Email marketing - Design: Text before beauty

Graphic designers have had the training and experience to know what looks great,  but knowing what looks great on your screen and knowing what works best in an email campaign (reaching out, not only to laptops and PC's but to smartphones too,) is something many designers are still unfamiliar with.

As a marketing professional, you are aware of the quirks and limitations of email so it is often down to you to steer designers away from common email-design mistakes.

Most marketers, myself included, have worked with designers with different levels of email experience, and most have mentioned more than one occasion where they have had to stand their ground in a clash between beauty and workability.

Here are my three golden rules that all designers should know...and all email marketing professionals should stand firm over:


1. Graphics are a gamble: Many subscribers will not see your email image content - either by choice or by default.

When your subscriber opens your email, it is highly likely they will see empty boxes where your images should be. This is because most people you send to will need to fiddle with their email settings in order to overcome default settings which block images, and sometimes alt tags too.

Images are blocked to varying degrees by different email clients; Gmail blocks images but will still displays your Alt tags (visible text which are used to explain what the reader should be seeing), Hotmail blocks images but brutally blocks your Alt tags, too...and then there's Outlook 2007 - be prepared ! With Outlook 2007, your background images are blocked even when images are turned on.

Designers who are inexperienced in working with email may struggle to come to terms with this, as it is at odds with Web-design everyday reality.

"Web sites are becoming increasingly more graphical because browsers are faster. Web-design quality is improving as people push the design envelope, using the latest technology, pretty graphics and eye-catching elements...But in email, you're working with a platform that is 15 years old. It's Web .01, with really elementary HTML."

These are the words of Dean Silvester, owner of Atlas Projects and the person responsible for the artistic direction of the Inside Lyris HQ newsletter redesign.

2. What you see is what you click: 'Cunningly disguised' or 'subtle' Calls to Action that you can't see won't get clicks

Your graphics may never be seen, fact. So make sure your designer does not put things that readers really need to see in an image.

What does this mean? It means DON'T PUT YOUR PRIMARY CALL TO ACTION IN AN IMAGE...even if it is just like the pretty button on your website. Calls to action should be text-based HTML. Trick them out with fonts, borders, colours and even background images if you like - even if these are removed by default you will still have the important text visible to your subscriber when they open your email.

This rule also applies to your newsletter masthead. This should always be designed in a way that keeps your company name or newsletter name visible at all times, by all readers. There is only one way, that way is TEXT!

So, to recap: ANY call to action, key information or critical branding elements must be created in text. You can still reinforce that information in a background image or a strategically placed graphic if you want.

3. Sold above the fold: Don't waste your most vital space

Repete after me: The Top of the Email is Not for Pretty Pictures.

Your designer may feel an impulse to put your newsletter masthead or your company logo or something eye-catching in the top-left corner of your email. This must not be allowed.

This area is 'above the fold' and is typically the first (or - depending on how much time your subscriber give you - the only section of your email that readers see. It typically displays in the preview pane - which is now a fixture in nearly all email clients.

This premium space is limited so start with your call to action or if you are sending a newsletter, start with your value proposition - this should be a summary of your email content in an itemised list

Your logo or pretty graphics  can then sit neatly beneath that primary message or even to the right of it...if you insist.


Go forth and give guidance...strong, uncompromising, righteous guidance that will WORK. Produce sturdy, healthy kick-ass email campaigns and see your business grow.


Author: Yasmin Sheikh