7 Email Marketing Design Trends You Need to Know About

21 January 2015

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage about first impressions. Everyone knows we only get one chance to make them. But with email messages, you’ve got another challenge: If your email doesn’t look appealing at first glance, most subscribers will delete it without hesitation.

To help you survive that first inbox cull, we’ve put together a short list of email design trends every email marketer should be familiar with. You may not have to design your own emails, but if you do, these tips will keep your emails looking current and professional.

For those of you using the BeeFree email editor tool, we’ve also included short how-to instructions for every tip listed here.

1) It’s all about mobile.

You’ve heard of “location, location, location” in real estate, right? For email marketers, it’s “mobile, mobile, mobile”.

It is hard to overstate how critical mobile is. 53% of emails are opened on mobile devices according to Litmus’s last device usage report on January 15th. Yet many email marketers are still thinking of desktops first, and mobile devices second.

Don’t let that be you. In addition to using a “responsive” email design, here are the most basic tips for mobile-friendly emails:

  • Subject lines should be 40 characters or less.
  • Customize preheader text: It’s almost as visible as the subject line on mobile devices.
  • No body text smaller than 13 or 14 point type. Many email designers actually recommend 15 or 16 point type.
  • Single columns look best. Aim for something less than 600 pixels wide.
  • Compress images as much as possible, so long as they still look good, especially on high resolution devices.
  • Buttons should be at least 48 pixels wide, but it’s better if they’re a little larger. Why make it hard to click?
  • Avoid “stacked links” (a column or list of links). They’re hard to click.
  • Keep it brief. Trim off all unnecessary content.
  • Code your call to action in CSS and HTML or VML (Vector Markup Language). Never use an image for a call to action. If images are turned off, your email call to action won’t work. About 40% of all Gmail users still have their images turned off.

BeeFree users: Breathe free. You don’t have to worry about responsive design. You’re already using it in every BeeFree designed email.

In addition to using responsive design, your BeeFree emails are also set to a few defaults specifically optimized for mobile-friendly emails. Like the email width, which is set to 600 pixels:

Keep emails under 600 pixels wide

Want a single column design? We’ve got those. Choose any single column design from the start page, then just pull in a full-width text block, like this:

How to add a full width text block

2) People don’t read emails. They scan them.

There are several consequences to this:

  • White space is necessary. You cannot cram everything there is to say into an email. Don’t use lines or more design elements to break up the email. Use white space. This is so important that we’ll give it it’s own principle in a moment.
  • Copy must be kept short. Limit yourself to the essentials. Your email has one job: To get the click. Get people to the landing page. Everything else is gravy.
  • Paragraphs must be kept short. There’s a loose rule in web design that any more than five lines to a paragraph looks hard to read. In email, any more than three lines looks hard to read.
  • Use an easy to read font (Georgia 16 point is a favorite of some designers), with good contrast from the background. Avoid knocked out type.

To bump text size up a notch in BeeFree, just select a text block and highlight the text. The type palette will pop up. Choose your changes and just deselect the text. Voila.

how to adjust text size in BeeFree email editor

3) Aim for a text to image ratio of 60/40.

Secretly plotting behind their computer screens, desperate to control how their emails look across multiple devices, some designers have wondered if they couldn’t maybe just ditch the text and layout and send image-only emails. Sadly, they can’t.

There’s been a bit of talk amongst email deliverability professionals about how too many images can suppress a message’s deliverability. It’s been the cause of some friction between designers and deliverability people, I’m sure.

But fortunately the email agency Email on Acid did some research, and found that the ratio of text to images has no effect on deliverability at all – provided there are at least 500 characters of text in the email. That’s about six to seven lines of copy, so it ends up the bar is pretty low.

Even though it may not affect your deliverability, the 60/40 rule is a good balance to aim for. It gets even easier to achieve if you add some white space.

To see if your emails meet the 60/40 rule, use the Preview button in BeeFree, then eyeball your email. Basically you want more than half of the area of your email to be text or white space around text. Or just count to 500 characters, make sure your images are as well compressed as they can be, and stop worrying.

How to use the preview tool

4) Use full width images.

Once you know to look for them, you’ll start seeing full-width images everywhere. They’re on emails, sure, but they’re also all over the web. These are the full background images that sometimes move. See PayPal’s home page for an example of a looping video background.

There are several reasons why full-width images are so popular. First, they work well on mobile devices. That’s critical. They’re also a crisp contrast to the white space and minimalist design we’ll talk about in later tips.

BeeFree makes it a snap to add a full width image. Just tug an image block over, choose your image, and you’re done.

how to add an image in BeeFree

Don’t forget to add alt tags to your images. If someone has their images turned off, all they’ll see is the alt tags. To edit the alt tags in BeeFree, select the image then edit the alt tag field in the right column.

Don't forget to edit the alt tags of the images in your emails

5) Use white space.

White space rose to popularity in emails around 2013, and it hasn’t fallen out of favor yet. There are several reasons why white space is so prized:

  • It makes text easier to scan, as mentioned above.
  • It makes the overall email look easier to read, which means it’s more likely to be read.
  • White space adjusts itself beautifully to different devices – it’s ideal for adapting to mobile design.

Need to create more white space in your emails? Try these tips:

  1. Start with a white background.
  2. Use “teasers” for as much copy as possible. That means including the first sentence or two of an article, then adding a “read more” link to draw subscribers to a landing page or content page.
  3. Don’t use lines to break sections up. Use white space.
  4. Think like a minimalist. Trim your content down to the essentials.

In BeeFree, if you want to add more whitespace, select a text box, then go to the “Box settings” control in the right column. Increase the padding until it looks the way you want it to.

how to add white space around a text block

Want a white background? No problem. Click away from the blocks of the email, so nothing is selected. Then change the background color by selecting the background color pull-down menu in the upper left corner of the editor.

how to change the background color of an email message

Move the slider so it’s all the way to white.

how to adjust the background color

Click OK. Your email’s background will now be white.

whitespace is one of the major email marketing design trends

For one final pitch for white space, consider knocked out type. It’s very popular with designers, but it’s been shown to crush reading comprehension.

Knock out or “reverse” type is white letters on a black or colored background. David Oglivy was actually one of the first voices against reverse type. He thought it was hard to read. And he was right: Here’s the study results from Colin Wheildon’s book Type & Layout: How Typography and Design Can Get Your Message Across – or Get in the Way.

reverse or knockout type is hard for people to read

Were you thinking this data doesn’t apply to san serif type? That it’s still okay to use san serif for knocked out type? Think again. Wheildon found that san serif reverse type actually hurt reading comprehension even more than serif type.

6) The plain text look is in.

This is the sister tip to white space. It speaks to the design trend of minimalism. I think Google’s spare design nudged the trend of minimalism design, but I’m sure there were other influencers. Either way, just as white space is popular, so is, increasingly the “plain text” look.

Here’s an example from Belle Beth Cooper’s email newsletter:

an example of plain text, one of the major email design trends

And another example:

another example of the plain text email marketing design trend

BeeFree makes the plain text look really easy to achieve. Basically, the plain text look is BeeFree’s default setting.

what an email from the BeeFree email editor looks like

This BeeFree email is using most of the default settings. All I’ve done is add an image and typed in some different text. No design skills required!

7) Flat design is in.

Whether you call it flat design or flat style, it’s ruling the web. It rules emails too. Flat style refers to an absence of shading or 3D elements on a page or email message. Telltale signs of flat design are no shading, use of transparency and san serif fonts.

Here’s an example of flat design on a website:

flat design on a webpage

And an example of flat design in an email:

flat design in an email marketing message

Want one more example of flat design? Check out BeeFree. It’s classic flat design.

BeeFree itself is an example of the flat design trend

That’s our wrap up of design trends in email marketing. Apply these tips to your emails to keep them looking fresh all through 2015. And keep coming back to this blog – we’ll keep you updated on new email design trends as they evolve.

This article was written by

Pam Neely

Pam Neely

I hold a Master’s Degree in Direct and Interactive Marketing from New York University. I’ve built email lists of over 10,000 subscribers with nothing more than search engine traffic, and once ran an A/B split test that resulted in a million dollars a year in additional sales for a client. Basically, I wrote button copy that doubled their conversion rate.

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