The 9 elements of email design.

Illustration of a smart device displaying an email on its screen.

Are your emails designed to capture clicks? In Part 3 of our email marketing blog series, we’ll explore the elements of a well-designed email and reveal that there’s more to it than establishing the right template. And if you haven’t read the first two parts of this series already, we encourage you to check out Dissecting the Anatomy of a High-Performing Email and How to Write an Effective Email.
Shall we dive in?

1. Check your digital brand guidelines. 

Just like your other marketing mediums — such as collateral materials, print advertising and direct mail — your digital brand (that includes emails) should be consistent and support your overall brand. That’s why it’s important to refamiliarize yourself with your company’s digital brand guidelines before getting started. If your company doesn’t have any digital branding requirements, make developing these a priority. They should outline brand color builds, which fonts you should be using in a digital space, approved iconography, illustrations styles and more.

2. Make a statement header.

The header is the first thing your viewer sees when they preview (if they have a preview pane) or open your email — and it’s your first chance to capture their attention. Eye-catching photography, typography and animated graphics are all solid design choices. Keep in mind, though, if you opt for animated graphics, not all email clients (i.e., Outlook for Windows, Gmail, etc.) support animation. This just means you’ll need to make sure your animation still makes sense visually if it doesn’t play.

Don’t have time or budget for a heavily-designed header? At the very least, your header should include your logo, brand colors, a bold headline and a visual that ties into the message of your email.

Close-up illustration of a smart device displaying the words “Plan for impact” and a rocketship on its screen.

3. Design for multiple screen sizes.

These days, customers are checking their email on any number of devices, including desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones and smart watches, and 46% of email opens occur on mobile. Because of this, there’s really no “standard size” to go by when designing an email — which is why responsive design is your best bet.

Responsive design “responds” and adjusts to fit the screen of whatever device your customer is using. The coding behind the email design uses fluid tables, flexible images and CSS media queries to allow for content to flex across varying screen sizes. But don’t worry, you don’t need to be a coder to achieve responsive design. There are plenty of great email building tools out there that will do the heavy lifting for you (see tip #9). 

Another benefit of using responsive design is that you only have to lay out your email once as opposed to creating separate versions for desktop and mobile. However, you’ll still want to check to see how the email will look across varying screen sizes to ensure that a logo or an image are not taking up the entire first view. Luckily, most email builders allow you to toggle between screen views and make adjustments as you’re designing. 

Illustration of a smartphone and tablet side-by-side, displaying the same email.

4. Optimize images.

When including images in your email — which could be photos, logos, icons, illustrations or animated gifs — we recommend sizing them at 2 to 3 times the retina display to avoid distortion or pixilation. It’s important to include alt tags for each image to help screen-reading tools describe images to your visually impaired customers or in case an email client doesn’t load your images. Also, try to avoid designing image-only emails. It’s a common tactic used by spammers and is therefore more likely to be flagged as spam.

 A small pm logo followed by an arrow pointing to a larger pm logo.

5. Create click-worthy buttons. 

Many readers skim their emails, so having buttons with bold colors and fonts can help improve your chances of getting more clicks. Having a button positioned higher in your email (especially in mobile) can also help entice engagement. Ultimately, we recommend you test out these design variables to see which one performs the best.

Two best practices we stand by, though, are to create live text buttons instead of image-based buttons and to use a 2- to 3-word call to action. (For tips on what your call to action should be, check out How to Write an Effective Email.)

6. Mix in text links.

If you have one call to action, then a single button should suffice. If you have multiple calls to action or linking opportunities, then using a mix of buttons and text links can help keep your email from looking too cluttered. Text links can give your customers more ways to engage with your content as they’re reading it. But to make sure they don’t get glossed over, it’s important to either bold the link, use a different color or both.

7. Build a consistent footer. 

The footer of your email is generally considered all business. It’s where readers assume the links to your website, social media pages and contact information will be, which is all required information per the CAN-SPAM Act. So to stay compliant, maintain customer expectations and save time when designing, keep the footer consistent on every email you design. 

8. Limit the scroll.

Some email clients (especially Gmail) do not allow excessive scrolling and will “clip” your email if it’s too long. To avoid this, you’ll want to keep the file under 102KB. If there’s too much content to work with, consider working with a copywriter to break it out into a series of emails.

9. Refine your design with helpful tools.

Some tools you can use to create emails include Mailchimp, Marketo, Hubspot, Stripo, Constant Contact, Pardot and Salesforce. Many of them — like Mailchimp and Constant Contact — also allow for A/B testing on images, videos, button colors and more. In terms of pricing, a few of these tools are subscription-based and others are free to a certain point. Generally, if you want more bells and whistles, you’ll have to pay more.

As for previewing your email before it’s sent off into the world, some email building tools like Stripo include a preview feature. You can also use services like Litmus to see how it will look in Outlook, Gmail and various other email clients. And remember, once your email is sent, you can’t take it back — so make previewing a mandatory. 

If you’re interested in learning more about email marketing best practices or would like to connect with an email marketing strategist, reach out. Our team is ready to help you achieve better results.

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