10 winning ways to enhance your email design

Alex Bigman

The idea of junk mail—the kind that arrives in your (actual) mailbox, stuffed in an (actual) envelope—has never seemed so quaint. This is without question the heyday of the email newsletter.

This is not to say that design approaches to this digital-born marketing tool have been at all codified. To the contrary, email newsletter strategy largely remains a run-it-up-the-flagpole-and-see-if-anyone-salutes, throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks (you get the point) business. With mobile devices always changing the way people read and servers like Gmail always changing the way inboxes are organized, we can be pretty sure that it is going to remain thus in flux.

There have, however, emerged some truly inspiring exemplars of the email newsletter format—some aggressively advertorial, others catering to already devoted fans/readers/customers. We put together a short list of winning approaches: designs sure to command the reader’s attention and elegantly guide the eye.

1. Color

Wham! Nothing pops out of your inbox like a vibrant splash of color. While it of course depends on the brand, we think the brighter is often the better—if you can execute with elegance, of course. These letters from With Associates and Engage are definitely on the mark.

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Image via CreativeBloq

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Image via Campaign Monitor

2. Graphics

When it comes to email newsletters, the gloves can come off. Don’t rule out anything from your designer’s toolbox—not even brazen tricks like eye-bugging Op Art. A header with splashy graphics, if tastefully done and well integrated, might be just the ticket, as is the case in these letters by Mindfield and H. Halpern.

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Image via Campaign Monitor

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Image via Campaign Monitor

3. Black

Having just praised color, we’re going to turn on a dime and proffer another suggestion: the absence of color, a.k.a black. The logic here is this: 99% of the emails you open are black text-on-white background. Reversing this can provide just the jolt you need. Plus, dark backgrounds can make for a very suave maneuver—perfect for outlets like Storied and Film Fest Gent.

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Image via CreativeBloq

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Image via Campaign Monitor

4. Minimalism

Allow us another seeming self-contradiction. While dazzling graphics can be a strong strategy, other times a minimalist approach promises the biggest impact. Apple is the undisputed master of this approach, but we also like Budnitz Bicycles’ work here, particularly how they echo the red of the bike frames with red-highlighted text.

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Image via CreativeBloq

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Image via Campaign Monitor

5. Epic Photos

It’s a truism that, at the end of the day, the “content” of your letter is what really matters. This is especially true when you define “content” broadly enough to include explosively brilliant photographs. This crisp image by Rapha Cycling is a compelling invitation to read, and this advertorial image from IceBreaker is one we won’t soon forget.

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Image via Campaign Monitor

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Image via CreativeBloq

6. Composition

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that content isn’t the only thing that really matters. As a designer, we suspect you’ll agree that there are other elements to consider; namely, composition. A boring grid is going to turn off a reader before she even knows what content she’s missing. These newsletters from the New York Times and ACM Siggraph, on the other hand, create a gripping dynamism through the use of diagonals and slanted lines.

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Image via CreativeBloq

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Image via Campaign Monitor

7. Integrated Photos

Photographs are begging to be freed from the frame. Now that we have the digital means to seamlessly suture photographic elements into a plane that also includes text, we might as well do so. These charming emails from Big Sea and Paradigm do a great job taking images outside the box.

campaign monitor

Image via Campaign Monitor

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Image via Campaign Monitor

8. Drawing

What could be better than receiving a piece of art in the mail? That’s the feeling many people get when they open an email, expecting to see blocks of text or at best a digital spread, and instead find something hand-drawn, or at least possessing a hand-drawn look. Blick and Peckham space both present their emails as objets d’art.

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Image via CreativeBloq

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Image via Campaign Monitor

9. Type

Good typefaces are your friend. Always—email newsletter designs being no exception. Playtype and Native Shoes both clearly know this, taking a good, graphic font and blowing it way out of proportion to make a striking centerpiece.

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Image via Campaign Monitor

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Image via CreativeBloq

10. GIFs

We saved the most controversial for last. Nay-sayers, who perhaps form the majority opinion on the matter, say that .GIFs in email newsletters are a silly trend, and that the animation is far more prone to distract, or even repel, the reader than a well-shot still photo. On the whole, this is probably true. But we’ve certainly encountered at least a handful of email newsletter designs that incorporate subtly .GIFs in a way that merits applause—these from Pencil Case and the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, for instance.

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Image via Campaign Monitor

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Image via Campaign Monitor

What do you think makes for a good email design? Share in the comments!

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