As designers, we always want to do our best work—even when we don’t have the most exciting subject matter or the highest budget. But it’s easy to get caught in a folding funk, choosing the same tri-fold or 4-pager over and over because . . . well, it’s there, and it’s familiar, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, safe.
And I’ll admit that not every project really inspires creative format exploration. In my agency days, I had a client who sold pool chemicals. They were great people with an unsexy product—but therein lies the design challenge. I think a brochure for a client who sells pool chemicals can be just as impressive as the brochure for a client who sells exotic sports cars (or whatever subject floats your creative boat). It’s all in your mindset, and in how you organize and present the content. Knowing all of the different folding styles for brochures, leaflets, pamphlets (or whatever you call them) can be a powerful way to spark your creativity and impress your clients on any budget.
All folded materials have distinctly identifiable characteristics that allow them to be classified into folding categories or “families.” Knowing these basic categories will help you to understand your options when you begin the concept work on a project and will help you rule in or out different folding styles based on your concept, content and project specifications.
What characteristics make a roll fold different from a gate fold, or a parallel fold different from an accordion? I’m glad you asked. There 7 key categories of folds for brochures: Basic folds, Accordion folds, Gate folds, Parallel folds, Poster folds, Roll folds, and Specialty folds. There are some subcategories within them, which I’ll share with you, too. We’ll start simple and add complexity as we go.
Basic folds are what I like to call the “bread and butter” folds of the world. They’re classic, practical, and production-friendly. As you might expect, the Basic folding family consists of some of the easiest and most common folding styles you’ll see in mail and marketing brochures, and their lack of distinctiveness is really their main qualifier. This category includes tri-folds (also called letter folds), 4-pagers, and simple 8-page broadside folds (commonly referred to as French folds). Great for low budget projects, flyers, leaflets, and everyday handouts and support materials, these styles are perfect for product information, newsletters and brochures, and virtually guarantee stress-free production at almost any printer or bindery.
The Accordion category is the largest of all folding categories, with the exception of specialty folding. The characteristic that all accordion folds have in common is the “zig-zag” back-and-forth nature of the panels. You may also hear the term “Z-fold” for this style of folding, once in a while. Accordions can be incredibly simple, with the entry point to the category being a 3-panel accordion brochure. Panels can be added to make an accordion longer and more dramatic, but understand that adding lots of extra panels can limit the ability to fold the brochure by machine (which is a big part of what can make this folding style very economical). You should also figure out your press sheet size before going wild with extra panels. Some designers choose to tip-on (attach with glue) a second set of panels to further extend the length. With accordions, you are limited only by your imagination (and your budget).
You may have heard the term “map fold” at some point, and map folds are a subcategory of Accordions. They characteristically have several accordion folds and are built in a tall format that opens into a large continuous (often map or poster) layout. You don’t see as many Map folds these days, because we all use our GPS systems in our phones and vehicles. Personally, I can’t remember the last time I referenced a printed map, however it has more to do with my inability to interpret maps than it does my love for oversized accordion folds. More often these days, you’ll see miniature versions of specialized map folds tucked into pharmaceutical packaging. Maps are limited to lighter weight stocks and may require special folding machinery (oversized or miniature) and special handling.
The identifying characteristic of a gate fold is two or more panels folding in toward the center from opposing sides. Gate folds used to be a big deal to fold by machine (I won’t bore you with the technicals), but these days Gate folds are quite common and economical. Like its name, the Gate brochure panels open like . . . a gate! What I really like is that you get that initial spread when the short panels are closed, and then the entire interior spread is revealed all at once when opened.
Parallel folds feature styles with panels that stay parallel to each other. Parallel folds run the gamut from 4 panels up to 12 or more, but in general, this is an economical category of folding. The most common parallel fold is the Double Parallel, but Triple Parallels and 10-Page Parallels can be useful as well. There are a few modifications you might want to look into, like stepped double parallels, wrapped stepped double parallels, and double parallels with long trailing panels.
Poster folds are combination folds that are built to open out into a large poster format. Posters consist of at least two folds, with one folding style serving as the base fold, and one folding style serving as the finished fold, or the fold that give the piece its final shape. The folding styles could be the same or different from each other, but not all folds are compatible. For example, an accordion fold base plus a roll fold finish would be a disaster (too much air and bulk). However a Tri-Fold into Accordion Poster (Tri-Fold base, Accordion Finish) works really well. Check out this Accordion into Gate Poster. Poster folds are limited to lighter weight stocks. Always make a paper dummy.
Roll folds are exactly what they sound like —featuring panels that roll into one another. Rolls are production-friendly, but they’re not as common because the file set up can be tricky. Each panel must get slightly smaller than the previous to accommodate for the physical dimension and thickness of the paper.
Entry point for Roll folds is 4 panels, but you can add panels to make it longer. Much like Accordion folds, you should be aware of your press sheet size before adding panels. It’s uncommon to see a Roll with more than 6 panels, because it starts to test the limits of machine folding, and also because the brochure will get thick, and can take on a roundish profile. When in doubt, ask your printer for advice on panel count and paper thickness.
One of the most important things to consider when you’re designing for Roll folds is that people tend to quickly unroll the brochure to get to the inside spread, so content on the face of the rolling panels can get overlooked or viewed after the interior reveal. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but something to be aware of – most people do not stop and read each rolling panel as they’re opening it. Roll folds are great for direct mail (self-mailing or envelope mailing), brochures, and promotions. There are a few nice variations to consider as well.
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The Specialty category is the most exciting of the bunch. Filled with unique formats that challenge even the most creative mind, many of these styles require scoring and die-cutting, special equipment or setup, and possibly hand-folding. This category can include unique shapes, diagonal folds, and combinations of different folding characteristics. Subcategories within this group include proprietary and dimensional or 3D folds, and hybrid and composite formats.
Hybrid and Composite Folds
Two additional subcategories of specialty are Hybrid and Composite folds. Hybrid folds combine the strongest characteristics of more than one folding style into one new, hybrid format. Hybrids are one-sheet wonders, but they can be inefficient due to the inability to nest multiple units on a sheet. Here’s an example:
Square Cross + and Open Gate = Square Cross Open Gate Hybrid
A Composite fold involves gluing at least two formats together to make one combined format. The benefit of a composite is the ability to use different papers. However, there is the additional print run and the extra step of gluing, but if you’re looking for uniqueness and creative flexibility, a Composite format could be a great choice. Here’s an example:
Gate Fold + Roll Fold = Gate Fold / Roll Fold Composite
Proprietary solutions are “owned” (or patented) specialty solutions. There are also formats on the market that are not patented, but have been marketed under a trademarked name, and are considered “branded solutions.” If the solution is owned, in most cases you must work with the patent holder to be able to use that fold for your project. Most folds are not patented, by the way. Most of the patented formats are the really So, if you see a printed sample of something you like and you’re unsure if it’s patented, look for a small printed patent number, often discreetly placed on a back or bottom panel. If you find one, contact the company listed with the number, or look up the patent number online to learn more. Branded solutions that don’t have patent numbers are in the public domain—they just have catchy marketing names.
Want to see some really cool proprietary and branded formats? My go-to is Red Paper Plane from Structural Graphics. Full disclosure: they are a long-time sponsor of Foldfactory, but I wouldn’t accept their sponsorship if I didn’t love their products. Red Paper Plane offers quick-turn dimensional and interactive print formats for mail and marketing. Just download the template and upload your art!
Resources to Help You Get Started
If you like what you see, and you’re ready to get to work, check out our Template Builder to make Accordions, Tri-Folds, Closed Gates, Parallels, and Rolls built to your custom specifications. If you’re looking for exciting direct mail and specialty folds to design and print, check out the Foldfactory Designer Folds collection at Smartpress—there are 30 designs to choose from, free templates, and an instant pricing calculator, too.