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17 Essential Email Design Tips + Inspiration for the Non-Designer

Associations, Communications Strategy // With so much content flooding our inboxes, understanding the basics of email design has never been more critical. Here are 17 tips to help you up your game.

Amie Perrott
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Did you know that the number of emails sent per day is projected to grow to 333 billion by the year 2022? Whoa, that’s right – per day. With so much content flooding our inboxes as it is, understanding the basics of email design has never been more critical in the competition for your subscribers’ attention.

I’m not here to tell you exactly what the best email design is (that’s pretty subjective anyway), but I am here to strengthen your knowledge of the basics with critical tips and inspiration based on my experience as an email marketer in the association and B2B demand generation world.

Have no fear, non-designers, this blog is not about HTML or fancy interactive capabilities.

Email Marketing is Not Dead: Design and Automate Accordingly

Data from our 2018 State of Marketing Automation: Association Benchmark Report indicates that email marketing/marketing automation is still one of the most highly used, cost-effective, simple ways for associations to drive revenue and engage members and prospects.

Leveraging email marketing and marketing automation to gain the holy grail of engagement requires a variety of skills, and email design is among them. The design of your email is just as important as the information you’re sharing in it, and if you want your readers to get that far, you can’t afford to make basic mistakes.

If you’re thinking, “Great, but I’m not a designer…”

Well, neither am I. My personal style is admittedly not the trendiest. And while I don’t have a watchful eye on the latest in fashion, my tips do stem from keeping a keen eye on email trends, A/B testing, and email performance analysis.

Top Design Elements + Tips to Strengthen Your Emails

This, of course, depends on the purpose of your email. Minimally stylized, plain text emails can be just as effective as those fancy or sleek versions, as long as your goals are executed clearly.

Your Logo

Including your logo goes without saying, but please make sure to link it!

  • Tip #1: Generally, a logo performs best at the top left of an email. Trends from heat mapping (you can generally find one of these in your email and marketing automation platform) and research, based on the concept of F-Shaped pattern, support this idea.


Again, this depends on the purpose of your email. Let’s say you intend to use images of some sort, because there’s nothing worse than a wall of text staring back at you when you have eight seconds to check the 200 emails crowding your inbox.

  • Tip #2: Images (header/hero image or in the body of the email) need to be web quality (72 dpi, JPEG).
  • Tip #3: Watch your text-to-image ratio spam filters certainly are. Image-heavy emails will land in the spam or junk folder. The ideal text-to-image ratio is 80 percent text and 20 images.
  • Tip #4: Label your images. Alt text is there for email clients that have images turned off, especially on mobile.
  • Tip #5: Images with people tend to resonate more with a broader audience because a brand becomes more relatable. I’m thinking of the header/hero image or the picture of the person in the signature, if there is one.

    Inspiration alert! Find out how to design hero images

  • Tip #6: All images should adhere to the branding guides, tone of your organization, and content you’re sharing. If you’re sending out a political action alert, perhaps an image of kittens isn’t the best.

Email Body

Short and sweet is overused, but oh so true.

  • Tip #7: Try using bullets to break up content and make your email more scannable. Research shows that 79 percent of people scan online content instead of reading every word. You can even try different ways to incorporate the bullet idea with icons or color blocks.
  • Tip #8: Use web-safe fonts. As much as Nemo Nightmares is perfect for your Halloween appeal, it’s not easy to read and it will not render properly anyway. At the risk of mentioning HTML, it’s also advised to use font stacks, so there are fallbacks for type rendering. Here’s a snippet of what I’m talking about: <td style=”font-family: arial, helvetica, sans-serif;”> .. </td>
  • Tip #9: Design for mobile readers (we’ve all got phones – you know this is critical).
  • Tip #10: Blocks of color can help divide the body of the email, especially for those newsletters and event emails.
  • Tip #11: Speaking of newsletters, try to include a teaser line for each story and link to read more. This helps shorten the length and look of the email, but also gives you more insight into what stories gained the most traffic.


Call To Action (CTA)

A click or conversion is the goal of your email, no matter the content. It’s essential for the CTA in your email to be clear and stand out. We tend to have so much to say and easily lose sight of this.

  • Tip #13: Try to keep it to one CTA per email – you don’t want to risk them doing nothing because they’re overwhelmed. This can be difficult for newsletters, so try to keep it to one CTA per story or section in your newsletter.
  • Tip #14: Your CTA can be a button, clickable text, or both – it’s OK to repeat your CTA in multiple spots, too. And don’t forget to link your hero/header image!
  • Tip #15: Test your buttons! Try different colors, shapes, or text in the button.


This area is perfect for the elements that are required to be CAN-SPAM compliant and ways to get people to connect with your brand.

  • Tip #16 (requirement, really): In order to be CAN-SPAM compliant, your email must contain a valid physical postal address, an easy and clear way to unsubscribe (even better to include a preference manage form). The footer is where a majority of emails include this information.
  • Tip #17: Add your social icons here, but make sure they match up and stand out.

Email Design Inspiration, Delivered Right to Your Inbox

So, where do I look for email design inspiration? Well, lots of places. But this is not an exhaustive list, by any means. In fact, I’d love to find more places to look, so be sure to leave a comment if you have a recommendation. If you’re seeking inspiration, start here:

  • Your Own Inbox: I can’t tell you that the 1,000 Pottery Barn emails provide too much email design inspiration, but I certainly pay attention to the cadence of their automated campaigns
  • Favorite Brands: I can’t lie, I’m not a B2C marketer, but I certainly peruse those types of emails for inspiration, simply because we’re all looking to achieve the same goal – conversion. (I tend to love Apple, Adobe, Southwest, Airbnb, and Kate Spade)
  • Templates from your own Email Service Provider/Marketing Automation Platform
  • Competitors and organizations like yourself
  • Blogs: There are so many out there offering valuable insight, but I tend to follow:

Email Design That Supports Your Content

At the end of the day, you need an email design that supports your content and creates the best user experience possible. If you’re anything like me, you don’t have time to take classes in design, but you do need to keep a pulse on what’s happening in the arena. I hope these quick, simple, and not-so-technical tips bring you even just a little bit of email inspiration, so you can create emails that make an impact.

Download the Engagement Trends Report 2020

Amie Perrott

Public Information Specialist, Capital Region BOCES

Amie is a marketing professional with over fifteen years of experience in association and B2B email marketing, marketing automation, lead generation, social media management, and event planning. She loves the hunt of finding just the right subject line, CTA or preheader (and secretly takes unsubscribes to heart). Outside of work, she’s enjoying (or fighting) the battle of raising a very assertive toddler.

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