3 email design principles that beat the creative silver bullet 

Andrea Campbell

5 minute read

Life – and email – don’t come with guarantees. Although we know what doesn’t work in email design, no single design solution – the silver bullet – will work every time.   

However, email does have general principles that designers should follow to give subscribers the best possible experience: an email message that looks good across browsers and devices, serves their needs, encourages them to act and portrays your brand in the best light possible.


1. Follow good email design practices for every campaign.

Email design is more creative than ever, with new approaches to image and copy combinations, images, animations and video and even real-time content adding impact to every message . But every design should follow these basic best practices that encourage your subscribers to open and act on your emails.

  • Make subject lines, preheaders and headlines work together. 

We see many email messages that use the subject line content in the preheader (the first line of copy in the message that often gets pulled into the inbox next to the subject line) and the headline. That just wastes effort.

Instead, use the preheader to build on information in the subject line, and use the headline to draw the reader into the email without repeating anything from the preheader or the subject line. 

  • Optimize for mobile view.

The desktop no longer rules in the email world. Roughly half of all email messages get opened on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Two- or three-column layouts that look okay on a desktop don’t work on a mobile device, where a single-column format, larger type, call-to-action buttons instead of links and fewer but larger images work better.

  • Keep copy brief, and easily scannable.

If subscribers read only your email’s headline and the CTA, would they know what your email is about? 

Resist the temptation to put every feature and benefit in your email. That’s not where the sale happens. Your email’s job is to drive customers to your landing page, where you have more space to persuade. 

Readers who open your emails will spend about 11 seconds on the contents. Format your content to make that reading as easy as possible. Use white space, bullet points and other navigational devices to guide their eyes toward important copy.

Aribnb Inverted Pyramid example

  • Use the “inverted pyramid” to drive eyes to your call to action.

In newspaper writing, the inverted pyramid top-loads the most important facts at the top of the story and moves the reader down to the end. In email design, the tip of the upside-down pyramid leads the eyes down to the call to action. Larger copy blocks and images give way to smaller ones as you move down to the CTA. This way, your CTA doesn’t get lost in the middle of your email copy.

  • Use primary and secondary CTA styles.

Now that most email gets opened at least once on a mobile device where fingers rather than mouse pointers do the clicking, it’s important to give users the best possible chance to click or tap the CTA on the first try.

That’s why buttons should be your primary style in email, with text links as the secondary style. Buttons grab attention immediately and give a finger more real estate to tap than a text link. However, in some designs, a text link is more appropriate. A color that contrasts with surrounding copy will help it stand out from the surrounding text.

AARP Color Contrast Example

  • Use directional CTAs that give your customers more information about what you want them to do. 

For years, “Click here” was the default call to action because it told users what to do. But “Click here” doesn’t tell them what to expect or why they should click.

Some conversation experts say the CTA copy should complete the sentence “I want to …” This rule tells your readers what they can get by clicking the button or the link. But you can be flexible with this interpretation.

This Barkbox email illustrates both approaches. The primary offer uses a directional CTA (“Get my free float”). The secondary CTA,  “Let’s do this,” doesn’t follow the “I want to …” rule, but you can imagine a reader thinking that after reading the benefit paragraph that leads into it.


P.S.: The arrows pointing to the CTAs make them stand out even more.  This email also uses the inverted-pyramid layout I discussed in No. 4.

  • Be choosy about images – content, number and weight.

Choose only relevant images that fit with your brand or site. Product images should be sharp and clear, not just enlarged pictures from a catalog. 

Less is more when it comes to images in mobile-optimized emails. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but one clear, dramatic image is worth five smaller average ones. 

Also consider image weight in your emails. Weight refers to the file size. Higher-weight images (800KB or above) can slow down your email load times and reduce engagement. Try to keep images at 200KB  each or smaller.


2. Consider the needs, interests and motivations of your brand’s audience.

You might sell the same products as your nearest competitor, but you probably appeal to vastly different markets. Your email needs to speak to the unique characteristics of your audience. The better you know your audience, the more purposeful your design and messaging choices can be.

Creating personas can help you focus copy and offers, but they’re just the beginning. Study your customer behavior to figure out whether they respond better to sales, new products or VIP content. Do they need lots of persuasion to act, or are they more spontaneous? Are they more likely to be visually or cognitively impaired? Designing an email for screen readers calls for simpler designs and visual cues.

Having a firm grasp of your brand equity is essential here, too. What do your customers expect from you? Your design choices should line up with those expectations. Pushing the boundaries somewhat is fine. But, don’t violate them altogether unless you test thoroughly ahead of time.  


3. Create a strategy for regular, data-backed testing.

Testing helps you discover the factors that are most likely to drive the customer actions you want. It can be as easy as running an A/B split test to figure out which subject line generated more opens or which product image got more clicks. 

But these simple tests only tell you what works at that time, in that campaign. What you need is a comprehensive testing program that will give you deeper audience insights you can use to create more effective email campaigns.

Your email program goals will guide your testing strategy. The findings from those tests will inform your design and messaging choices. It means going beyond “Does a red or blue button get more clicks?” to “Do we get better responses when our design and copy focus on urgency or saving money?”

Wrapping up – It’s all about the audience

Your email messages are only as good as the content in them – the images, copy, offers, calls to action and message design and navigation. But even the most visually attractive email can bomb if your message doesn’t serve your audience’s needs, speak to their motivations or live up to their expectations. 

Let’s find out together which design practices work best for your customers. Contact us. 

Trendline Interactive

Ready to send better messages?

About the Author(s)

Andrea Campbell

Creative Director. Animal lover, drawer, tattoo collector, tortured Detroit sports fan. Can most often be found at a live music show, stand-up show, or watching Coronation Street.

Let's Take This to the Inbox

Sign up for our news, resources and updates. The inbox is our favorite place after all. We’ll make sure it’s worth it. (You can unsubscribe at any time, but you probably already knew that.)