Designing Great Emails — 10 tips

April 1st, 2007 by Adam Q. Holden-Bache

Most companies send frequent email campaigns, but many don’t consider their design and layout in terms of how recipients actually receive their message. Most recipients view their email in software that has preview panes, and most people do not see the entire email upon first glance. Additionally, email software may turn off images and disable links by default, thereby creating a very non-compelling email from a visual perspective.

Some tips for designing a great email:

  1. Use Images to Enhance, not Deliver. Much of the latest email software does NOT show images in the default view. Recipients must actively elect to “View Images”. Therefore, you cannot rely on images to deliver your email message. Use descriptive text to get your message or offer across, and support this copy with relevant imagery. Never use images for important content like headlines, links and calls to action. And if you do use images, use ALT text to provide descriptive text for those who cannot see the graphics.
  2. Get to the point in the top 3 inches. Because of preview pane use, many recipients will only see the top 3 to 4 inches of your email. You need to get your offer or key message across in that top-most space or risk losing the interest of your readers.
  3. Use Friendly Fonts. There are only a handful of fonts that work on both Mac and PC computers. You must use these fonts when designing an email or risk having your text appear in a font you didn’t intend. It’s best to stick with Arial, Helvetica, Times, Times New Roman, and Courier. Other options that work cross-platform include Palatino, Garamond, Bookman, Avant Garde, Verdana, Georgia, Comic Sans, Trebuchet MS, Arial Black and Impact.
  4. Keep the width in check. Most email software includes a preview pane, so the area for displaying the email is less than the overall width of your screen. Subtracting the preview pane area leaves 600 pixels in which you can display your message. So keep your emails to 600 pixels (or under). Otherwise, your recipients will have to scroll horizontally to view your message, making for a frustrating experience.
  5. Keep Layout clean and simple. Clean, easy-to-read emails nearly always outperform heavily designed messages. In addition, complex tables and aligned images may not display properly in several email clients, so a simple, clean approach is usually the best option for email design.
  6. Get to the point ASAP. Readers want to get to the point of your message immediately, so provide key information right away and draw the focus of the attention to your main offer or message.
  7. Concise and Precise. By nature, an email message should be a brief, quick communication. Emails that go on and on run greater risk of immediately being deleted then those that get their point across immediately. If you need to provide a lot of information, link the readers back to your web site.
  8. It’s not the supermarket…. Loud colors draw attention in the supermarket, but you’re not in competition with other emails when a recipient is viewing your message. Keep your colors professional and appropriate, and limit the use of loud, aggressive color palettes.
  9. Keep file size in mind. The faster your email loads, the faster readers will see your message. Even in today’s broadband world, it may take a couple of seconds for large graphics to load in your message. Using graphics sparingly and compressing images properly will create a lean message that will be instantly viewable on high or low bandwidth connections.
  10. Test, test, test!. Yes, testing is probably the one thing that we all should do better. Test your emails in different email software and test them using different views (in horizontal and vertical preview panes, for example). Also test with images on and off. By testing thoroughly and adjusting for various issues, your email campaigns will deliver better results and return more value to your business.