The Ultimate Guide to Email Design and 13 Best Practices

Discover how email design can help you effectively reach your target audience, boost conversions, and build long-term relationships with prospects and customers.

Written by: Kristen Baker


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As a new marketing assistant, I once created an email campaign for our biggest product launch. Despite spending hours crafting the seemingly “perfect” message, the next day's analytics showed dismal open and click-through rates.

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The problem? I had neglected the design, resulting in a cluttered mess with no clear call-to-action. This harsh wake-up call taught me that in email marketing, design is as crucial as content.

This experience set me on a path to mastering email design. I learned that effective emails require a balance of engaging copy and visually appealing design that guides readers to action.

In this blog post, I've explored email design best practices, covering everything from attention-grabbing subject lines to responsive design.

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Why Email Design Matters

With email users expected to reach 4.7 billion by 2026, mastering email design is crucial for reaching and converting your target audience.

Email recipients often scan information and abandon emails that don‘t offer them value or simply appear to be too dense.

That’s why having great email design is so important — it’ll help you capture the attention of, and engage, your email recipients.

Your email design should be attention-grabbing, aesthetically-pleasing, and on-brand, among other things — let's dive into those things next with these 13 best practices for email design.

1. Craft a strong subject line.

Your email subject line is the first thing anyone sees when you send them an email. It’s the brief statement that’s supposed to pique the interest of your recipients. It should capture their attention so they want to open your email and continue reading.

Here’s what a subject line looks like in your email inbox:

Screenshot of email subject lines that fit email design best practices

Here’s what a subject line looks like in your mobile device’s email inbox:

Screenshot of email subject lines that fit email design best practices from inbox view

A great subject line will have these characteristics:

  • Grab the attention of your readers in as few words as possible (remember: less is more).
  • Provide value for the recipient that makes them want to open the email.
  • Summarize what recipients are going to read and/ or see once they open the email.

2. Write an attention-grabbing pre-header.

Your email pre-header is a preview of what the email is about, similar to the meta description of a web page. It’s the second thing recipients see.

Rather than rewriting the first sentence of your email, you can customize the pre-header to provide an inside look into what your recipients are about to read in your message.

Here’s what a pre-header looks like in your email inbox:

Screenshot of email subject lines with meta description that fits email design best practices

Here’s what a pre-header looks like in your mobile device’s email inbox:

How the meta description looks in an inbox

3. Be concise.

How many times throughout the day do you find yourself opening an email thinking, I can’t wait to sit down and take the next 5-10 minutes to really dive into this email from Business X!

If you're anything like me, your answer is likely rarely or never.

Give email recipients the information they want and need from you without getting into the weeds. This will show them you value their time which has the potential to help you improve email subscriber retainment.

4. Keep your email on-brand.

When your email recipients open your message, they should know the email was sent from your company. Meaning your email should be branded.

To keep your email on-brand, consider using the following tactics:

  • Use a tone in your emails that complements your other content and marketing materials (like your website and social media).
  • Incorporate the same colors and fonts that you use in your other branding and marketing materials.
  • Include your logo, a link to your website, links to your social media accounts, and calls-to-action (CTAs) that are relevant to your products or services. This is a great way to increase brand awareness while also boost conversions.

5. Use the layout to enhance your email’s user experience.

Nobody wants to read a cluttered and unorganized email — this makes recipients feel overwhelmed and can lead to increased abandonment.

Instead, organize your layout with user experience (UX) in mind — meaning, leave empty/white space and strategically place your written and visual content so it’s organized and easy to consume and navigate.

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Create, personalize, and optimize your marketing emails without waiting on designers or IT.

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  • Design stunning emails.
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6. Personalize every email.

When you customize an email and tailor it to your recipient, it'll feel more thoughtful, professional, and personal.

Email personalization also helps you humanize your brand. This touch helps you foster a relationship between your business and email recipients and boost retention rates.

Beyond just using a recipient's name, personalization is a crucial aspect of email marketing. I asked Nura Busleiman, the head of email marketing operations for the lifecycle team at MarketerHire, how to go beyond using a recipient's name:

"The most important thing is to understand where in the customer journey your lead is. If they are just getting to know you, they might need different information than someone who already bought your product or service.”

Busleiman’s advice highlights the importance of tailoring your email content to each recipient's specific stage in the customer journey:

“Understanding their journey will lead you to better emails and results, of course. Your contact needs to understand why they are receiving that email at that moment and what they are expected to do.”

This level of personalization ensures that your emails are not only relevant but also provide clear value to the reader, increasing the likelihood of engagement and conversion.

7. Incorporate unique visual content.

If recipients open an email and only see paragraphs of information, it’s likely going to be difficult to hold their attention and keep them interested in your message.

Rather, incorporate on-brand and engaging images, videos, GIFs, animations, etc. to break up the written content and create a memorable experience.

And speaking of incorporating creative and unique visual content in your emails, let’s talk emojis.

8. Don’t be afraid to use emojis. 🧡

At first, emojis may seem like an unnecessary or unprofessional addition to an email. While this may be a fair assumption, it’s actually untrue in a number of scenarios.

In fact, when you add emojis to your email subject line and/ or email copy, you can increase your open and click-through rates.

But remember: When using emojis for marketing purposes, make sure you know the meaning and connotation of the specific one(s) you incorporate. 😃

9. Use a responsive design.

A responsive design means your email changes format to fit the screen it’s being viewed on, whether it's on a desktop, laptop, or mobile device. Recipients will be able to read your emails with ease no matter where or how they’re viewing them.

By incorporating a responsive design, you'll be able to enhance UX and improve email retention across all devices.

10. Optimize your email with CTAs.

Calls-to-action (CTAs) are used to convert your email recipients. For instance, you can use a CTA to get recipients to follow you on social media, visit your website, chat with a sales rep, or become paying customers.

CTAs should be visible, enticing, and clearly show why they’re valuable to click. Additionally, you might choose to personalize your CTAs to tailor them towards specific recipients — this tactic has been proven to increase conversions.

11. Add an “unsubscribe” button.

Email marketing is highly effective as long as you’re providing relevant content to your recipients.

The unfortunate but true reality of email marketing is that your recipients and customers change over time — especially as your business grows and evolves. Therefore, your content may not always be relevant to certain audience members.

For this reason, allow your recipients to leave (or unsubscribe from your emails) on a good note so they can remember your business in a positive light — who knows, they may need your email content, products, or services again in the future.

To do this, simplify their lives with an easy-to-use and visible "unsubscribe” button.

In addition to offering a better experience for users, you're actually required by law to add that unsubscribe button.

According to the Federal Trade Commission and CAN-SPAM Act, you’re legally required to include a “clear and conspicuous explanation of how the recipient can opt-out of getting emails from you in the future.”

Meaning, that unsubscribe button isn’t an option.

(If you need some inspiration, check out these effective unsubscribe pages.)

12. A/B test your design.

Similar to most marketing efforts, email design is an iterative process. You might determine you need to make changes and updates to get the most out of your email design.

But what elements should you focus on when A/B testing? Here Busleiman shares her insights once more:

“Usually, CTAs placed above the fold (visible without scrolling) generally see higher click-through rates. What I do recommend anyway is to always try to talk as your audience talks, understand their customer journey, and show them images that they can find familiar. You can also A/B test attributes such as voice and tone. Don't make assumptions, just experiments!”

Busleiman’s advice highlights several key areas for A/B testing:

  1. CTA placement. Testing the position of your call-to-action, especially above the fold, can significantly improve click-through rates.
  2. Language and tone. Experimenting with different ways of speaking to your audience can help you find the most effective communication style.
  3. Imagery. Testing various images that resonate with your audience's experiences can improve engagement.
  4. Voice and tone. Even subtle changes in how you express your message can make a big difference.

Pro tip: Remember, the goal of A/B testing is to let data guide your decisions rather than relying on assumptions. By consistently testing these elements, you can continually refine your email design for maximum impact.

13. Design an email signature.

Great email signature design is another way you can establish a professional and personal feel over email.

Email signatures shouldn't just include your name — they should contain other defining and memorable characteristics about you, your role, contact information, and company.

Here are some specifics you can include in your email signature:

  • First and last name
  • Contact information (and secondary contact information)
  • Job Title / Role
  • Company Name
  • Link to your meeting calendar
  • Social media links (e.g. LinkedIn profile)
  • Pronouns
  • Photo
  • Industry disclaimer or legal requirements

Creating a professional email signature doesn't have to be complicated. You can easily design one using HubSpot's free email signature generator, which helps you incorporate all these elements seamlessly.

A great way to streamline the process of working on and incorporate all 13 of the above best practices is to use email design tools and software.

In fact, many of the best practices we reviewed will come up naturally while you’re designing, writing, and planning your messages with email design software.

While these best practices provide a solid foundation, sometimes seeing real-world examples can offer additional insights.

Take a look at our collection of innovative email newsletter designs for more ideas on how to apply these principles creatively.

Free Email Marketing Tools

Create, personalize, and optimize your marketing emails without waiting on designers or IT.

  • Boost email opens.
  • Design stunning emails.
  • Automate follow ups.
  • And more!

Email Design Tools

There are a number of email design tools with a wide range of capabilities (some completely unrelated to email design!). Here are some popular examples.

1. HubSpot

HubSpot’s Email Marketing software allows you to create, design, personalize, and optimize all of your emails.

You don’t need any IT or coding knowledge, and you can easily customize mobile-friendly emails. The software allows you to A/B test emails to determine which designs work best.

Additionally, it includes an AI-generated email feature that can significantly enhance your productivity.

2. BEEPro

As a BEEPro user, you can design responsive emails in just minutes.

Smart design tools provide you with a quick way to format your emails and ensure your layout complements your content.

You can also customize and save various email design templates so your messaging and branding is consistent.

3. MailChimp

With over 100 templates offered, MailChimp allows you to customize your email design for your target audience.

If you’re someone who does have coding experience, and you want to take your design a step further, MailChimp offers you the ability to code your template too.

4. Stripo

Stripo requires no HTML knowledge to create and design professional email templates. All of their pre-made templates are responsive so readers can easily view them via any device.

You can also sync your current email service provider (ESP) with the software to access all of your email and contact information from a central location.

5. Chamaileon

As a collaborative email builder, Chamaileon gives you the ability to invite members of your team to collaborate on your designs.

The software ensures your emails will have a responsive design and automatically comes with over 100 pre-made templates to customize for specific recipients.

While these tools can help you create visually appealing emails, it's also valuable to see how other successful companies are designing their emails. For inspiration and ideas, check out our curated list of effective email marketing examples.

These real-world examples can help you understand how to apply design principles and best practices to your own email campaigns.

Email Design Examples

Let’s take a look at some successful email designs to inspire your work.

HubSpot Marketing Blog

HubSpot used to send emails to Marketing Blog subscribers every day. These included a few blog marketing-related articles to read and learn from. If recipients chose, they could also subscribe to HubSpot’s Sales Blog and Service Blog emails.

Screenshot of hubspot marketing email example of email best design practices

The emails were branded so readers immediately know who the email is from and what it will include. To make the daily emails engaging and unique, they included previews of the articles and an occasional quiz.

Starbucks Rewards

Starbucks customers and members may have seen this email, or something similar, in their inbox before:

Screenshot of starbucks marketing email example of email best design practices

The email complements Starbucks’ marketing and branding, and there’s plenty of white space separating the written information from the engaging imagery. And the CTA that recipients can click on to activate the offer is clearly placed.

Vital Proteins Email Design

Although Vital Proteins' email design contains many images and a lot of information, it’s neatly organized so it doesn’t feel overwhelming to recipients. The email’s colors, font, and visuals are on-brand and feature the company’s products.

Screenshot of vital protein marketing email example of email best design practices

There's an obvious CTA that redirects recipients to their Instagram page — in turn, this type of CTA helps the company increase their follower count and brand awareness on the social platform.

Grow Better With Really Good Email Design

Email design is an art form that masterfully blends visual appeal, strategic planning, and psychological principles. It's a crucial skill that deserves continuous refinement to achieve better results from your email marketing campaigns.

I'm particularly excited about the impact of personalization, which pushed me to explore creative ways to tailor emails beyond just using names.

For example, the potential of emojis to boost open rates challenged my preconceptions, and is something I’ll start experimenting with in subject lines.

Armed with these insights, you can now craft emails that not only reach your audience but also resonate deeply with them.

Remember, great email design is an ongoing process. As email continues to evolve, so too will design best practices. Stay curious, keep experimenting, and most importantly, always prioritize your audience's experience.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in August 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

drag drop email

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