postal (systems) design

OK, here’s my rant-

pretty much, technology has radically changed the face of most public and communications systems that have been in place for years/centuries. email, VOIP, mass transit (highways, cars, buses, planes), web, ebooks, mp3s, etc.

Yet, the postal system is still pretty much as it was 100+ years ago. you stick some content in a box/envelope, give it so someone (postal service, UPS), and they trek it from one place to another.

barring star trek transporter technology, the foundation of this system will likely remain the same for years to come.

what i wonder, however if the interface and foundation of the system could be in need for some change.

think of the following-

  1. to mail a letter (via standard postal service), you still need figure out correct postage (who really has a postal scale at home), buy stamps someplace, go to the post office or a postal box, and drop the letter off. why can’t the postman pickup as well as deliver. personally, ive found on the rare occasion i do need to mail a physical letter, it kicks around for days/weeks until i remember to make a special trip out to the post office/box. aside from big packages, i would think that letters out would balance letters in, so the postman wouldnt really be carrying more or have to do much more work. apparently, im not alone, as someone mentioned to me a study (cant find it online unfortunately), that found that most young people likewise find the system frustrating (that is they forget to go to the post office, cant figure out correct postage, etc.). also why not just drop a letter in a box and have them bill you the correct postage on some sort of account?

  2. there are all kinds of good stuff online that i often find i would love to have (from ebay to cool designer sites, to books, etc.), but so often the postage costs are ridiculous. sometimes even more than the cost of the item! i remember a design book i found once that was shipping from vancouver to here in toronto (only across the country, not even internationally) and the shipping was $60 for a $15 book! surely in the future perhaps thanks to RP production and print on demand (a la, some of this will be overcome, but still the issue remains for larger things and things that cant be digitally or otherwise reproduced.

  3. they ship tons of cars from asia every year. they also ship tons of things like electronics, tvs, etc. too. how come nobody has thought of filling up the passenger compartment/trunks of the cars with other stuff. while weight may be a factor for shipping costs, surely volume (and number of containers/ships) needed to ship all this stuff could be reduced.

there are i know some trial systems in place to address things like this. like personal courier services that offer to carry stuff if you are going from A to B and someone has a package that is also going there. a drop in the bucket of global shipping, but just seems like a problem waiting to be addressed and for someone to get rich off a solution!

bottom line, is that i believe the shipping/postal model is broken. granted there are factors such as the cost of oil, etc. involved in getting one thing from point A to B, but imagine the difference in the global economy and exposure to new things that would result if shipping cost were a non-issue. like the revolution of being able to speak to anyone worldwide thanks to global phone lines/VOIP or finding info of anything you want on the web, i truly believe if shipping could become a zero cost (or somehow subsidized) service, we would all benefit.



I pay $80/annually for “Amazon Prime.” It gives my household free 2-day shipping on just about everything:

…Other than that, buy local!

Some good points rkuchinsky–sometimes it’s like the dark ages.

Regarding #1, here in the States, the postman picks up letters, too.

Regarding #2, That $15 dollar shipping charge is really just padding the profit of the bookseller. This is what a lot of sellers do on Amazon and eBay.

I’ll add a few rants of my own:

  1. Whenever I buy a book of stamps, the next week the rate goes up again, making my current stamps worthless with out an extra 1 cent or 2 cent stamp.

  2. People who clog up the line at the post office agonizing over which pretty pictures they want on their stamps.

Businesses have it good–they can print out postage labels on machines, and get cheap bulk rate pricing on sending stuff.

All and all, I still think it’s amazing that you can send a letter across the country for only about 40 cents!

Drew: In Canada they debuted a permanent rate postage stamp. The post office charges the current rate for the stamp, but it is good to mail at that rate (let’s say letter rate) forever. No need to buy 100 $.01 stamps to make up for the increase anymore.

Kuchinsky: Billing should be easier. I’m not sure how it could be worked out, but there must be a way to bill the sender without the need for a stamp. Maybe return address labels with bar codes? Maybe something more creative?

Drew again: I refuse to buy stamps with the queen on them, so I have to occasionally stand in line selecting my stamps. Usually I just go for the ones with the flag on them, although I did enjoy the ones with subway cars.

As mentioned above, the postman can pick up in the States. If you have a small scale at home, and you ship frequently, you can purchase/print labels from your home via

Check it:

how does the postman do pickup there as mentioned in the US? I wasn’t aware of that. Doe they take all mail you leave in your mailbox? Do you need to call for pickup or be registered or something?

The “P” “permanent” stamps here in Canada are a great example of good design/systems thinking. “futureproofing” the postal rate and avoiding all those $0.01 stamps as mentioned.

another thought is about tracking. why cant all mail be tracked? surely it cant be that hard/expensive to scan all letters and put them in some sort of a system to notify upon delivery (maybe not at all points in between as per Fedex). Im pretty sure most letters are scanned anyhow for processing and with webapps and all, would be pretty simple but add lots of value.

while $0.40 to mail a letter cross country i suppose is good, still seems old fashioned and needing an update to me. i know there are a few services out there ive read about such as one that you email a letter to a company, and they print it an send it by snail mail (ie. to your grandma that doesnt have email)…


Typically you have a mail box like this:

It’s a little hard to see, but there is an arm on the side of the box. When you have no mail to send, you leave it down. When you have mail to send, you put it vertical. The same mail man picks up the letters as leaves the mail.

BTW, mail is also delivered on Saturdays in the US. These were two of the most frustrating things for me when I moved to Canada.

makes sense.

BTW, did you know here in canada you can also make your own stamps with any graphics/pics you choose. costs more than normal stamps ($24.95 per sheet of 40 at current postal rates), but you can do it online uploading any pic. i am tempted to see if i can get stamps made with my company logo on it. not sure if that is allowed…


You can do a similar thing with photos here in the US. I’ve seen it done where people put an engagement photo on a stamp and send it out with a wedding invitation or thank you card after the wedding.

These people tend to be superficial jerks and have too much money. In my experience anyway…

I am surprised there is such a difference between US post and Canada Post. Anyone from the UK/Europe reading this one? How does your system work over there?

Since going freelance, I’ve used Canada Post quite a bit and have discovered a some things. I used to be a shipper/receiver, but that’s a really long time ago.

  1. I try to use a PDF printer for documents.

  2. Just about anything else up to 5 pages in a #10 envelope costs one “P” stamp.

  3. You can get tracking on a letter but it costs extra and you have to go to the post office.

  4. There is a post office in just about every Shoppers Drug Mart (chain store) and some 7-11’s

  5. Xpresspost is really cheap compared to Fedex and UPS (unless you have a really good corporate discount), even when you compare to the private courier 2 or 3-day options.

  6. If you work in a corporate office, just stick your mail in with all the documents going out. Canada Post will probably have a pickup at most companies that have 50 employees or more. Whether you put your own stamp on it is a matter of company policy and personal ethics.

  7. If you use any other service than regular unregistered mail, such as signature on delivery, insurance, XpressPost 2-day, go to a postal outlet and keep the receipt. It will have tracking numbers, time and date of entry into the postal system, etc.

  8. If they fail to deliver within the specified time (confirm at the counter and also an online delivery standards calculator) you are entitled to a full refund. I recently send something overnight, that didn’t arrive until the 2nd business day and I got a cheque in the mail within a week of making the complaint.

  9. Get insurance… it costs a toonie for each C-note coverage and will really pay if they lose it.

  10. The online rate calculators are very accurate so I use that all the time to estimate what it will cost to send anything.


Actually, I think Canada Post is fairly efficient considering it has to cover the same size territory and environments that USPS (except Hawaii) and do it with about 1/10 the amount of mail. It’s got to be that much harder when one cannot economize on actual infrastructure like airplanes and sorting machines.


so no other great conceptual ideas how to bring postage to the 21st century? not talking about small things like nicer looking stamps, but more a whole system sort of approach…

am i alone here thinking that the status quo just doesn’t cut it?


Here’s 5 ideas:

  1. I’m surprised no one commented on my Amazon Prime post. I think it’s genius, and totally solved rkuchinsky’s desire to make shipping a “non issue.” Netflix also made it a non-issue by building returns into their fee and minimizing the packaging.

  2. Now imagine the post office working the same way. You pay them an annual fee, and they give you unlimited “free postage” stamps. This is how garbage collection works for the most part. 3. Speaking of which, why not combine the mail-man and garbage-man role? It’s all about inputs and outputs…

  3. Also, it’s not crazy to think that the government couldn’t totally subsidize mail in an effort to stimulate commerce. 5. Perhaps the US congress should consider it as a part of their stimulus plan??


That and the utter lack of left turn lanes in Vancouver.

Kuchinsky: for a more efficient system, look at how FedEx works. When they started, there was little technology involved. Through scanning and processing everything that goes through FedEx, they were able to cut costs and speed up delivery. I suppose Purolator does the same thing in Canada.

Post Canada is essentially privatising now. They are closing post offices like mad in Montreal, moving to post office desks inside stores who hire non-unionized and lower paid employees. They also gave up trying to compete with the private carriers for fast delivery and parcels, bringing in Purolator. It’s kinda weird that pinko Canada is ahead of the US in privatising the postal system.

CG: I like the idea of a flat fee. I might go for that. You mention subsidizing the system…well, it already is. It loses millions a year. I think the last time the USPS broke even was in '93-'94. They are not supposed to turn a profit, it’s not in their mandate.

IP: I didn’t realize that the Canadian crusade against left turns was even out west. In Montreal, it’s almost impossible. To add insult to injury, they don’t have left turn lanes here either. That means all left lanes are blocked anywhere one can turn left. Really smart traffic design. I think we could all take the 1 ton challenge just be repaving a few roads, synchronising the traffic lights and adding turn lanes to improve traffic flow (yes, I think too much about this).

What about just creating a better experience at the post office. I find that going to the post office can sometime be like going to the DMV. I normally go on a Saturday because I have to work during the week and when I get there normally there is only one person working the counter with a long line. Also the person working behind the counter never seems happy. There is a reason why there is a saying “Going Postal”!

If we can figure out a way to make these peoples jobs easier than then this would in turn make them happy which would make for a better experience. I don’t know for a fact but it seems to be that mail is still some what sorted by hand. With current technology and even in advances of the way FedEX and UPS sort their mail nothing should be done by hand. This is got to make for a very tedious job.

As far as the customer experience…I think the biggest on is confidence in the post office. My personal feeling is that I send packages via UPS of FedEX because I know that it is going to get there on time and in one piece. This is not true with the post office. This is not true with the post office. In my home town they were notorious for loosing thing and delivering it undamaged.

Sorry for the rant. My $.02.

Okay, now that I’ve had a chance to think about it a little, it seems to me that if you want to make it more efficient, you have to use more machines, just like the courier companies. But because it’s the Post Office, like this:

  1. Create a special postal font that is standardized between all the English speaking nations. Distribute it freely for computers and develop ultra high speed vision systems for reading it in a variety of orientations and angles. Then charge higher postage for mail that can’t be read by machines. Mail put into stand-alone mailboxes is automatically more expensive. This encourages people to drop mail off at locations that have the reader machines. Note, this font could be similar to the bar codes that the system already puts on mail, but in such a way that the “free” software takes an address and automatically converts it in the correctly spaced formats.

  2. Create a list of standardized shipping box sizes that can interlock with each other for really high density packing in the various transports. For example, in ratios that are exponents of 2, so 10x10x10cm, 20x20x10cm, 20x40x10cm, etc. Do not limit the box sizes to just a few, but several dozen in variations of 10, 20, 40 and 80 cm. Even mailing tubes should be should fall into this regime. Distribute the specifications freely so that box mfg will begin stocking them. Anything not on this list of sizes costs more to mail by a factor of 25% encouraging compliance.


I just found out that the annual per capita paper usage in the US is 700 lbs. That’s got to be due to the amount of junk mail. Retail flyers, credit applications, you name it.

So I’ll add one more to my post above:

  1. Allow people to have their junk mail returned to sender billing the original sender. This will immediately discourage all this direct marketing. The result will be less paper waste, and freeing up Post Office systems to deliver the real mail.

The USPS already offers reduced postage fees if you do those two things. A standardized font isn’t really important–their automation & OCR is pretty impressive.

I’d be curious to know the exact breakdown of how your postage gets spent. ie. How much goes to manpower vs. automation, fuel etc.

My personal rant:
We need more of those self service open 24/7 kiosks, I had one nearby in the previous place I lived, I could buy stamps, mail packages at 2 am. It was great. It would even be greater if I could ship items internationally or at least to Canada through those kiosks.