Design tips for marketers: emails

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With all the attention paid to your TikVideos and your InstaFaces, good old-fashioned email is still a must-have for marketers. In fact, email testing and campaign monitoring company Litmus reports that email provides a whopping $42 ROI for every $1 spent

The long and the short of it is, email isn’t going away anytime soon. But before you create your next one-off or your next email campaign, here are a few things you should know prior to sitting down with your designer. 

Think mobile first 

Chances are we all have at least one mobile device within arm’s reach right now. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re reading this very article on an iPhone, Android device, or iPad. Mobile opens account for almost 50% of all email opens, so it’s a no-brainer that your email should look sharp on smartphones and tablets.  

Matthew Davis, Creative Director and co-founder of San Francisco design agency the Savage Bureau says that, “The first thing I ask my designers, before I even look at first-round design: ‘Did you test it on mobile?’” 

This may seem a bit on the obvious side, but mobile testing is a MUST. Just because it looks good on a monitor or laptop does not mean it will be legible on a 2-3 inch mobile screen. At the very least you should make sure your design team sends you a test email, and that you check it on mobile. But there are other, more thorough methods of testing out there that are well worth looking into. 

Matthew recommends using a service like Litmus, which lets marketers and designers test their templates on 70+ email clients and devices in a matter of seconds. “It’s really the only foolproof way to make sure everything looks good on every logical platform. They even account for things like iPhone dark mode, which can be tough to plan for.” 

Before testing, you should also keep an eye on graphics and images. Remember that anything that’s placed on the side margins of the email body will bump the text. This can cause the words to wrap around the image, and believe it or not this behavior is not consistent across all email platforms. 

Last but not least, while testing your email, pay attention to links. What’s easy to click with a mouse and cursor may not be so easy with a thumb or finger. And since click-through rates are of course crucial, you need to do everything you can to make it easy on the user. 

Words matter 

It’s a shocking revelation! Right here, in the middle of a blog post full of words, we’re recommending that you pay attention to … words! But believe it or not, writing can get overlooked when it comes to email. We all send emails all the time; anyone can write one. 

Unfortunately (or fortunately, for all those writers out there) this is not the case. Matthew Davis believes that, when it comes to email campaigns, “writing is still overlooked. Focus on great writing—hire a writer!” 

He encourages marketers to have the writer generate multiple headline and subject line options, and assist in the creation of a compelling CTA. “Have your designer partner closely with your copywriter. The best creative happens in partnership versus working individually then mashing the pieces together.” 

Speaking of subject lines, think of these as your first impression. Users will see the subject line before anything else, so focus on making it compelling. There are lots of subject line generators out there, many of which will generate emojis that may or may not feel right for your brand. And while a well-placed emoji can help your open rates, make sure it’s within the context of your email (an airplane emoji in the subject line of a travel-related email is great; a smiley face with sunglasses, maybe not so much). 

Make it look pretty (but not too pretty)

Lisa is the Head of Growth Marketing for one of the world’s leading social media platforms. She’s held CMO and VP level positions and run her fair share of email marketing campaigns. When working with designers, she still finds it necessary to start with some basic ground rules. 

“Clean and simple designs tend to work better than complicated, busy designs. Designers often base their design on one large sliced up image. These can look really pretty in the design phase but the images are initially blocked by some email clients. Which means in that case the recipient sees nothing.” 

She also encourages designers to keep it simple when it comes to fonts and motion. “Use basic cross-platform fonts, like Times New Roman, Arial, Verdana. And if you want motion in an email, use an animated .gif instead of Flash or JavaScript—many people don’t have those plugins.

You might also experiment with putting images beside links to increase click-through rates. Try placing images beside higher-value links such as those that lead directly to your primary offer or message. 

The latest news 

Email newsletters are still a business mainstay. They’re a great way to keep in touch with your client base, not to mention tell your audience about your latest product or feature. SketchDeck’s co-founder and Director of Marketing David Mack knows a thing or two about what makes a great newsletter, but these same tips work great for all kinds of email communication. 

“Think about the order and length of your newsletter. Unsurprisingly, content at the top is most likely to receive traffic, so prioritize putting your most important or highest converting content there.” This is also true of sales or offer-based emails; if you have a product you’re trying to move, make sure it gets mentioned early and often. 

There’s also some wisdom in experimentation. Try different formats (image-links to videos, embedding a tweet, linking to an article, etc.) so see what gets the most clicks. David also suggests experimenting with subject matter. “The interests of your audience might surprise you. Try sharing content about different topic areas and see how much click-throughs they get to obtain a more accurate picture of your audience’s interests.”


Maybe you need to send an email blast that hovers somewhere between 1:1 communication and a full-blown campaign. Or maybe you just want to approach your design team with some “best practice” examples at kickoff. 

For the latter scenario, a great place to start is Really Good Emails. They’ve put together a highly-curated collection of over 5,000 emails including both design and code. We’re talking Product Launch to Abandoned Cart and everything in-between. Spend a little time on the site before your next email campaign kickoff to arm your creative team with a clear idea of exactly what you’re looking for in your designs. 

You may also find yourself wanting to create a template for those emails that you send regularly, but that don’t quite need a full-blown design. Gmail comes equipped for exactly this scenario, and any DIY-er with some basic email know-how will find them really easy to use. For a little extra help, check out Louise Henry’s video on “How To Create Email Templates in Gmail”.  

What now? 

Are you feeling ready to kick off that next email campaign? Designers aren’t so scary. But it does help if you can speak their language. Or at least get some base-level fluency. 

If we had to boil it down to a few bullets, it would go about like this:

  • Make sure your design works on mobile. Tools like Litmus will help make sure you’re covered. 
  • Get copy and design in synch early.
  • Keep design clean and simple.
  • Put your most important info at the top.
  • Spend some time compiling examples of emails you like, and have them ready at kickoff. Really Good Emails is your friend.
Aislinn Barry

Aislinn Barry

Redefine what's possible with SketchDeck.

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