The Really Good Guide to Email Design (+ Bonus Checklist)

Article first published May 2017, updated February 2019.

Want an email that looks awesome and converts like crazy? We
joined forces with the talented crew from Really Good Emails to take the
guesswork out of designing an excellent email with this email
design guide and checklist that’ll make every email you send more

In this guide, we’ll cover email design best practices for all
the different elements of your email campaigns and have a bonus
checklist for you at the end. So let’s get to it.

Subject Line

While not a traditional “design element” your subject line
is considered one of the most important factors in getting your
email opened so your subscribers can see your sweet design so make
it engaging, personal, and relevant. Remember, that overuse of CAPS
and unnecessary punctuation, as well as some words, can trigger
spam filters so respect your subscribers and don’t go there. Use

these words

Topshop – Email Subject Line
Bonus: CoSchedule has an excellent Headline Analyzer
that could also be applied to email subject lines.

Is longer better?

When it comes to email subject lines
longer isn’t necessarily better
. It’s important to keep in
mind that your subscribers use a variety of different browsers and
email clients as well as mobile devices to consume your emails.

According to data from Return Path, 65 characters seems to be a
sweet spot for email subject lines, which is about 15 characters
more than the average subject line. When subject lines are 61-70
characters long, they tend to get read. However, most email subject
lines are between 41 and 50 characters.

Return Path – Email Subject Line – Length and Read Rate

What about symbols in subject lines?

The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” may never
be more true than when it comes to emoji. And
emoji in email subject lines can have a major impact
. Not only
can they take the place of words, be attention-grabbing, and add a
definite charm, they can increase your 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. Consider
us 👍.

Campaign Monitor - emoji in subject lines

Things to keep in mind when using emoji in email

If an emoji isn’t supported in the email client, the recipient
may see a ☐ character instead.

Remember: Gmail has to have some extra special considerations
when using emoji. You may notice in Gmail when you use emoji in the
subject line the icon will look different in the inbox view and
after the email has been opened. This is due to the inbox view
using the Android version of the emoji, meanwhile, the opened email
view uses Google’s own emoji style. While the emoji basically
look the same, it’s still worth testing to make sure the same
sentiment is expressed in both versions.

In addition, for Inbox by Gmail, it’s currently not possible
to insert emoticons in Inbox messages using the browser


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

Birchbox – Email Design – Preheader Text


Emails with personalized subject lines are
26% more likely to be opened
. Go beyond just using your
subscriber’s name in the subject line and use other data you have
to fuel super relevant messages.

Experian – Email Subject Line - Personalization

Adding company name, last purchase, or other information helps
you to personalize the email in the perfect way for each
subscriber. But
really good personalization
involves more than just injecting a
first name. Think about how you could completely change the email
on someone’s information

Stop thinking of emails as one-to-many and think about them as
each email is customized to each subscriber

Humanization / Contextual Marketing

A term that’s been getting popular is contextual marketing or
humanization which focuses on making the email more of a 1-to-1
engagement rather than a 1-to-many type email that’s one-size
fits all.

This leads to emails specifically tailored to the subscriber
which will lead to higher engagement.

Spotify is a great example with their year-end campaign showing
each subscriber what their most listened songs were and where they
ranked in their favorite artists’ fan rankings (based on how many
times they listened to their music).

Spotify – Humanization – Email Marketing

Making your email feel more “humananized” and like it was
built for each subscriber has many benefits including increased
engagement, better relationships with your subscribers, and even
people getting excited to receive and open your email.

Dynamic Content

For those wanting to get serious with personalization, you can
also dynamically
change entire sections of conten
t within your email to make the
entire campaign more relevant and more appealing to

A common use case for this would be showing menswear to your
male subscribers while showing womenswear to female subscribers.
Check out how Adidas did it in this email:

Adidas – Email Design – Dynamic Content

Email Layout

Your email layout should help the viewer know what they should
check out first, and where they can go from there. They should be
able to scan the email quickly using a logical hierarchy with large
headlines and images focusing the attention. Use layout to break up
space and help create chunks of content.

Inverted Pyramid

We’re big fans of the
inverted pyramid
model. It’s essentially a framework for
structuring the elements of your email campaigns (headers, imagery,
buttons, etc) so they work together to draw people in, deliver the
key messages of your campaign and get them to click-through.

InVision – Email Design – Inverted Pyramid

By guiding a subscriber’s eye down the page to your CTA,
you’ll encourage them to click through to explore more of what
you have to offer, resulting in better brand awareness, more web
traffic, and ultimately more sales.


Another effective design grid is an angular one with a zig-zag

According to the graphic designer, Mary Stribley, an “angular
layout is both enticing to look at as well as functional to order
lots of information and imagery.”

You can create these angles through using imagery or color
blocking in order to guide the reader through each step of the
email. This not only creates a visually pleasing layout, it also
helps to simplify each section of the email so that it is easy to

Sephora – Email Design – Zig-Zag

One Column

One column emails work great on desktop and mobile. These mobile
first emails usually adapt to desktop and scale images. It helps
consumers navigate the email without overwhelming them. The one
column design makes it obvious what information is important and
what you want a consumer to do next.

Code School – One Column Email Design

Email Width

To ensure that your email renders well in every email client, we
push the envelope on our email widths
to at least 640 pixels.
At widths wider than 640px Gmail doesn’t show any background
color that would appear in the margins at most reasonable browser
sizes (you can see them if you stretch your browser to wider than
1200px). For our designs, 600px is usually the sweet spot.

Plus, email clients don’t use the full width of your screen to
display an email message. Some show ads or have navigation or a
menu so there are limitations to the real estate on a screen.


When using images in your emails, it’s important to keep the
following in mind:

  • Dimension – most emails are 600-640px wide.
    However, to keep your image crisp on high-resolution displays, you
    need to make your image 2x the size (ie. 1200px) and use the image
    attributes and CSS to keep the image at the width you want.
  • File Size – It’s easy to forget about file
    size in an email but you want to make sure your images are
    optimized. Especially since more than 50% of emails are opened on
    mobile devices. The bigger the email, the longer it’ll take for
    mobile subscribers to view and thus create a negative experience
    with your email. Read more about
    best practices for image-heavy emails here. 
  • Alt Text – If your image doesn’t load or
    breaks somewhere along the sending process, Alt Text is the text
    that will display in its place. This is another area that many
    email marketers overlook. Add in helpful Alt Text that adds to your
    message in the case that your image doesn’t load. If your image
    has text on it, I usually write the overlaying text as the alt
    text. This way if the image doesn’t load, the text will still be
    read. Including ALT text also makes your email more
  • Use images that complement the email – Your
    email should not be a bunch of images placed together. An
    image should add to the email and messaging
    —not be the
    messaging. A simple way to test this is to view your email with
    images turned off. Does the email still make sense? Is the message
    still clear? Our friends at Email Monks offer some solid advice on

    the optimal text to image ratio.
  • Stock Images – Stock imagery can sometimes
    take your audience out of the messaging. Keep your images on brand
    and genuine. Take the time if you have the opportunity to create
    specific imagery for your email campaign! If not, use imagery from
    paid sites like
    or free sites like
    are a few more
    to check out.

Images and Alt Text

Alt text is simply the alternative text displayed with an image.
Think of it as the backup text that provides some context about
what your image is, for those that have images blocked or turned
off by default. Many marketers learn about
alt text
the hard way by forgetting to use it and suffering the
consequences. Don’t be that person.

As you can see from the example below, when images are blocked,
subscribers see what looks like a broken image, or a red “X”.
In this case, alt text indicates that there is an image and
provided a little context about the image to encourage subscribers
to “turn on or enable” images in the email.

Dive Bar – Email Design – Images and Alt Text
For more on Alt text
check out our design guide
this post by our pals at Litmus

Web Fonts + Fallbacks

When it comes to email marketing, it’s best practice to use

web fonts
wherever you can, however, it’s important to keep
in mind, that not all email clients offer universal support for web

Example: Uses @import + @fontface to bring in
Clobber, Gotham Book, Gotham Medium, and Montserrat fonts.

Lyft - web fonts for email

Google Fonts is a great resource to add web fonts to your
emails. We suggest using live text when possible for better
legibility across devices and consistent brand experience from
email to website to add web
fonts to your emails


@import url

Currently, the @import method is not supported in AOL using IE11
and Android 2.3.


rel=”stylesheet” type=”text/css”>

The <link>
method is fully supported among the email clients listed above. Web
font services will provide you with the href value to use for your
web font of choice. If you’re hosting your own web-font, you’ll
have to change the href value to where you’ve hosted your web


<style type=”text/css”>

@media screen {
font-family:’Open Sans’;
 src:local(‘Open Sans’), local(‘OpenSans’),


Think of the @font-face method as a direct-to-the-source sort of
method of importing your web fonts. It can be more reliable to
import the web font directly from the source as you can choose
which format of web font you want to import. Especially if you’re
given a choice, which some web font suppliers do have.

If web fonts are not supported there are fallback fonts that
will be seen instead. When setting fallbacks, remember to use a
“web safe font”. System fonts like Calibri are not always
supported across all clients.

Email Marketing - Safe Web Fonts

Each email client also has a preferred or default font which
users would see instead of your chosen web font. The three most
popular desktop email clients have the following defaults:

Apple Mail = Helvetica
Gmail = Arial
Microsoft Outlook = Times New Roman

Outlook is a special case. If a webfont fails in Outlook, it
ignores the fallback fonts and just decides to render everything in
Times New Roman. If this happens, add this CSS to your email and
you should be good to go.

<!–[if mso]>
<style type=”text/css”>
body, table, td, p, li, a {font-family: Arial, Helvetica,
sans-serif !important;}

Add other elements like p, li, a, etc. if you need to fix
Outlook rendering Times New Roman on those elements too.

For more help implementing web fonts in your emails, check out
our guide

White Space

White space is the blank area around your paragraphs, images,
and call to action buttons.

Adding ample white space around the elements in your email
encourages click-throughs by separating them visually from other
elements in your email and helping focus the reader’s attention
on them at the right time. It can also increase the legibility of
your email and improves the eyes’ ability to follow the content.
Use your best judgment to ensure your copy and CTA button are
separated enough to stand out, but close to enough that your
readers know they’re connected.

Mobile Optimization

Email opens on mobile devices just keep increasing year after
year. The latest stats are that over 68%
of email opens occur on mobile
. Making your is easier than ever

  • Using a mobile-friendly
  • Keep your subject line short
  • Use preheader text
  • Use minimal body copy
  • Use one clear and easy to click CTA button
    (According to a recent MIT study, the average size of an adult
    index finger is between 1.6cm and 2 cm, which translates to between
    45 x 45px and 57 x 57px on a mobile device.) Multiple CTAs can be
    confusing and lead to overwhelm, which you definitely want to
  • Increase the size of body copy if it’s small on desktop
    emails. (16px is a good size for mobile)
  • Make sure your images aren’t too small or hard to see when on

Coding Mobile Emails

If you are coding your emails, there are two approaches to
mobile emails: responsive and hybrid.


Responsive uses media queries and CSS to override the existing
styles when the email is viewed on a small display.

@media screen and (max-width: 480px) {
.responsive-table {
display: block;
width: 100% !important;

.responsive-image {
height: auto;
max-width: 100% !important;


Hybrid gets a little more complex but relies on using a fluid
layout that..

Source: FS – Email Marketing Blogs!
The Really Good Guide to Email Design (+ Bonus Checklist)