10 essential email design tips from Justine Jordan

McKenzie Gregory


At Marketing United 2016, email extraordinaire Justine Jordan of Litmus dealt out dozens of tips and tricks you can use to improve your subscriber experience, open rates, clicks, and conversions. It was one of those talks where you couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with all the knowledge she was dropping. We encourage you to check out the full recording when you get a chance, but if you’re strapped for time, here are a few of our favorite tips.



1. Count your characters.

Email designers spend a ton of time crafting the best possible experience for subscribers after they actually open an email. But many don’t pay quite as much attention to the very first touch, which is arguably just as, if not more, important. Think about it: A good open rate means somewhere between 30-50% of your audience will see your email, but almost all of them will see your from name, subject line, and preview (or preheader) text in their inboxes. So optimize them to your best ability...


...and pay special mind to character counts: Text cut-offs happen, and it can lead to some pretty unfortunate results. Case in point:


And since 75% of emails are displayed in the inbox with preview text, PLEASE do not use it to say, “If you have trouble displaying this email…” You should never assume your email won’t render properly (especially if you take the appropriate measures to prevent that from happening), and do you really want your audience to associate your from name with the word “trouble” every time they see it?



2. Optimize your images for all inboxes.

Image-heavy emails are the name of the game now – especially in industries like retail and travel. After all, it’s pretty difficult to sell a diamond ring or a luxury beach vacation without any imagery to support what your brand has to offer. Plus, two-thirds of consumers prefer emails that contain mostly images over emails that contain mostly text.



But you still have to keep in mind that not everyone will actually see the images in your emails. According to one study, 43% of emails are viewed with images disabled. That’s huge, so improve your subscriber experience for the "images off" view by always including alt text. You can even style your alt text to go with your email design – learn how to do that here.



3. Use alignment to maintain order.

Alignment is like the scaffolding of your email – it helps maintain order and organization within the body of your email. Without it, your campaign ends up looking like a jumbled mess. 





As far as copy goes, left alignment makes for the most natural reading, while center and right alignment make reading much more difficult (the only exception is with right-to-left languages).



4. Keep color in mind.

Many marketers must work around brand guidelines for their color choices, but that doesn’t mean you can't experiment with color. Some important things to remember when it comes to color choice:

The importance of contrast. Without the proper contrast, your message will get lost against your background color.
Blue-on-blue. Text links often become blue, so be careful using blue backgrounds (it happens in Gmail and iPhone most often).
Color blindness. More than 8% of the US male population have some form of color blindness, so keep that in mind when making color selections that might not come across for them.

Pro tip: If you have a brand color and want to find complementary colors to use, you can pop in the hex code at color.adobe.com and it will recommend combinations.




5. Watch your fonts.

To maximize the readability of your email, you'll want to note the distinction between serif and sans-serif typefaces. Serif typefaces have decorative strokes on the ends of some of the characters (think Times New Roman), while sans-serif typefaces do not (think Helvetica). Serifs make it easier to read long blocks of copy, while sans-serifs are a better choice for things like headlines.

Remember that not all fonts will display in all inboxes – if you have a special brand font that you had to install, other people will have to install it, too, and it won’t render correctly if they haven't. So for email, use web-safe fonts, and choose what feels best based on legibility, readability, content, and context. Don’t use too many different fonts within one email. And we beg of you, PLEASE stay away from the cardinal typographic sins of Comic Sans, Papyrus, and Brush Script.

(Disclaimer: Apologies if I mixed up the usage of "typeface" and "font" – several Google searches and heated debates led to even more confusion for this design-unsavvy writer.)



6. Choose the right line height and spacing.

The right line height and spacing helps readers quickly scan through whatever it is you have to say. To enhance readability, add more space between lines of text – ideally, that should be 1.4-1.6 the font size in an email. And the ideal line length sits somewhere between 50-75 characters.




7. Use hierarchy to keep things scannable.

Hierarchy means the order, number, and scale of the elements on your page. Some standards to remember:

Headlines: 22px
Subheads: 18-20px
Body copy: 13px minimum, 15-16px ideally (If you send something less than 13px to an iPhone or iPad, it will automatically resize it for you.)





8. Include plenty of white space.

White (or negative) space creates readability, usability, and clarity – all critical elements in the world of email design. Plus, it makes your message easier to digest: According to one study, good use of white space between paragraphs and in the left and right margins increases reading comprehension by 20%.

Plus, neglecting to include white space just makes your design look cheaper. Check out this example for proof:




9. Remember the rule of thumb.

Literally. The ideal amount of space between elements in an email is 40-60px, and the average thumb is around 45px wide. So place your thumb on your screen to see if you need to adjust your spacing.




10. When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.

We’ve all seen way too many emails that are incredibly overwhelming – so much so, in fact, that you can’t even determine the point of the message. Reduce the noise by keeping things simple and focused on a single call to action.




These tips are just… well, the tip of the iceberg from Justine’s Marketing United presentation. If you’re ready to dive deeper, watch her full talk here.


About the Author

McKenzie Gregory

McKenzie Gregory is a senior content manager on Emma’s marketing team. A Nashville native, she can be found covering all things email on the Emma blog, debating hyphenation rules, and watching obscene amounts of Netflix without a trace of shame.

Follow on Twitter Follow on Linkedin
Previous Article
How great marketing can change the world
How great marketing can change the world

Of all the fantastic sessions at Marketing United 2016, Scott Harrison’s was by far the most memorable. A ...

Next Article
4 proven strategies that scored huge results for our customers
4 proven strategies that scored huge results for our customers

Not to brag (ok, maybe to brag a little bit)…. but we have some crazy smart customers. Some of the best ma...

Want to engage your audience and grow your brand? Try Emma’s robust, easy-to-use product today.

Get a Demo