Email marketing is an ideal and affordable marketing strategy for small businesses that want to quickly build a customer base and yield profits with minimal investment. But before you can get people to click on your messages, you have to capture their attention. Design plays a critical role in marketing success, so keep the following email design do’s and don’ts in mind when you develop your email campaigns.
Email layout design tips
From header to footer, your email layout should naturally funnel readers’ eyes through benefits that create desire and toward strong calls to action (CTAs) that motivate response.
- Balance content and feature more text than images — at least 60 percent text to 40 percent images.
- Incorporate plenty of white space for a clean look that visually separates design elements.
- Prioritize content hierarchy, with the most important content featured first — above the fold.
- Use a responsive template optimized for both desktop and mobile devices (50 percent of emails are opened on mobile).
- Make your content easy to scan, so recipients do not need to read every word to understand your email and click your CTA.
- Use headings and subheads to maintain visual organization.
The example below from Panera Bread has plenty of white space, expertly mixes images and text, and uses subheads to divide up sections. All of these elements work together to produce an email that is scannable and visually appealing.
- Don’t use a single image for your emails; many email clients will not automatically display images.
- Don’t feature a long block of text anywhere in your email. Instead, break content into concise sections.
- Don’t make your emails too long. Some email clients clip long messages (Gmail, for example, clips any messages larger than 102 KB). Clipped messages are not only bad for marketing and forwarding, but they can violate CAN-SPAM rules because they hide unsubscribe links.
- Don’t stuff everything you can think of into your emails; instead, use emails as tools to motivate clicks for more information and purchases.
- Don’t use a dark, patterned or image background for your content (it’s OK to have a dark background behind a lighter main body content area, which can make your email pop, though it won’t show in all email clients).
- Don’t make your layout too busy — keep your emails simple with easy-to-digest summaries and clear calls to action.
Email color tips
Your choice of email color can help your brand and message stand out. While it’s fun to experiment with colors, your choices should be strategic.
- Limit the number of colors you use (you can match your brand and website colors, or choose colors specific to your current promotion).
- Contrast dark text against a light background.
- Fill headers and footers with your primary color, if desired, or use colored lines to separate them from main body content.
- Use images to add additional colors to your email design.
The red and yellow in the Dr. Martens email below add a nice pop of color and complement the design’s black and white elements. The limited color palette draws the reader’s attention to the copy while a busier design might have pulled focus from the most important information.
- Don’t use colored body text – keep it black or dark gray.
- Don’t use a dark-colored background for your main content area.
- Don’t use more than two colors in your design (multi-colored logos and images are fine).
- Don’t use colors that clash or are otherwise unattractive.
Email fonts and typography tips
Keep typography simple for legible emails that engage readers.
- Use only one or two fonts in your email.
- Use sans serif fonts for body text; either sans serif or serif fonts may be used for headers and subheads.
- Use simple, easy-to-read, web-safe fonts. Examples include Open Sans, Helvetica, Courier, Raleway, Droid Serif, Arial, Tahoma, Times New Roman, Georgia and Trebuchet MS.
- Size body copy fonts at 14- to 16-point, headline fonts at 22- to 24-point for best readability.
- Use fonts that align with your branding and messaging.
Domino’s has some fun with the fonts they use in this email. But even their more stylized text is easy to read.
- Use script fonts or other fancy fonts, which can be difficult to read.
- Use custom fonts that may not render correctly on all devices.
- Use colored fonts, except for headers (dark gray or black work best for body copy).
Email emojis tips
Emoji use by brands has risen 609 percent year-over-year in digital communications. Here’s how to use them properly.
- Incorporate emojis to save space yet say more in email subjects (keep your subjects under the “magic” 49-character threshold).
- Use emojis to make email subjects stand out in recipients’ inboxes.
- Only use relevant emojis that help convey your message and create excitement.
- Add personality with emojis in salutations and signatures.
- Use emojis to highlight deals and special offers in body text.
The subject line above from Tarte Cosmetics, featuring two pineapple emojis, was the perfect lead-in to an email about their new pineapple-shaped makeup palette:
- Don’t overuse emojis – they should serve as meaningful accents, not the bulk of your message.
- Don’t use confusing emojis. Stick to emojis that are universally-recognized: smiley faces, coffee mugs, etc.
- Don’t rely exclusively on emojis to make key points. They may not render correctly in all email clients, so they should be used to reinforce your message.
Email image tips
Images are worth a thousand words, but within emails they should be used in moderation.
- Save images at 72ppi/dpi and optimize for the web for quick-loading emails.
- Use JPG and PNG images in emails. Use GIFs sparingly and only if they aren’t too large.
- Stagger images and text for a clean, easy-to-follow layout.
- Use compelling images that create desire and tell your story: your products in use, for example, or happy customers.
- Use image alt text so readers can read what your images are about if their email clients do not display them. Good alt text will still motivate clicks.
- Size images for retina displays (twice the size of normal displays).
The email below from Whosits & Whatsits uses high-quality images to promote its new line of hats. The models are shown in action, which brings the photos to life.
This email from Whosits & Whatsits uses high-quality images to promote its new line of hats. The models are shown in action which brings the photos to life.
- Don’t use images as your entire email, since they may not automatically display in many email clients.
- Don’t use images for call to action buttons, since they may not render.
- Don’t rely on images to tell your story; it will be lost by email clients that do not automatically render images.
- Don’t use complex or confusing images that risk alienating customers.
- Don’t increase image size for emails — always size down for crisp, captivating email images.
Email call to action (CTA) tips
Your CTA fuels email success. Make sure it’s effective with these tips.
- Make your call to action a color button that stands out from the rest of your email content.
- Keep your CTA text short and meaningful: buy now, learn more, read more, etc. Check out this list of 50 calls to action that sell for more ideas.
- Place your first CTA above the fold, and repeat it below if necessary (two or three CTAs per email is a good rule of thumb).
- Make your buttons large enough that readers don’t miss them.
Uniqlo’s dark gray call to action buttons are above the fold and stand out against the email’s light background:
- Don’t overload your email with different calls to action. Instead, focus on driving readers toward a single action. If you have more, send more than one email.
- Don’t bury your call to action. You want your CTA to stand out, get noticed and get clicked.
- Don’t deviate from your subject. Your CTA should align with your subject so readers know what to expect when they open your email and to comply with CAN-SPAM regulations (no trickery!).
Email header and footer tips
Achieve a professional look with these tips for designing email headers and footers.
- Incorporate your logo or company name into your header to identify your brand.
- Add teaser text before your header, which will show up on the subject line in many email clients and give you another opportunity to influence opens.
- Apply the same header and footer across all campaigns for consistent branding.
- Include contact information, additional resources such as social media links and value-added links, unsubscribe links and any legal fine print in the footer.
In the promotional email below, the Lucky Brand logo is the first thing you see when you open it. The clothing retailer always includes social media links in its email footers, too.
- Don’t create a complex design for your header or footer — keep it simple so readers can get to the meat of your email.
- Don’t add a lot of navigation to your header or footer. Simplify as much as possible, so you can effectively brand your emails without getting in the way of your message.
- Don’t include too much text in your header or footer — again, simplicity is key.
Whenever you’re tinkering with email design, remember that it’s best practice to make sure new design elements look right across every platform and browser; fortunately, VerticalResponse’s Test Kit makes that part easy. And, armed with these tips, you can design compelling emails that get opened, motivate clicks and fuel sales.
Join 140,000 small business owners
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2016 and has been rewritten for accuracy and relevance.
© 2019, Brian Morris. All rights reserved.