Overdesigning email templates?

This morning I read an interesting article in Nathan Barry’s blog called “Why beautiful email templates hurt your business” where the writer states that using excess visual elements like logos, background images and applying multicolumn layouts in your email template is mostly hurting your actual message than benefiting it. I thought that “hurting your business” is a strict statement to make, so I decided to share my thoughts on this.

You must design them!

I would like to start with my personal opinion: not only is it possible to design succesfully an email, but you must do it. I do believe that logos and background images and other visual elements will help you convey your message to your audience better. But (the omnipresent to every argument “but” :) ) as long as they are used in the correct way and always in respect to the context.

Designing a message is essential for making it more readable, or even enjoyable, and by that I mean deploying devices such as typography (splitting content in smaller chunks, using headers, marking important content as such), grid (in somes cases the message can be better read if split into 2 columns than one long) and even branding – extra branding in my amazon daily newsletters is unnecessary but in cases where I enjoy and even anticipate content from a trusted source, the visual comfort of viewing a familiar logo is welcome.

Listing a long and undesigned block of text is something that I wouldn’t read even if it was something that my wife had sent me (although I advice against doing such a mistake). There are ways to craft an email template to make it readable and use the afforementioned visual devices too – in my opinion this is what a “beautiful” email looks like.

The Stemmings Newsletter is beautifully designed and I can't wait to receive it in my inbox

The Stemmings Newsletter is beautifully designed and I can’t wait to receive it in my inbox

The Email Trap

Now, although I disagree with his written post, I actually agree with Nathan’s intentions which are against any overdesign attempts (and I apologize in advance if they are misinterpretted). True design, which is what I describe above, is something that we rarely see in the field – visual gimmicks are deployed instead making an already outdated (technically) medium seem even more “web-two-point-oh“.

On top of all the technical limitations regarding CSS support among email clients, there are also these other limitation which affect the degree of design applicability:

Email is more Personal than Web

We are less accustomed to branded visual elements intercepting our communication channels. Imagine having a friend ending your phone calls with his startup’s motto instead of saying goodbye – this, in a smaller and more realistic scale, is something that would still seem weird in our email communications.
So, you do want to brand your message if you are a company but in respect to the receiver: in some examples a small logo is more than enough, in other examples the content is so capturing, the typography so subtle and the imaging so compelling that the logo would only add up to the overall sense of branding instead of ruinning it.

Email is Chunked

If it is important to make content stand out in webpages, in our A.D.D. era of 140 characters and tumblr blog posts, it is twice as important to be concious about not ruining your message with overdesigned email templates. People just want to skim and move on to the next email of their 3digit unread stack. There is still this notion of email being a channel towards a web landing page, rather than a holder of the content itself, so receivers can be more forgiving of long and badly designed formats in their browser rather than in their inbox.

Email is Passive

You don’t choose to visit an email, as you do with a webpage, but you receive it (sometimes without you expecting it, or even worse without your consent) so your threshold for irrelevant information and visual clutter around the message is lower than what it is when you’re actively browsing. So, you have to be twice as carefull when you choose to send something to someone’s inbox as they can even get offended by your careless mistakes.

To conclude, although I don’t agree with simplifying an email template all the way down to making it look like you received it from a friend in Gmail, I sometimes wonder if the limitations that are imposed to us Email Designers/Developers by the medium itself are actually there to prevent us from hurting ourselves, meaning our brand, convertion rates, mailing lists.

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  1. Meisi says:

    I totally agree. I am a graphic and web designer and I feel dissapointed with the gmail newsletter look. Because there are so many ways that design a message much more readable than a gmail one. I don’t feel like reading a block of text just because is more like a friend’s. I feel like reading a simple but well structured message, with its chunks, its well modulled typographies. I think those ugly newsletter happen because people that use the wysiwyg editors aren’t designers. So glad to find somebody that thinks like me!!


  2. Spiros says:

    ¡Hola Meisi!

    Thank you for taking the time to read this article.
    The main thing that almost everyone has gotten wrong is that Design = Ornamentation, something which could not be further from the truth. So, either by using a wysiwyg editor or handcrafting HTML, if the target is blurry on the “designer”‘s mind, the outcome will be subpar.

  3. Meisi says:

    anyway, is a good point for discussing, because thanks to read about this topic here and there lately I found myself taking some decissions about my newsletter. I agreee again: for example i love the MyFonts newsletter because it has fantastic info, so I think that we mustn’t be too worried about is it’s “too designed” if the contens are interesting.

  4. Spiros says:

    I agree, content is King :).

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