Designing High Performing Emails

For a long time the word “design” was a source of stress in my marketing life.

I’m definitely not a designer, and projects that required me to “design things” were pretty low on the list of things I would willingly volunteer to do.

But what I’ve discovered through my efforts at visual content marketing is that designing doesn’t have to be scary.

designing emails with justine jordan

I’ve learned that hard lesson through my own experiences with content, but Justine Jordan, the VP of Marketing at Litmus recently revealed to me that email design doesn’t have to be scary either.

Her presentation at MarketingProfs B2B Marketing Conference on Designing High Performing Emails was a joyful stroll through the principles of good email design (not the gruesome design death march I’ve sometime associated with these kinds of projects).

Turns out, good email design is all about problem solving. And marketers can do that in their sleep.

Why Good Email Design Matters

We’ve all been on the receiving end of truly terrible emails. We know they aren’t pleasant to experience, even if we just delete them instantly.

But when done properly, good emails achieve two equally important goals:

    1. They show respect for our audience’s time. A well-designed email reveals that you’ve thought about their problems and tried to figure out how to solve them. You’re just sharing the information in an email.
    2. They help marketers achieve their goals. Good design principles lead to better conversion rates, better email list engagement, and therefore happier marketers.

Now a caveat: email design isn’t the same as other types of design.

It’s a unique medium with a unique set of restrictions and rules.

But before we get all intimidated by the “d” word again, remember that all we’re doing is solving specific email problems. Let’s tackle them with Justine one at a time.

Designing Before the Open

Also known as an inbox strategy, these are the email components that people see without actually opening your email. You know you’re doing a good job solving these problems if you see your open rates steadily increasing.

First and foremost, don’t create an email just because you feel that you should.

Justine was adamant about making sure you answer who/what/where/when/why/how BEFORE you create the email:

  1. Who are you sending to?
  2. What do you want them to do?
  3. When is it appropriate to send the message?
  4. Where will the recipient read it?
  5. Why are you sending this message?
  6. How are you going to measure success?

email design slide 16

Once you’ve got all those answers down (preferably in writing), it’s time to address the individual pieces of your inbox strategy.

The “From” Name and Reply Address

Although often overlooked, the From name is typically the most prominent part of an email. There isn’t a hard and fast rule about who your emails should be from, so test to see if your brand, an individual name, or a combination of the two works best for your subscribers.

When setting up From name tests keep in mind the tone of the rest of your marketing materials. If you’re friendly and personable on your website, an individual’s name will feel consistent.

But if you’re targeting a formal B2B audience you might get better engagement by using your company or brand name.  

You get approximately 25 characters to make people trust your sender, so use it well.

Also, Justine reminded us that the Reply-to address isn’t always the same as the From address. If you’re asking your recipients for feedback, please don’t use a “do not reply” address like the one below:

email design slide 20

Subject Line

Oh, subject lines. So much time is spent debating these few words. Should we be silly or serious? Tease the content or be straightforward?

Once again this is dependant on your audience and the overall tone of your marketing. Whatever you decide, make sure you fulfill the promise of your subject line with your email’s content.

Be clear about what will happen when your email is opened; clever is ok, untruthful is not.

Finally, remember that you only get about 35 characters before the subject line will get cut off in mobile inboxes, so don’t rely too much on those last few words to drive home your point.


According to Justine, a surprisingly high 75% of emails are displayed with preview text in the inbox, but many of us don’t take the time to customize them.

Most email clients display about 85 chars of preview text, and it’s often pulled directly from the body of the email. That’s why you get the “if this isn’t displaying…” message so often (as you can see in the slide below).

email design slide 22

Instead of this uninspiring default, you can tease an article that’s inside the email or hint at your CTA to influence behavior.

Inbox Design: Content and Action

Once you have solved all the pre-inbox problems for your email, it’s time to take a look at what’s actually inside the email itself. This aspect of email design ranges from images to font and color, and sounds a lot more like traditional design.

But don’t worry, there are plenty of guidelines to help us non-designers stay on track.

Images and Alt Text

Litmus estimates that 43% of emails are viewed with images disabled, so if you don’t have to use them it’s generally best not to.

If you do use them, make sure you style your alt text to the best of your ability. This can make the difference between a truly confusing email and one that looks good regardless of what inbox it appears in.


When margins, images, and whitespace are all in sync it’s because there is a smart use of component alignment.

Justine calls this the “scaffolding of your email,” and it makes the difference between an email that is pleasant to consume and one that is annoying.

Which one of these layouts would you rather look at?

email design alignment

When it comes to text, left alignment is always preferable. End of discussion. Use center and right alignment should very sparingly, as they are much harder to scan and read.


When email elements are close together we can easily tell that they’re related. Too much distance becomes confusing — does this text belong with this image, or have we started a new topic?

Proximity becomes particularly important when your images are disabled. A colored background that displays instead of an image can maintain alignment and proximity so your design degrades gracefully, as you see in this example from Justine:

using alt text email design

The frame that persists even when the Litmus logo isn’t around maintains proximity (and alignment), preserving the flow of the content.  

When you get both proximity and alignment right, you can get utterly clear emails that make it easy for your subscribers to get the information they need:

colors appear different in emails


Choosing the right colors for your email shouldn’t be too challenging. You need to stick with your company’s brand most of the time, but if you get to choose your own color scheme you can use a wide variety of online resources to help you create color harmony.

Once you have a palette in mind, consider the interaction of text and background colors, especially if your hyperlinks will be blue. Blue text on a blue background is never okay. If you want to adjust the formatting of links so they aren’t blue, you can find out how here.

Also consider how individuals might view your colors differently (color blind subscribers):

colors appear different in emails

and what emotional impact the colors might have on your recipients:

using color and emotion

Guidelines for Using Font in Your Email Design

When choosing fonts, your first consideration is usability for your readers. The second is brand guidelines. That order is important: don’t choose horrible fonts just because they’re part of your company’s brand.

Email fonts need to deliver in four categories:

  1. Legibility
  2. Readability
  3. Content
  4. Context

types of font for emails

Line height is also crucial for making text easy to read, especially on mobile devices.

The line height rule of thumb: 1.4-1.6 times the font size.

No matter how neat they are, don’t use a lot of different fonts in a single email, and use fonts consistently across your email designs.

Justine asks that we all agree to never, ever use these fonts: Comic Sans, Papyrus, and Brush Script.

Also remember that font sizes are important. These are useful guides for various parts of your email:

  • Headlines 22px+
  • Subheads 18-20px
  • Body copy at least 13px; 15-16px is better

Also, remember that email is not the place to get wordy. Somewhere between 50 and 75 characters per line is an ideal length; anything longer will be a huge block of text on a mobile phone and no one will ever read it.

Driving Action With Hierarchy

Hierarchy, the order, number, and scale of elements in your email, helps people know what to focus on and what to do. This means it’s a fantastic way to push people toward the action that you want to take (which is one of the main points of all this design stuff after all).

You can use hierarchy to:

  • Influence user behavior
  • Guide subscribers to click
  • Set expectations
  • Enhance comprehension

Note the difference in how easy it is to understand this content in the different versions:

hierarchy 1 hierarchy 2email hierarchy 3

If you take the time to plan out your email before you start your design you should be able to easily identify the parts that are important. This should make establishing a good hierarchy relatively simple.

The Importance of White Space (Which Doesn’t Have to Be White)

Judicious use of white space makes content easier to consume, increases legibility, and sets the tone of your content. It also doesn’t have to be white, it just has to be space.

If you’re skeptical about why this is important, look at the difference that white space is making in these two examples:

using white space in emails

If you’re unsure about the amount of white space that’s ideal, 40-60 pixels between elements is a good rule of thumb.

And it may seem counterintuitive, but surrounding things with white space is actually a good way to create emphasis.

using white space wisely

Keep Email Styles Consistent With a Style Guide

Once you’ve done all the hard work to get all these crucial design elements right in your email, make sure you codify the guidelines for others.

Create an email style guide (Justine has put together TONS of great resources if you need more detail in any area) and insist that all your team members adhere to it.

Have good (or bad) email style examples? Share them with the class via the comments so we can all learn!

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.

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