What Makes a Good-Looking Email: 6 Key Elements and a Dozen Best Practices

good looking emails

These days, it’s barely possible to find emails in plain text only. As companies compete for customers, even service announcements come with visuals and smart formatting.

So, what does it take to create good-looking emails? Let us show you all the answers in this article.

Why it’s important to create good-looking emails

It feels like many articles about email marketing on the internet paint emails as some effective but forgotten tool. Well, more than half the world uses emails so it’s a bit unfair to see them as an underdog: emails are a mass product.

To stand out in this email madness, you need to take extra measures. Yes, you probably don’t design fancy emails to send to your friends or coworkers but digital marketing companies have to do it as they battle for customers.

After all, a good design isn’t just how things look on the surface, it’s also how functional they are, how engaging and clear on the action. This takes time and effort to craft such an email but don’t worry, we’ll explain everything and show an example to each point.

6 essential elements of a great-looking email

While there’s no formula for a good email, it’s easy to tell a great email apart from a mediocre one and the reasons for it aren’t random.

We pinpoint six essential elements of great-looking emails. These are the meta principles, the non-negotiables of email marketing that deliver a perfect message. Let’s start the count.

A scannable copy

No one has much time on the internet. The vast majority of web users want to finish their tasks as quickly as possible with the least effort. Any text-based content is the first victim of this approach because there’s so much text on the web. So, what can you do?

A common pattern of reading on a web page is the F-pattern, typical of walls of texts — unorganized chunks that scare readers with their density. It’s not good because a copy can have important information but if it’s buried deep in the text, few people will find it.

F-pattern
At first, users read horizontally (the upper and lower bars of the “letter F”) but as they scroll down, they read more and more vertically (the stem of the “letter F”). Source: Nielsen Norman Group

It’s important to keep the F-pattern in mind when designing emails. The issue isn’t even so much about the overall text length but the way it’s arranged — otherwise, the likes of storytelling emails would be a waste of time.

The good news is that most emails in email marketing strive for clarity and don’t have the F-pattern problem. Only very rarely can you run into something like this email below.

an email with a lot of text
The information seems important but it’s impossible to scan this email. Source: Really Good Emails

So, how to make sure your copy looks neat and easy to read?

Here are some proven practices to beat the F-shaped reading to get your message across faster and without much effort for the readers.

  • Put the key info first. This tactic is called the inverted pyramid and it makes sure that readers will at least see your main proposition.
  • Add subheadings. Subheadings separate different parts of a text and make it easy for readers to scan and, like it or not, people don’t read on the web but scan.
  • Bold key parts. Bolded text looks heavy and instantly attracts the eye. Don’t overdo it because there can only be so many key parts in a message.
  • Use different font sizes. You don’t want your footer to be large, just like you may want to have subheadings larger in size than the email text.
  • Add illustrations. Illustrations instantly paint a picture in readers’ minds. If you add illustrations, make sure to do it with a purpose and not just fill the space.

How hard is it to follow those rules? Not hard. Email folks are usually well-versed in design and there are large databases of good-looking emails on websites like Really Good Emails (what a fitting name!).

a well-arranged easy-to-read email
This email is an easy read: the gaze slides across the illustrations while the bolded subheadings help understand the meaning. Less important parts are in a smaller font. Source: Really Good Emails

Images selected with a purpose

Visuals matter because a great pic is worth a thousand words. In email marketing, it’s not just about that — it’s also about key performance indicators. Image-based emails have a higher open rate (2.68% v 1.56%) and a higher click-through rate (21.44% v 15.02%) than text-based ones.

How to make sure you’ve got it spot on with illustrations? Consider the following tips:

  • Have a purpose for using an image. Everything in your content should have a purpose. Don’t randomly add pics just because a lot of text seems boring.
  • Show your product in full. Since images attract the eye, use them to show your product from an appealing angle.
  • Pick a high-quality pic. If you want to advertise a product, a high-quality image will impress your subscribers more than a grainy photo.
  • Be wary of stock photos. Stock photos are high quality but they don’t reflect your work. That’s why you don’t want them in a nonprofit email marketing campaign, for example.

Combine images with text. Image-only emails can be considered spam by email clients. Also, it’s impossible to search for an image-only email in an inbox.

a strong image inside an email
A full-size high-quality photo of peanut butter looks tasty. Source: Really Good Emails

Correct colors to highlight the tone of a message

Colors affect people in different ways but typically, the most common colors have certain connotations and meanings.

the meanings of colors
Source: UX Planet

Please remember, that some colors have different connotations across cultures, so learn about these differences before choosing a color palette for your campaign.

There are also traditional colors or combinations for certain holidays which are often used in email marketing: red and green for Christmas, pink and red for Valentine’s day, black for Black Friday (duh), and orange and black for Halloween.

Colors are also good for creating a contrast. Contrast helps you highlight key parts of your email like a call to action, and separate different parts.

an email where different colors separate blocks
Yellow, blue and red separate their blocks in this email. White, too. Source: Really Good Emails

A clear call to action

You need your audience to do something after reading the email, so you need a call to action (CTA). A call to action is the purpose of your email.

The no.1 rule of a good CTA is it should be easy to spot. But that’s not all because you also have to write a clear message and correctly place it.

The text should be simple with a clear command about what to do next and why it’s important for the user. Put a verb into your CTA because a verb is the part of speech that propels action.

Be careful with the so-called friction words — words that force people to do things they may not be ready to do. Here are some of those:

  • Buy
  • Download
  • Submit
  • Donate
  • Share
  • Visit

These aren’t banned words but they need special attention because they are too forceful and explicitly ask for commitment.

Instead, consider low-friction words like those below:

  • Get
  • Discover
  • Add To Cart
  • Try
  • Save

These words are more customer-friendly, indicate a benefit and don’t imply much effort.

an email with a simple CTA
A simple call to action that shows a customer’s benefit from the start. Source: Really Good Emails

Make sure your CTA button is of an appropriate size. The famous Fitts’ law that’s widely used in designing user interfaces states that the target on a screen should be as big as possible and the distance to it as short as possible. If it’s too small, customers have to aim for it. This gets even worse on a mobile screen.

This email from Apple looks beautiful (Apple knows how to make their products look appealing) but the CTA should be better. The “Buy” button is small and difficult to notice. The “Learn More” caption next to it makes it likely for a user to click the wrong link.

Apple’s email with a poor CTA
Source: Really Good Emails

Make your CTA a button rather than a link. According to one experiment, buttons convert 28% better. The explanation is simple — buttons are bigger and easier to notice. They also typically use distinct colors. Links and images can still be used as calls to action but rather as additions.

See how much difference a clearer, more identifiable call to action makes.

The original version

The CTA is a link written in dark letters against a murky background. The link is not even underlined🔽

The edited version

The CTA is more pronounced thanks to a large button with a different color to the background and a white border around it🔽

an example showing the difference a clearer CTA makes
Source: Really Good Emails

A well-thought-out layout that keeps readers glued

A layout determines a structure, how an email looks. This is a copy, images, colors and a call to action combined.

How your subscribers are going to read your email — and if they’re going to do it — is greatly influenced by a layout. Messy and disorganized emails won’t get much attention.

Here are practices to keep your subscribers reading your email till the bottom:

  • Understand the hierarchy of elements. Images are the most powerful elements on a web page because they’re big and colorful. Headlines, subheadings, factoids, and plain text come next — in this order.
  • Use white space. White is a great color for creating contrast. It spaces elements out on a web page giving some air to a piece of content.
  • Guide readers through an email. Use colors, contrast, and different blocks to direct your subscribers’ gaze across an email to nudge them into action.
  • Tackle the layout sameness. The same placement of blocks bores the eye so don’t be afraid to freshen things up by rearranging your content.
  • Place elements with purpose. For example, conventional wisdom says you should place your CTA up above — but what if in your case it makes more sense to put it at the bottom? Purpose first, common truths second.

Knowing those tips, look at this email, its original and edited versions.

The original version

Enough white space but too many blocks follow the same pattern. Towards the end, the eye gets tired of the same motif which reduces readability 🔽

The edited version

A more energetic placement keeps the eye focused. Hypothetically less important content is placed below to avoid cluttering and the CTA is placed higher 🔽

an example of re-arranging blocks to make an email more scannable
Source: Really Good Email

If you’re not going to study how modules look on a web page, use preset templates in ESPs. There are well over 100 templates in Selzy’s email builder.

A well-thought-out layout is just one aspect of a good design. How to craft stylish, enjoyable and more spam-proof emails — read in our email design guide.

Mobile-friendliness

Last but never least — your email should be optimized for mobile. The most popular email reading environment is the mobile, with a 44.7% share.

Optimization for mobile is mostly about making crucial parts larger and throwing away less important bits. Here are the main practices are:

  • Choose bigger fonts and images. Images that look big enough on desktop may not look so big on a mobile screen. The minimum font size should be 14px.
  • Make a big CTA button. It should be effortless for readers to click on the button so make sure it stands out and users don’t have to aim to reach it.
  • Space links out. When two links are too close to each other users may tap the wrong link accidentally.

A good thing is that with ESPs you can see how your email would look on mobile or make a separate mobile version altogether.

how to switch between desktop and mobile views in Selzy’s email builder
In Selzy’s email builder you can see how your email will be displayed on desktop and mobile

Best practices on how to make emails more attractive

Without further ado, let’s name some twelve practices that will make your emails stand out in any inbox with their design and purpose.

Use a proper sender name

A sender’s name is the first thing people see in an email — that’s why it’s crucial to get it right. The main function of the sender’s name is to show who the email is from. If it’s not someone from a list of contacts, there’s little motivation to open the message.

proper vs bad sender names
On the left: the names of real people and companies I subscribed for. On the right: random people, bad-looking addresses and a no-reply message

For faster recognition in an inbox, brands in 2022 can also use BIMI — brand indicators for message identification. Read our article on why it’s needed and how to implement it.

Make an attention-grabbing subject line

The second thing people see in an email is the subject line. This makes it one of the deciding factors for people to click on the email.

An attention-grabbing subject line should check these three boxes:

  • Short. An ideal length is under 30 characters which is the most a mobile screen can fit. For desktop it’s 60 but prioritize mobile as the most popular email environment.
  • Inspiring. This is your subject line’s ability to draw attention and stand out in customers’ inboxes.
  • Contains no spam words. Words like “free”, “success”, “guarantee”, as well as CAPS and excessive punctuation make emails look suspicious to email clients.
a list of spam trigger words
A list of trigger words that alert both email clients and subscribers. Source: Yesware

Use such techniques as personalization, questions, numbers, emojis to make a subject line stand out and pique customers’ curiosity.

an example of a catchy subject line
The Hustle combines an emoji with a question for a better effect

There are a lot more ways to write a subject line that subscribers can’t wait to click on — see in our article.

Add a punch through preheader text

A preheader is a piece of text placed next to a subject line. If the subject line is Frodo Baggins, the preheader is Samwise Gamgee — they’re best friends.

The key purpose of a preheader is to preview email content or give it an extra tease. And speaking of stats, adding a preheader increases the open rate by 3%.

examples of catchy preheaders
An intriguing line, a content preview and emojis are good things to add to a preheader

Get inspired by ready-to-use templates or design your own template

One solid reason to use an ESP is preset templates. If you’re used to assembling emails from scratch, try templates to save time. Selzy’s email builder, for example, provides you with 150 ready-to-use templates that you can sort by industry.

examples of Selzy’s templates

A great thing about templates is that they’re flexible. You don’t have to use what’s in front of you — you can rearrange blocks. Templates simply give you a great place to start.

You can also design an email from scratch. Selzy’s drag-and-drop builder gives you lots of layout and customization options.

an example of adding blocks in Selzy’s email builder

Don’t be afraid to experiment with colors

Changing colors every once in a while adds an element of surprise to your emails. Try it to break out of your routines and sprinkle new colors into your email.

Let me ask you a question: what color is Starbucks? Dark green, of course.

But then look at this Starbucks email where the dominant color is red. The change is unexpected but it’s a way to attract readers to the email and the special product they promote.

a Starbucks email without its traditional green look
Source: Really Good Email

One more way to experiment with colors is to mix your brand’s palette with the colors associated with a special event or a holiday.

Here, Gillette keeps their traditional dark blue but adds red, associated with Valentine’s day.

A Gilette email with a Valentine’s day color
Source: MailCharts

Add GIFs

Moving objects tend to attract humans and GIFs in emails have a few practical uses. By adding a GIF, you can tease new products or show existing features, simplify complex ideas and add a vibe.

an example with a GIF in an email
Source: MailCharts

It lasts only a few seconds but there’s much to unpack here. First, the letters move and the reader never knows where it ends and how. Then there’s a certain vibe to it because Boohoo’s email is inspired by Wordle, a viral mobile game. Finally, the practical meaning of the email is to give customers a discount.

Dive deeper into the best animation practices with our example-laden guide to email GIFs.

Use an appropriate font

If you send text-only emails, stick to the so-called safe fonts. These are the most popular fonts supported across all the mobile and desktop clients.

the most common safe fonts listed

However, if you add images to your emails you are free to choose all kinds of fonts in them. Use special fonts to highlight your message and create a mood.

Here’s an example of using a special font and a safe font in the same email. The special font is the image layer while the message below is written in plain text.

an image with a safe and unusual font
Source: Really Good Emails

Develop your brand style

A style makes your emails conform to one standard and some might argue that it’s boring. However, there’s utility in having a standard. One good reason is that it enhances brand recognition — it’s easier for customers to tell your brand apart from the crowd.

Look at this collection of Starbucks emails. They are mostly in dark green, they use the same fonts from email to email and start with a branded header. A picture – usually a cup with a drink – is the centerpiece of their email marketing identity.

a few Starbucks emails placed next to each other
You know it’s Starbucks when you see it — even when the dominant color isn’t green. Source: Really Good Emails

Avoid sending multiple messages in one email

Details matter but they can clutter — a human mind can only hold a few things in mind at one moment.

A famous study claims that most people can deal with seven chunks of information at one moment. We’re afraid seven big topics per email is too much in a world where over 3 billion emails are sent and received daily. There’s just no time for it with customers’ inboxes overflowing and brands vying for attention.

Keep it simple and limit your email to one central message and if you need to say more, why not create another email?

an long email with one key message
Lots of words don’t mean multiple messages. The email is long but it sticks to one topic — how a new mattress can help solve sleep problems. Source: Really Good Emails

Use contrast

Contrast is a great way to control someone’s attention. If you want a certain part of your email to be viewed first, make it stand out by using a contrasting color or font.

According to various color models, certain color pairs form the most contrast: redcyan; blueyellow; greenmagenta. However, you don’t need to study the color spectrum to create a solid contrast in an email.

It’s enough to know that a darker color contrasts with a lighter background and that many colors stand out in whitespace. Intense colors tend to attract, too.

See how the rich blue color dominates against the gray background and attracts the eye.

an email that uses strong contrast of grey and blue
Source: MailCharts

A contrast is often used to make a call to action button stand out. See how the dark green CTA is easy to spot against the orange background.

an email with contrast for the CTA
Source: MailCharts

Be careful, however, with highly intense colors like cyan as well as extreme shades of green and yellow. They may look garish and if they contain white captions, those will be hard to read.

an email with a poor choice of colors for contrast
While it’s impossible not to notice the cyan here, it’s also hard to read words on the CTA button. Source: MailCharts

Design an irresistible CTA

Just like you can play with your subject line, colors or fonts, you can play with your call to action. This is a good way to break out of routine and try something new.

“Get it while it lasts” reads the CTA from Attn: Grace, Inc. They emphasize the sense of urgency even more by playing with words. It’s also a great call to action because it ticks all the boxes of an effective CTA.

an email with an unusual CTA
Source: Really Good Emails

How about this daring email from the coffee company Minor Figures: “What the f*ck it means” instead of a generic “Learn”?

an email with a daring CTA
Source: Really Good Emails

I’ve never seen anything like that before and am intrigued. Try something similar if you’re sure risky things will go down well with your customers

Keep it simple

A well-designed email doesn’t have to be packed with many blocks, images, colors, calls to action… After all, often it’s the case of less is more.

Simple one-message one-color emails can be effective in email marketing. If you can get your message across in a succinct way and KPIs can prove it — that’s a job well done.

a simple one-purpose email
A simple email with a single purpose. Source: Really Good Emails

Conclusion

A good-looking email in email marketing should aim to tick these six boxes:

  • ✅ A scannable copy. The readers look at an email and quickly understand the main message.
  • Informative illustrations. Images are brilliant at showing and explaining things. The no.1 precondition for that is to select images with purpose.
  • Correct colors. Every color evokes certain associations. The “no-color” white is great at creating contrasts which helps in arranging a layout.
  • A clear call to action. If your aim is to persuade subscribers to perform a certain action — which is a given in email marketing — the CTA should be visible.
  • A clever layout. This is the overall look of an email, its scannability and usefulness. If readers read (scan) your emails with ease, you did well with the layout.
  • Mobile-friendliness. Larger fonts, images and CTAs help subscribers make it a faster and more pleasant experience on mobile.

There are also a dozen practices to craft a visually outstanding email:

  • Work on the visible parts of an email. The sender name, subject line and a preheader are places where you can influence your readers’ decision to open an email.
  • Use compelling imagery and colors. Add animation, unusual fonts in images, play with colors and contrasts to try new things. Developing a brand style is another solid tactic, it reinforces brand recognition.
  • Keep it simple. Avoid sending multiple messages in an email and rather devote your attention to one key topic. Your email doesn’t have to be long or go into much detail to be well received.
  • Remember your call to action. Make sure your email is clear on purpose so users don’t waste any time wondering how to proceed to action.

What are your favorite tips in designing emails?

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