Understanding email design pt.1 - Getting started

Senior Designer

When you start to peel back the layers around spam filtering, image optimisation, layout restrictions and font handling you start to see that email design is a surprisingly complex subject. However, once you know the constraints and rules of email design, it’s much easier to work with email and produce effective communications. 

Gathering requirements

Before the project can begin there’s some basic information which needs to be outlined. We need to establish:


  • Who will be handling the mail-out and what system is being used? If there isn’t an existing mail system established, in most cases it’s best to use a mass mail out system such as Mail Chimp or Salesforce to send out emails.
  • Is the content and its structure outlined? Headings, CTAs and a rough idea of content length and structure will need to be known before the design process can begin 
  • Who will be handling the content population?
  • Are there existing email or brand guidelines which can be shared?
  • Who are the recipients? Versioning could be considered to scale up or down interactivity dependant on recipient types


Subject line

Whilst not always considered a traditional “design element” an email’s subject line is one of the most important factors in getting your email opened, so making it engaging, relevant and personal is key. Remember, that overuse of CAPS and unnecessary punctuation, as well as some words, can trigger spam filters so it’s best to avoid these. Check out some great subject line words to use from Campaign Monitor


Sources vary but 65 characters seems to be a sweet spot for email subject lines to ensure they get read, Emails with personalised subject lines are 26% more likely to be opened, so consider using data beyond the subscriber’s name in the subject line to further personalise your messaging. Here are some advanced methods of personalisation from Campaign Monitor.



What about Emojis? Not only can they take the place of words, be attention-grabbing, and add a certain charm, they can increase email open rates. A report by Experian noted that fifty-six percent of brands using emoji in their email subject lines had a higher unique open rate.

Photo by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash

If an emoji isn’t supported in the email client, the recipient may see a ☐ character (referred to as a tofu character in typography) instead. So it’s always worth testing. For more information on using Emojis in email check out this article from Campaign Monitor.


Making it personal

A popular term gaining popularity is contextual marketing or humanisation, which prioritises a focus on 1-to-1 style engagements over 1-to-many type emails that use a one-size fits all approach. The result, emails tailored specifically to the subscriber, which leads to higher engagement. A good example of this is Lyft’s year-end campaign, where they email their customers information on their travelling habits for that year.

See full email here https://reallygoodemails.com/emails/your-2017-with-lyft

See full email here.


If you’re looking to take it up a notch, you can dynamically change entire sections of content within your email, making your emails more relevant to each subscriber. For example, you could show menswear to male subscribers and womenswear for female subscribers like in this Adidas example here.


Pre header

Your preheader can be visible in the inbox preview and in the body of your email, or just in the preview pane if you want to save email real estate. Preheaders add valuable context to your subject line and can help your open rate. Keep it short (between 40-70 characters) and to the point. Use this space to help your customer know why the email is useful to them. Your subject line and preheader text should work together.


See our second article on Understanding Email to find out more about the design stage of email design here.


Find out how Make it Clear can help you

If you would like to discuss how Make it Clear can help your organisation create engaging emails, sign up for a free Clarity Consultation to find out more.