8 principles of good email design

Digital Design Feature Shape

With 3.9 billion daily users, email is a crucial part of any marketing strategy. Marketing emails go far in expanding a company’s consumer base and building brand loyalty.

But to do so successfully, emails need to be informative, to the point and impactful–all in just 8 seconds. Content alone cannot be king.

That’s where good email design comes in. Design not only helps emails meet these parameters, but enhances the recipient’s experience, building a stronger relationship with your brand long-term.

Different emails, different techniques

Design techniques and principles will differ based on both an email’s content and purpose.

There are three broad types of emails:

  1. Transactional updates: These emails are purely functional in nature–such as order confirmations and shipping notifications. The goal is to inform and update the reader, so they’re often kept simple with plain text.
  2. Promotional emails: These emails have a larger purpose, nudging users to respond to a call to action, or CTA. Examples include sale promotions, special vouchers, and subscription emails. When used correctly, design techniques work well in drawing recipients’ attention to an action item.
  3. Newsletters: Many companies send these out periodically to keep in touch with their customers. Even though newsletters are more content-heavy, design principles can make the information more palatable and appealing.

No matter what type of email you’re sending, though, there are 8 general principles of design to keep in mind.

Principle 1: Envision for the little screen

61% of email opens occur on mobile, yet 39% of recipients find that marketing emails are not designed well for mobile.

This comes at a high cost to engagement–research indicates that 60% of consumers ignore emails if they are difficult to read on a small screen. Emails specifically designed for mobile therefore make a big difference.

Not only that, but designing with the mini in mind prompts creativity and forces you to pare down content to the core message. Stay relevant and effective by using a central image–allowing readers to quickly and easily consume content.

Principle 2: Be generous with white space

Recipients are bludgeoned with emails all day, resulting in a reduced attention span.

One way to counteract this? Less content and more white space. Being generous with white space instantly highlights the relevant information and results in higher engagement.

In short, less content = more attention for the content you have.

Principle 3: Start a conversation

Emails are the first handshake to what could become a long-lasting relationship.

Instead of trying to fit a blog or user manual into the body, give your reader a taste and follow with ways to continue the conversation–whether it be ways to continue learning, interact with richer content on your site, or even make a purchase.

The right design piques a reader’s interest and keeps the conversation going with links to deeper content.

Principle 4: Try the dark side

As technology evolves, so do design techniques. Dark mode is a visual setting for mobiles that flips the default white background to black and gray to reduce eye strain and improve user experience.

Designing an email with dark mode does just that, creating a memorable experience for recipients. It not only speaks to your craft and attention to detail, but shows that you understand your audience, respect them and care about fitting into their lives.

Principle 5: Design to convert

Layouts play a crucial role in leading people to action. It dictates the hierarchy of information, taking customers from the logo to the title, image, description and CTA button.

Be strategic in your design and use the layout to draw eyes to the prize–the CTA. A minimalistic approach that brings to focus the key points quickly, such as the one below, leads recipients in the right direction: towards action.

Principle 6: GIF your audience a show

Nothing sets an email apart like a GIF. Given that our eyes are naturally drawn to movement over still content, having a GIF do the talking saves time.

In the example shown below, Dell saw an 109% increase in revenue from the use of this GIF. Readers immediately understood the product benefits and responded positively.

Principle 7: Bring it to life

Interactive elements don’t need to stop at GIFs, however. There are multiple alternate elements, in fact, that offer one key advantage: eliminating an extra step and bringing customers closer to action. In fact, 60% of people are likely to engage with an email if it’s interactive.

Here are just a few examples of interactive elements: 

Inline reply forms: In the example shown, Home Depot customers who recently purchased a product were sent emails with inline review forms, reducing friction points like logins or opening browser links. As a result, the company saw an increase of 55% in form submissions. 

Live polls: Showing people live data and allowing them to participate increases engagement. It also plays on FOMO, or the fear of missing out, as readers see others vote in real time. 

Carousels: These drive interaction by allowing recipients to swipe through images, or even buttons and text. Intriguing design can fuel higher engagement with each swipe. 

Video content: Video content has proven to lead to higher engagement. However, it can also be time-consuming and difficult to implement. Luckily, there’s an alternative approach–using GIFs or images with the play button overlaid can achieve the same objective in a simpler way. 

Expanders: This element allows users to expand a particular product to view it–again, saving users the trouble of browsing on a website or signing in.

Principle 8: Buttons work best

When it comes to the crux of your email, the call to action, there’s no need to get creative. After all, the traditional button design is industry standard for a reason–it works.

However, placement matters too. A CTA button should be easy to spot. Should you have a scrollable email, placing multiple CTA buttons can serve you well, encouraging readers to click on them quickly.


Emails shouldn’t be seen as inbox-filler or an inconvenience. They’re extensions of and introductions to a brand–and as a result, need to be just as personal.

With the right application of design principles, marketing emails can be happy encounters, and even welcomed friends. 

To watch the full webinar on the 8 principles of good email design, go here. 

Need help bringing your dream emails to life? Contact the SketchDeck team!



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