and organized way. This sample for Black Button Distilling uses the steps to divide the products into 3 categories—Gin, Bourbon, and Bourbon Cream—and each 2-panel spread features just those products. I like how they used the left panel of each spread for the product, and the right panel for descriptive knockout text on a black background. The contrast makes the images really “pop.” The back of the brochure is covered with full-color imagery, reviews and accolades. The sample was printed 4-color digital on 80 lb Gloss Coated Cover.

Stepped Accordion Fold for Organizing Information:

Sample: Designed by Sarah Lawrence for Academe of the Oaks

This example was designed to promote a 4-year private High School program, and there was a lot of information to organize. Sarah Lawrence created a clean and classic grid with color blocks and typography on the tabs, and an intuitive balance of white space content. On the back, she had fun with information graphics and photos on fields of solid color. The sample was printed 4-color digital on 80 lb Gloss Coated Cover.

Stepped Accordion Fold for Displaying Imagery:

Sample: Bentley University

I think you’re going to love this one. Bentley University used slices of a large image across all of the steps. When closed, they form one cover image of 3 students at a table and an intriguing texture. When opened, each 2-panel section features a large photo of each of the students on the cover with a testimonial. The last spread supports the call to action. On the back of the brochure, there are more images and some powerful statistics to consider. This sample was printed 4/4 on 100 lb Uncoated Cover stock.

BONUS Examples — Now, I’m Just Showing Off

I have a lot of Stepped Accordions in my folded mailers collection (seriously, I could go on and on with this one), and the samples vary considerably because there are many ways to make subtle adjustments to this folding style. It’s truly one of the most flexible specialty formats. So, I pulled 3 additional examples for you just so that you could see a range of applications, enhancements, and step widths.

Steps with Die Cuts for Added Dimension:

Sample: K Plus Design Collective with Allied Printing Services

This exciting brochure was designed as a package insert to get people to join the Krups Elite program. K Plus Design Collective used “Swinger” die cuts on panels 3, 5, and 7 to create realistic-looking dimension for the cups. You’ll also notice on this sample that the steps are much wider than the previous samples I’ve shared with you, and that the final step is the widest. There are no rules for this format, so why not?? This sample was printed by Allied Printing Services on 100 lb Dull Coated Cover stock.

Micro-Steps for Texture:

Sample: Hartman Design Studio with Kallen Printing

This design by Hartman Design Studio for Hoffman Institute Canada uses narrow little micro-steps as a subtle texture and design detail on the edge of the accordion brochure. Inside is a client profile and information about the program and methodology. With a simple shift in placement of the scores, you can play with the width of the tabs in either direction without having any real effect on the production cost in most cases. This sample was printed by Kallen Printing on 80 lb Uncoated Cover stock.

Stepped Accordion Folds for Dressing-Up a Pocket Folder:

Sample: Designed by Dixon Schwabl for Nazareth College Arts Center

My “grand finale” is an elegant enhancement to a print marketing format that is normally not very innovative—the pocket folder. This design by Dixon Schwabl for Nazareth College Arts Center replaces the standard cover of a 9” x 12” pocket folder with a Stepped Accordion cover that opens to reveal a pocket for holding program inserts. This sample was printed 4/4 on 100 lb Satin Coated Cover stock.

Love it? Make Your Own Stepped Accordion Fold

So, now that you’ve seen 7(!) creative ways to use this fold, would you like to try designing one for yourself? Good! Design and print your own Stepped Accordion here—you can download the accordion fold brochure template for free and get instant pricing, too.