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The Ultimate Guide to Email Design Best Practices

Jonathan Powell

Despite the fact that most people know how marketing works, there’s still something satisfying, even magical, about opening a well-designed email.

Drawn in by intriguing subject and preview lines, you click and something beautiful cascades before you. The words, the layout, the branding, the images… at least one, if not many, speak to you. And regardless of what the email offers, you don’t feel obligated to engage—you do so because you genuinely want to. So down the rabbit hole you go.

Of course, creating impactful emails isn’t actually magic—but there are parallels. Like magic, it’s equal parts art and science and the illusion is core to the experience. Most importantly, despite how many people claim to dislike magic, they probably only dislike the magician. Why? Because one wrong move takes the participant from a sense of wonder to feeling duped by a bad actor.

The same holds true for marketing. The more you can see the smoke and mirrors, the more it feels like you’re being tricked, manipulated, or sold to—and nobody wants that.

The science of good email design is rooted in best practice and a commitment to consistency. The art is adding a touch of creativity, making it immersive, and making it all happen. So to provide you with the tools you need to do both, here’s our ultimate guide—no top hats or wands required.

First impressions: Sender, subject, and preview

A woman and bird look at floating emails and thing about what to do.

The sender, subject line, and preheader/preview text might not seem like important design elements, but considering they’re the first things people see before deciding to open your email in the first place, it’s easy to see why they’re paramount to success.

Sender

The sender is easily the most commonly overlooked element and it’s more important to the recipient than you might imagine. Receiving an email from an actual person instead of a clear catch-all address—let alone the classic “noreply@[businessname.com]”—feels more personal and genuine, and also helps establish trust, which is necessary to generate good open rates.

In fact, according to a survey conducted just a few years ago by the folks at Litmus, 42% of people look at the sender first before deciding whether to open an email and 43% use the sender line when deciding when to mark emails as spam—and those numbers have been on the rise in recent years.

Unfortunately, there’s no one size fits all solution to picking the right sender name, but there are general best practices that will help get you there, such as using the “[sender name] from [business name]” structure or having personalized/departmentalized emails such as support@[business name].com to provide proper transparency.

Subject Lines

When it comes to subject lines, Walker Sands hits the nail on the head. “To filter out unnecessary or irrelevant messages, most people spend just a fraction of a second evaluating email subject fields. If the subject field doesn’t immediately capture their attention, they move on to the next message in their inboxes—even though the main body of the email may contain information that is valuable and useful to their business.”

Much like the sender, a subject line can just as easily make or break the opening of an email. To be successful, there are a few general rules you should try to follow.

•Keep it short and sweet. According to research by Marketo, 41 characters or 7 words is ideal for maximum open rates—just don’t squash it or remove words that help with clarity to get there or you’ll risk compromising your ability to communicate honestly and effectively.

•Make it compelling. If you can pique someone’s interest or curiosity, let alone add value, you’ll improve your chances of them opening your email. Try creating suspense that can only be satisfied by opening the email or partially summarizing one of the most compelling elements you deliver inside.

•Be transparent. Subject lines can be fun and still honest without coming off as gimmicky. If you’re true to what you propose in the subject line within the email body, the better your chances of establishing trust.

•Speak to your audience—and have fun with it. Maintaining your brand’s voice is important, but if yours doesn’t need to scream stark professionalism, consider using emojis to spark some interest. Outside of catching attention, they can often convey ideas words can not, or at least not as effectively, and they also tend to add a bit of personality to your messaging, among others, as noted by Stephanie Mialki of Instapage.

Preheader/Preview Text

While you can still deliver something powerful with a good subject line, without good preheader or preview text, recipients may not get the full scope of what you’re trying to communicate. This space is ideal for adding context to your messaging, whether that’s supplementing your subject line, creating more intrigue, or simply adding personalization.

While there are plenty of ways to leverage this field, most of the general rules mirror that of the subject line: keep it short so it doesn’t get truncated (30-55 characters), make sure it adds value, interest, or context, and keep it aligned with what you plan to deliver in the email body.

Layout

A woman writes on a piece of paper as the line she is writing wraps around her through the air with the end of that line attaching to a lightbulb shining by her face, implying that her ideas are becoming written lines on her page

When it comes to creating an email design that is not only aesthetically pleasing but also effectively speaks to people, there’s a lot to consider. Not every rule has to be followed to a T, but it’s important to first know them before you break them—and have a good reason for doing so.

Of course, some of those rules are non-negotiable, such as having a responsive email design, which can be achieved by using a responsive template. This will ensure that regardless of the device your audience is viewing your email on, it will look thoughtfully tailored no matter what. The rest, well, they’re more guidelines than rules, but we’d suggest sticking to them more often than not if you want to maximize your results.

Balance

It might sound generic, but balance is key to several elements of email design, beyond simple aesthetics. Creating proper balance throughout your emails can go a long way in delivering something that is both attractive and effective in driving user actions. While it extends beyond the list below, these are some of the most important and impactful ways to apply it across your email marketing efforts.

•Text/images: While the folks at MailChimp champion an 80:20 ratio for text and images, most experts agree that anything better than 60:40 is acceptable—and spam filters agree. Do what makes the most sense for your business and your messaging, but sticking to this range has proven to generate some of the best possible results. Just make sure that you’re not literally filling every space possible with text and/or images. Having a proper amount of negative space not only reduces eye fatigue, improves readability, and provides a cleaner look, but allows the elements that are present to really shine.

•Spacial: Many people would simply put this idea under general design, but plenty of the most effective email templates use spacial balance to properly lay out the most important elements, from images to body copy to CTAs and more. The three most common layouts that appropriately use this logic are the one-column, the inverted pyramid, and the zig-zag—all of which we’ve illustrated here, for better reference. Each has its own strengths, so you’ll have to figure out which best supports your messaging, but all three present helpful starting points.

•Informational: While you want your emails to be truly valuable to your audience, they shouldn’t be too dense if you want them to maintain impact throughout. Much like CTAs, offering too much information tends to compromise the power of what’s most important, so make sure to keep an eye on how much you’re cramming into one message. If there’s a lot of good info, consider splitting it up if it’s not time-sensitive.

According to Marina Grindle of FMG Suite, there’s an easy test you can run internally to figure out where to draw the line with content:

“Run the first draft of your email by someone in your company that didn’t play a role in its creation. After they have read through it, ask them questions about its effectiveness. Were there sections of the email that they tuned out? Could they have understood the message in a more efficient way? Questions like these will help you gain a greater understanding of the ideal amount of content for your emails.”

Organization and Formatting

A woman organizes images, fonts, colors, and a plant in the air.

Not every design concept applies universally but there are certainly quite a few that do. Many of them fall under this category simply because formatting directly correlates to an email’s overall readability. To get the most out of your email campaigns, try utilizing as many of these tips below as is appropriate for your messaging.

•Content/visual hierarchy: This one is simple—but undeniably powerful. The most important information should be at the top with the details or less important information cascading down from there.

“Your layout should help the viewer know what they should check out first, and where they can go from there. The more you ask your email recipient to do in order to read your message, the more likely they are to lose interest.” - Alex Eilmann, 250ok.com.

•Headers, subheaders, and bullet points: When it comes to email, formatting is everything. Good formatting, such as using well-defined headers, subheaders, and bullet points while avoiding walls of text makes both scanning and referencing easier for readers, both of which can create better direction and engagement.

•Above the fold: Most readers spend a vast majority of their time above the fold—any images or information immediately available without having to scroll. That means a majority of your efforts should focus on trying to keep your most important information above it.

“Just because recipients can scroll down to read more of your newsletter doesn’t mean they will. Part of your job is to give them a reason to and that means using the space above the fold to engage them and motivate them to put their scroll wheel to work.” - Renata Gajoch-Bielecka, FreshMail.

•Length: According to research by HubSpot and others, the ideal email length is under 200 words. For reference, from the “Headers…” bullet point above to the word “here” is right around 170. That’s not a ton, but it’s certainly enough to get a message across efficiently without having a reader lose interest. Beyond 200, you run the risk of indiscriminate scanning or outright abandonment—but remember, it’s what works best for your messaging and audience, so use this number as a basis for testing and adjusting accordingly.

•Simplicity: If we haven’t emphasized it enough, emails are meant to be quickly read, if not scanned, to glean the most important information—which is exactly why you should stick to a clean and simple look. Having too many images, too much text, not enough white space, and so on can unnecessarily complicate a reader’s ability to decide if and where to start and whether or not to continue reading, let alone soak up everything in front of them. Do yourself and them a favor by presenting all of your information, from images to text to CTAs, in a way that’s not too busy or complex.

Design Elements

Now that we’ve covered some overarching ideas about how to best assemble the framework of your emails, let’s take a deeper dive into the more granular details that can really make them shine.

Color

A woman reached down to organize color swatches.

Thankfully, compared to that of images, the guidelines for using color are pretty straight forward, so here’s an easy to read list of those we find most important.

•Stick to the source: While you’re not solely limited to your brand’s colors in email, sticking to just a few with a tried-and-true color theory combination goes a long way to help provide a thoughtful presentation—especially if you have a lot of visual branding elements throughout. You can even use the main image as a source for your palatte’s inspiration or edit the photo to fit a predetermined palette.

For a deep dive into employing color theory in email marketing, Helen Holovach of Snov.io Labs has a killer guide on color psychology, combinations, and general use.

•Images over text: If you’re trying to infuse color into an email, let the images do the heavy lifting. Colored fonts are hard to read, especially if there isn’t appropriate contrast with the background, and tend to destroy readability in the body copy regardless.

•Consistency: Some brands and logos work great in plenty of colors, but if one or both are well-defined, stay consistent throughout your messaging as much as you can, especially when it comes to headers, footers, and social icons.

Images

A woman organizes a pile of photos in thin air.

It’s safe to say that images are one of, if not the most important element you can put in front of someone when it comes to email. They are eye-catching, they present more information than words ever could in the same amount of time, and they generally stick with people long after the words have faded away. But that also means using them poorly will leave most everyone who sees them with a bad taste in their mouth—or eyes, as it were.

“In today’s content-rich digital landscape, people have zero patience for content that wastes their time. It doesn’t take long to assess our content by its images.” - Gilad Maayan, Surveyanyplace.com.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take a veteran graphic designer to execute them with confidence, as long as you have some of the basics down. For the sake of ease, feel free to use this list of tips as a reference.

•Size: Big, hi-res photos take longer to load and load times highly influence patience. To keep your audience engaged and your emails looking sharp, keep resolution high and always size down (at least ½ size if possible), stick to PNG files, and aim to keep them under 1MB in size—just don’t compromise on quality.

•Supplement not focus: Images are certainly communicative but they shouldn’t be your entire message—words should. So make sure any images you choose to use add value. And don’t make the fatal mistake of putting your message solely in the image file itself, even with words included. If it doesn’t load, neither will anything you have to say.

•Do your research: Creating and using original images is ideal when getting your branding and messaging across exactly how you want them to. But if you have to use stock images, make sure your competition isn’t using the same ones, or something too similar.

“There’s always going to be some similarities within an industry, but your images should speak to what makes your company different. Unless you sell boats, there’s no reason you and your closest rival should both be running ads featuring men on boats. Find something more original that consumers can relate directly to you.” - Joe Griffin, Convinceandconvert.com.

•Stay obvious—and on-brand: Every image you choose should reinforce your brand’s story and convey a clear meaning, especially in context. There’s no reason to get too deep, artistic, or complex in the process. Even an art gallery audience doesn’t want to spend time interpreting the visual elements in their emails, so make it easy on them with thoughtful yet obvious and direct imagery that can’t be misconstrued.

•Backgrounds: If you do choose to put words over an image (and hopefully reiterate the idea in text as well), make sure you’re not choosing an image that’s overly patterned, complex or doesn’t have enough contrast to the text itself, as it will make the words harder to read and may discourage readers from digging deeper into the email.

•Alt text: There are plenty of reasons some images don’t render, but the fact that they don’t should be the only reason you need to use alt text. Alt text ensures that readers know what the image is and what it’s trying to get across, whether it loads or not. And when it comes to being fully accessible for all types of recipients, this effort checks boxes for both inclusivity and compliance.

If you’re not sure what to include and disclude in your alt text, check out this post from Kevin George of Uplers.

•Avoid visual CTAs: Visual CTAs are great for plenty of things, but as one of the most important components of an email, they run too much risk of getting missed altogether if the image itself doesn’t load. Don’t take the chance—stick to buttons or text-based links.

Font

A woman draws with the word "font" written infront of her, reminding her to be consistent with her font sizes and styles.

While fonts can be fun and provide brand definition, they’re still a serious business. That’s why you should always try to stick to:

•Fonts that are web safe, simple, on-brand, and easy to read.

•Using only one or two font sizes.

•Sans serif fonts in body text for readability.

•14pt to 16pt for body copy and 22pt to 24pt for headers.

CTAs

At the risk of overstating the obvious, CTAs are hugely important to email campaigns and email design in general. As such, more than most other guidelines we’ve put forth, it’s important to follow the ones below as often as possible.

•Keep CTA text short, meaningful, and action-oriented.

•Try to keep CTAs above the fold.

•Use appropriate size and color to help CTAs stand out without being distracting or obnoxious.

•Limit use to one CTA per email, two at the absolute most, to limit obscuring or compromising the desired action.

•Keep CTAs aligned with the subject of the email.

Headers and Footers

A woman happily looks at a finalized sheet of content with the header in bold.

Of all the elements we’ve now gone through, headers and footers are the easiest, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth mentioning. More than anything, consistency is paramount. Not only does it make future iterations faster to employ, but helps create cohesion across your messaging—especially since they generally hold the most static elements, such as your logo, locations, contact information, and so on. Keep them simple yet helpful and well-defined, so they don’t distract from your messaging while still serving their function.

Conclusion

A woman wearing a magician's hat waves her wand as she has magically done it all!

Like any magician, part of getting the act to work is engaging the audience, and getting them to believe your work takes skill. To best convey your message by email, utilize these tips and be authentic to who you are. With experience and practice, you'll be composing emails for an audience that can't wait for what you have planned next.

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