9 email design best practices that will “make all your assets perform better”

Maddy Osman
13min read
Ecommerce industry
December 4, 2023
Featured image

Once you’ve nailed product-market fit, it’s time to focus on how to communicate your product to the rest of the world.

In marketing speak, this where your email design strategy comes into play. Thoughtful, strategic email design can help you accomplish several important things:

  • Reinforce brand identity and affinity
  • Stay top of mind in your subscribers’ headspace
  • Drive traffic to your product pages—and generate revenue
  • Increase open and click rates, which, in turn, can improve your sender reputation and deliverability score

Lisa Livingston, principal customer success manager at Klaviyo, says email design is sometimes overlooked within an omnichannel strategy. But that doesn’t make it any less important.

Well-designed emails will enhance every other part of your strategy. Making sure all of your channels’ designs align will make your brand more recognizable and make all your assets perform better.
Lisa Livingston, principal customer success manager

“Well-designed emails will enhance every other part of your strategy,” Livingston says. “Making sure all of your channels’ designs align will make your brand more recognizable and make all your assets perform better.”

Here are 10 effective tips to make sure your marketing emails are easy on the eyes—and cohesive with your brand’s look and feel.

1. Prepare with a master template

Livingston suggests brands keep a master email template. That way, “each of your emails will have the same font and size for the header, subheader, and text,” she says.

You can even maintain several master templates at once—one for each type of email you send.

While you’re in these early planning stages—before you’ve begun the design process—it’s a good idea to focus on your subject lines and preview text.

“Utilize your voice and tone in the subject line and preview text,” says Morten Bustrup, senior creative director at Elva. “Don’t be afraid to be playful with your copy—you can create a little brand moment.”

Don’t be afraid to be playful with your copy—you can create a little brand moment.
Morten Bustrup, senior creative director

2. Be strategic with your CTAs

You only have to look at your own inbox to know how much competition your marketing emails have. So if you want to drive your readers to product pages, you’ll need to be thoughtful about your calls to action (CTAs).

Here are a few overarching guidelines:

Keep them simple

In order to make sure your emails are easy to scan, consider these strategies for reducing cognitive load:

  • Don’t include too many offers or CTAs.
  • Keep the offers relevant and aligned—to the season, your subject line, and headlines.
  • Use a clutter-free email layout.
  • Avoid overloading with information or images.
  • Make sure there is a CTA above the fold.

“Don’t have more than 3 CTAs in your email,” suggests Alexa Engelhart, vice president, client strategy at Power Digital. “Not only does this tend to make the email very long (and therefore, harder to digest), it also increases the likelihood of users actually not clicking anything at all.”

Don’t have more than 3 CTAs in your email.”
Alexa Engelhart, VP of client strategy
Power Digital

Consider a low-commitment CTA

Nathan Doverspike, customer success manager at Klaviyo, draws a distinction between high-commitment CTAs—like “buy now” and “shop now”—and low-commitment CTAs, like “learn more.”

“There are ways to include CTAs so the reader doesn’t feel pressured. Shoppers can simply be there to learn, to experience, to witness the difference, or to see more,” Doverspike explains.

“Some people experience a mental block with a CTA that pushes them to buy,” Doverspike adds. “A low-commitment CTA helps them get through that block.”

Some people experience a mental block with a CTA that pushes them to buy. A low-commitment CTA helps them get through that block.
Nathan Doverspike, customer success manager

Here, apparel brand FARM Rio puts a creative, on-brand spin on a low-commitment CTA, encouraging readers, “pick your florals”.

Image shows an email campaign from Farm Rio that includes a low-commitment CTA.

Image source: FARM Rio

Use live text and buttons instead of putting text on images

Doverspike also advocates for email marketers to use live text and buttons—any text that isn’t image-based—simply because it makes it easier to A/B test and change aspects of a particular campaign.

That way, you don’t have to go back to your design team and get an entirely new image or a whole new text block just to change one small thing.

This is easy to do in the Klaviyo template editor.

3. Use a mobile-first email design

Without question, today’s consumers are opening emails on mobile devices. That means, as a brand, it’s important to adopt mobile-first email design principles and ensure emails are responsive—meaning they adjust depending on the size and orientation of the screen someone is using to view them.

“Make sure the design is mobile-compatible,” says Adam Kitchen, CEO of Magnet Monster. “It’s simple advice, but so many emails are still designed exclusively for desktop, when the majority of users now consume the content on mobile.

Make sure the design is mobile-compatible.
Adam Kitchen, CEO
Magnet Monster

This means you also need to optimize the length of your subject line and preheader text to fit the mobile inbox. You should also optimize your images for mobile.

A one-column layout works best for mobile devices. Check out OSEA Malibu’s email below for an excellent example of what “perfectly optimized for mobile” looks like in action.

Image shows a marketing email from OSEA Malibu that’s optimized for mobile, with plenty of white space and a clearly visible CTA button.

Image source: OSEA Malibu

4. Personalize your emails

Personalization, based on email segmentation, proves time and time again to outperform email blasts. “It’s your way of voicing who you are to your customer,” Doverspike says. “If you can provide overwhelmed customers with a good, unique experience, they’re more likely to look forward to those emails and even action on them.”

If you can provide overwhelmed customers with a good, unique experience, they’re more likely to look forward to those emails and even action on them.
Nathan Doverspike, customer success manager

“Personalization is one of the best ways to get in front of your highest drivers, your brand enthusiasts, and your high rollers,” Doverspike adds. “Make sure you’re giving them a positive experience to continue that relationship with you.”

Segment your subscribers and customers based on:

  • Products they’ve purchased before
  • Where they are in your funnel in general (such as brand new, only browsing, have purchased several times before)
  • Geographical regions
  • Niche, zero-party information they’ve shared in surveys, quizzes, and on-site forms

Those are only a few examples of how you can segment your audience. But in each of these instances, because you are creating a customized message for that specific segment, the content is already highly personalized in a 1:many way.

Then, to make the email experience feel 1:1, you can incorporate even more customized touches, including:

  • Customers’ first names
  • Product recommendations based on products customers previously browsed
  • Communication at a time the customer is most active and receptive—likely depending on their time zone
  • Special milestones, such as a customer’s birthday, their anniversary of their first purchase with your brand, and major holidays in their region

Here’s a great example of personalization from Charlotte Stone, which sends this email featuring shoes a subscriber browsed earlier in the week.

Image shows a personalized email from Charlotte Stone

Image source: Charlotte Stone

5. Use design to make your brand’s personality shine

Every business has a unique personality. The better you project your brand’s personality, the more brand recognition you build among your base of customers and prospects.

You can use multiple techniques to express your brand’s personality in marketing emails, including:

  • Striking visuals
  • Your brand’s colors and unique color palette
  • Email copy that aligns with your brand’s voice and tone
  • Animations

Australian toilet paper brand Who Gives A Crap sends silly, memorable marketing emails. This call for a subscriber to upgrade their subscription includes bright colors, witty copy, clear product shots, and a reminder that shopping from the brand helps reduce deforestation.

Image shows a silly marketing email from Who Gives A Crap with bright background colors and funny body copy.

Image source: Who Gives A Crap

6. Include an unsubscribe link

You should always provide your customers with an option to unsubscribe from your emails. This is not only a best practice, it’s also required by Gmail and Yahoo starting in February 2024.

Regulations like CAN-SPAM mandate that businesses provide their customers with a way to opt out of their marketing emails. But even without mandates, it’s a best practice to give folks an easy way to get off your list if they don’t want to be there. And, it saves you time in cleaning your list later on.

Plus, if an email doesn’t have the option to unsubscribe, the recipient might mark it as spam—which could have dire consequences for your email deliverability.

Many consumers have grown to expect unsubscribe links in the footer, so make sure yours is there—and visible.

In this email, Girlfriend Collective’s “unsubscribe” button is clear and visible, making it easy for the subscriber to opt out.

Image shows a marketing email from Girlfriend Collective with a visible unsubscribe button.

Image source: Girlfriend Collective

Some brands add an unsubscribe link in the email header, too, to make it even easier for recipients to unsubscribe.

7. Design for accessibility

You want to meet your subscribers where they are, not halfway.

So, make sure you follow accessibility best practices, including:

  • Writing subject lines and preview text that’s short, descriptive, and succinct
  • Adding alt text to all of your images
  • Leaving important information out of images
  • Using contrasting colors
  • Using headers to separate ideas
  • Using descriptive language in links

Check out this marketing email from JOGGY that follows accessibility best practices: the colors are contrasted and the important information is laid out in a chart—not overlaid on an image.

Image shows a marketing email from Joggy that follows accessibility guidelines.

Image source: Joggy

8. Design for dark and light modes

Along that same line of thinking, you’ll want to design for dark mode. Lots of people keep their smartphones in dark mode even in the daytime, and this can create both a challenge and an opportunity for marketing emails.

Klaviyo even allows you to select a specific person from your email list to view the email the way they would see it.

Bustrup stresses ensuring a seamless user experience no matter what mode the recipient’s phone is in.

Beauty brand Wildling optimizes their marketing emails for both light and dark mode, as seen in comparison below.

Image shows a comparison of the same email, in light mode on the left and dark mode on the right. The body copy is the same in both.

Image source: Wildling Beauty

9. A/B test your emails

Designing beautiful emails alone isn’t sufficient. You also need to test if they work. A slight change in one of your email design elements may translate to a significant change in performance.

Consider A/B testing your email design by:

  • Adding or removing the navigation bar
  • Changing fonts
  • Adding or removing product blocks
  • Varying colors
  • Experimenting with different CTAs
  • Mixing up your subject line copy

It’s best to test only one variable at a time to get precise results.

After sending out each variation, you can track email performance metrics like open and click rates to determine which design works better. Klaviyo offers conditional splits in email flows to help you A/B test your emails more effectively.

Image shows an A/B test in Klaviyo, an email marketing tool

Image source: Klaviyo

Meal delivery service Sakara Life conducted this A/B test to include a product block in one email and to leave it out of the other. The email on the left, including a product block, performed better, with a higher click rate.

Image shows an A/B test from Sakara Life, which can determine which email has better readability and help increase click-through rates.

Image source: Sakara Life

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Email design FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions about email design.

How to design an email?

There are several best practices for designing an eye-catching email that drives engagement and conversions in your campaigns and automations:

Maintain a master template.

Be strategic with your CTAs.

Use a mobile-first email design.

Make your brand’s personality shine through.

Include an unsubscribe link.

Design for accessibility.

A/B test your emails.

What is a responsive email design?

A responsive email design adjusts based on the size and orientation of the screen the recipient is using to view it.

What is an email template design?

An email template is an HTML file that contains content substitutes (e.g., content, links, CTA, user-specific information, etc.). A good email template enables you to easily copy and re-use its contents for an email marketing campaign.

Maddy Osman
Maddy Osman
Maddy Osman is the author of Writing for Humans and Robots: The New Rules of Content Style. She's a digital native with a decade-long devotion to creating engaging, accessible, and relevant content. Her efforts have earned her a spot in BuzzSumo’s Top 100 Content Marketers and The Write Life’s 100 Best Websites for Writers. She has spoken for audiences at WordCamp US, SearchCon, and Denver Startup Week.