Email Marketing Course (Day #3): Designing your Emails



The best way to start thinking about designing anything is by considering visual hierarchy. It sounds intimidating, but visual hierarchy just means arranging various elements of the email in a way that indicates importance.

How to Use Visual Hierarchy Effectively

Push your chair away from your desk, squint and ask yourself what element of the email stands out most. Now tap your colleague on the shoulder and ask her. The most common response is the element at the top of your visual hierarchy because it’s the highest visual priority.

Now, visual hierarchy occurs naturally. Whether you’ve thought about it purposefully or not, your email has a visual hierarchy. So, the key is being aware of it and arranging it according to your goals instead of accidentally giving prominence to less important elements.

When I’m evaluating my visual hierarchy in emails, I look for:

  • The most important elements at the top and the less important elements at the bottom.
  • No two elements exactly equal on the hierarchy.
  • A simple, clear and natural flow from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom.

If you can check all three boxes, you’ve mastered visual hierarchy. Repeat for every email you send.

Design-Heavy or Text-Based: Which Converts Better?

All this talk of visuals begs the question: do design-heavy or text-based emails perform better?

The answer to that is another resounding “it depends”.

If you’re trying to personally connect with readers, a plain text email might be all you need. For a monthly newsletter, it might make sense to add in some heavier design elements. It really comes down to your preference and the audience’s preference, so be sure to test different formats.

There are three things I always keep in mind when making this decision, though:

  1. Have I included a plain text version? Some people just prefer plain text, so it’s nice to offer the option. But there are two less obvious reasons I do this. First, there are still plenty of email clients that don’t support HTML. Second, spam filters like to see a plain text version.
  2. Have I included enough text? If you opt for something image-heavy, you need to be sure you’ve included enough plain text (not including text in images). Why? Another spam filter best practice. (More on spam filters tomorrow.)
  3. Have I created a visual hierarchy? Whether you go with something image-heavy or text-based, you need to be mindful of visual hierarchy. Yes, there is a visual hierarchy in plain text emails. Consider the way content marketers and journalists use subheadings, lists and line breaks to “design” their work.

When people do opt to use images, I see them making two common mistakes:

  1. Not aligning images properly. For easy reading and clarity, I recommend left aligning your images.
  2. Not designing buttons well. A well-designed button comes down to three factors. First, does it appear clickable? Second, is there enough whitespace around the button? Third, does the button contrast with the rest of the email?

Does Color Psychology Come Into Play?

Right about now you might be thinking about color and color psychology. That too is more complex than you may think. You see, the idea that everyone in the world is influenced by colors the same way is ridiculous when you really think about it.

Here’s a free color psychology guide you may want to download.

In eastern cultures, black is associated with prosperity and health. In western cultures, it’s associated with funerals and darkness.

If Brittany grew up in a hot pink bedroom that she hated, she probably doesn’t associate pink with love and hope like Tiffany does. If John hates his job and the walls are a sterile white, he probably doesn’t associate white with angels and peace like Tom does.

People are far too subjective to universally say “pink means X” and “white means Y”.

Besides, anyone who watches HGTV knows there are a million shades of pink, white, you name it. They can’t all possibly have the exact same impact on 7.6 billion people.

Instead, let’s focus on some color principles you can actually use:

  • When choosing your colors, be sure to have one that repeats in all buttons or links so that readers can quickly identify action points.
  • Consider the other elements in your email. Colors don’t work alone or in silos, so make sure nothing visually clashes.
  • If you go all in on one color, it may backfire and have an unintended impact.

Warning: Image Blocking May Occur

We should also discuss the issue of image blocking. Yes, some inboxes will block images by default. Obviously, this is a problem for anyone using images in their emails. The solution? Ensure your email can be read and understood, whether your images are present or not.

  • Protect your call to action. If you’re using an image for your button, image blocking will completely ruin your call to action. Instead, use bulletproof buttons, which will display regardless of image blocking thanks to HTML and in-line styles.
  • Take advantage of your alt text. Even if images are blocked, your alt text will still display. Use alt text the way it was intended instead of as a self-promotional tool. That is, use the alt text to provide context and explain the image’s relevance to the text.

Long story short? Images can be incredibly persuasive, but make sure you’re using them responsibly. Balance them with text and be aware of roadblocks on the way to the inbox.

“Images can be incredibly persuasive, but make sure you’re using them responsibly.”

Oh, and don’t get image tunnel vision. Gifs, animations and videos are also great ways to break up text and add a personal touch.

Perfecting Your Email Layout and Format

When asked what she wishes more people knew about designing an effective email, Joanna Wiebe of Copy Hackers and Airstory said:

“Emails work like a charm when you treat them like mini long-form sales pages. So I’d love marketers to recognize the power of the narrative email – the low-design email that’s left-aligned with a ragged right, the low-design email that reads like a letter. You don’t need to fancy it up. The most you need is branding to ensure the subscriber trusts your email – but outside of that, let the words do the work.”

Brian Dean of Backlinko also recommends avoiding HTML-heavy, flashy emails:

“Don’t use fancy HTML emails. I’ve tested this a million times. And simple email templates almost ALWAYS convert better than fancy designed emails.

Of course, you should always do your own testing. But I recommend testing a radically simple email design. In fact, make it look like an email you’d get from your mom. Not only does this enhance deliverability, but from my own experience, it can significantly boost sales too.”

If you need further persuasion on this topic, here are a few screenshots from Joanna’s and my own emails:

joanna wiebe emails


In the end, the choice is yours. Experiment with it, run some tests of your own. Whatever you decide, though, keep it simple.

How to Properly Wireframe an Email

Crafting a wireframe can help you keep it simple, like Brian suggests, whether you’re going old school with plain text or getting flashy with HTML.

I like to think of a wireframe as a visualized outline.

Despite popular belief, wireframes aren’t meant to focus on design elements like color or font. Instead, they’re designed to focus on layout, functionality and content.

This is your opportunity to combine what you’ve learned over the last three days and answer some key questions before hitting send.

  • Is your visual hierarchy correct?
  • Is your message compelling?
  • Can your reader see themselves in your copy?
  • Have you told an interesting story?
  • Is your call to action prominent?
  • Do your design choices empower the message?
  • Is there enough contrast and whitespace?
  • Is everything clear and straightforward?

Joel Klettke of Case Study Buddy gave a fantastic presentation on how to create a proper wireframe, which could be taught as a completely separate course. I recommend watching the video before tomorrow’s lesson!

By creating a wireframe, you’re answering at least one very important question: are copy and design effectively working together towards your goal for this email?

<– Yesterday’s lesson on writing emails that convert

Next up: Sending your emails –>

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