Tips and Tricks to Make the Best Email Design

Melanie Balke
May 30, 2023

In the cluttered world of email marketing, nothing makes a brand stand out like a gorgeous email design.

The visual appeal of well-composed email campaigns captures email readers like nothing else, and it has the power to reinforce a company’s brand identity. It’s the difference between a run-of-the-mill email marketing campaign and an overwhelmingly successful marketing win! So, why isn’t everyone investing more time into their email designs?

For most brands, there’s a massive learning curve. Most entrepreneurs don’t have enough time to learn about graphic design. Or, maybe, they think that they need coding skills to realize their vision. (Spoiler alert: You don’t!)

Fortunately, I’m here to bring you the ultimate guide to basic email design!

Keep reading to learn how you can turn your marketing emails into attention-grabbing masterpieces.

The Essential Elements of Email Design

Abstract paint on a canvas. "The Basics: Essential Elements of Email Design."

Let’s start from the beginning.

There are plenty of things that go into an email. Aside from the copy, you also have images, links, and visual flourishes. You’ll also need to include your requisite links and branding. And you need to deliver information in a straightforward, easy-to-understand way.

It’s a daunting task, but it’s much easier when you break it down into bite-sized chunks.

At its core, every email marketing campaign is a combination of five visual elements:

  • Branding
  • The call-to-action
  • Font
  • Images
  • Visual hierarchy

Skillfully mixing these elements results in a cohesive narrative, while misguided applications of the same ideals create an inconsistent display.

Brand Identity in Email Marketing

A smoky pattern. "Branding: The elements and styles that make your brand unique."

Your brand identity is a mix of everything.

It’s your color scheme, font choice, images, and writing.

More precisely, it’s what happens when you combine those elements to form your marketing campaigns. Over time, these ideas become synonymous with your brand, and that consistency becomes a valuable feature of your content.

While it’s important to have a cohesive brand, that’s not the focus of today’s blog post. Nonetheless, you should keep brand consistency in mind as you consider the next few points.

The Call-to-Action Button

A classical painting. Overlaid text reads, "The CTA: How your users interact with your content."

Unlike personal correspondence, most email marketing has a monetary or relational goal. (Your personal emails might have those goals, too, though; I’m not going to judge!) The call-to-action button — commonly abbreviated as the CTA — facilitates these interactions.

Some people use plain-text links, while others prefer interactive elements. Your final choice depends on brand consistency and audience. Either way, the bottom line is that this seemingly tiny feature is one of the most important details of every email campaign!

Most CTAs are linked to a specific landing page. However, you can also have a call-to-action that leads to a reservation form, social media page, survey, or user preference page.

Font Choice Matters, Too!

A typewriter. Overlaid text reads, "Font Choice: The visual 'voice' of your email marketing."

Another small but essential detail for your email marketing is font choice.

The font is your chosen typeface. It’s an instantly recognizable part of every email message, and it’s also one of the hardest choices you’ll make as you start your email marketing journey!

After all, you need a multi-functional master to represent your brand’s voice! Sure, you can use Arial and be done with it, but that’s not the best solution.

The ideal font will mesh well with your email templates while supporting dynamic content without a hitch. It should be readable yet iconic, and it should resonate with your target audience.

If You Want to Add Images…

A close-up of a camera lens. "Images: High-quality visuals add plenty of flair to your emails."

You’ll also have to consider your image choices.

If you’re in the habit of sending most campaigns as a rich HTML email, this won’t be much of an issue. However, you’ll still need to worry about some essentials — namely, your company logo and social media icons.

Many brands use custom images to enhance their campaigns. Both professional photos and user-generated content count towards your email design.

Fortunately, you won’t (usually) need coding skills to add some visual appeal. Most email marketing platforms offer drag-and-drop builders with embedded photo functions. However, you’ll need to know the behind-the-scenes magic if you’re aiming to send out anything advanced, such as an interactive responsive design.

The Visual Hierarchy

The Mona Lisa on display at the Louvre, placed within an ornate frame. Overlaid text reads, "The Eye-Catcher: Use visual hierarchy to emphasize what's important."

Finally, we have this technical term.

It sounds fancy, but “visual hierarchy” is another way of saying “focal point.” And, if you weren’t a huge fan of art class, both of these terms describe how a viewer’s gaze naturally progresses through content.

In the context of art, the focal point was often at the apex of a shape — in most classical cases, a triangle — and the viewer’s gaze was naturally drawn downward by smaller points of interest.

Think of the Mona Lisa. Naturally, your eye land on her face. Then, they travel to her hands.

It may come as a surprise, but emails work on the same principle! Your recipient’s attention is drawn to the main focal point — usually the header text — and travels around from there.

The Building Blocks of Email Branding and Design

A classical painting of flowers. "A Strong Base: Color, Layout, and Organization."

Now that we understand the lingo, let’s dive into the technical side.

Buckle up because it’s about to get a little wild!

To kick things off, I’ll start with what I call the “building blocks” of email design. These elements aren’t hefty enough to warrant their own section, but they’re far from inconsequential!

Cultivate a Color Scheme to Send the Right Message

Dirtied paint brushes. "Color: Identify your brand, capture the user's attention, and more!"

Colors are huge parts of an email design.

They’re an easy way to distinguish your brand and add visual appeal to otherwise bland campaigns. Unfortunately, they’re also an easy way to derail an otherwise gorgeous design.

While I can’t tell you what color your marketing email should be, I can give you a handy tip!

Aside from the obvious choice of slapping your brand’s color on every email, you can switch things up to capture a reader’s imagination! Bright colors are a wonderful way to emphasize interactive elements and — unlike fonts and complex layouts — work well on multiple screen sizes.

Moreover, email designs that use just text can utilize eye-popping colors to add some texture to otherwise bland campaigns.

Find a Functional Layout

Rows of diagonally arranged art. "Layout: Make sure you're sending readable content."

You must also consider your layout as you draft email designs.

While flashy multi-column layouts can capture a reader’s attention, they’re prime targets for technical issues. Many complex designs may look great in your email builder, but the final result is wildly variable.

The simplest solution is to use a one-column layout, although that’s not your only option.

Some daring marketers have used web design principles to make adaptive layouts with specialized visuals for the browser version. Others have used decorative features to mask an otherwise monotonous single-column design.

That being said, complex designs require complex knowledge.

Remember, too, that you can use more than one email design; many large brands have multiple customizable templates for different campaigns.

Remember to Organize Your Content

A person using a graphic tablet. "Organization: Make your emails stand out with properly organized content."

Finally, you want to make sure your email campaigns are well-organized.

Even short blurbs benefit from clearly defined headers! This essential concept guides your visual hierarchy and influences your all-important plain-text fallback. A properly drafted email design also improves accessibility!

Generally, you want to follow the header-content format, wherein every header is followed by relevant body text. You should also avoid using tables unless absolutely necessary, as the content within these elements confuses many screenreaders.

Choosing the Right Fonts

A printing press. Overlaid text reads, "Fonts Define Your Brand."

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a closer look at some of the most important elements.

I’ll start with the font.

Your font is an instantly recognizable way to distinguish yourself from your competition.

It can be formal, fun, or whimsical, but it should always be legible. Moreover, designers should double-check that their chosen font plays nicely with email clients on mobile devices. Otherwise, you may end up with a jumbled mess of Wingdings!

The Different Font Styles

For starters, there are three basic font styles: decorative, sans-serif, and serif.

Each of these choices is unique, and they all have their place. That being said, you don’t always have to play by the rules!

Serif Fonts

A formal tuxedo. "Serif Fonts: Give your emails a formal look with a classic serif font."

Were you ever assigned a school paper and told to type it in “Times New Roman, 12 point font, double spaced” format? Or, for the most experienced crowd, maybe you were assigned a paper and told to use a typewriter of some sort to compose the contents?

In either case, you used a serif font!

A graphic highlights the decorative caps of the letters T, E, and M. A note adds that the style has been popular since the late 1400s.

The “serif” is just a fancy name for the lines (formally known as “caps”) at the ends of letters.

Serif is the oldest of the three formal font families. Interestingly enough, its origins can be traced all the way back to the original printing press! The first serif fonts were inspired by Renaissance calligraphy, and it turns out they looked pretty spiffy on the rough, uneven paper used in older books.

This distinguished lineage makes serif styles a great choice for companies looking to showcase experience, formality, and professionalism in emails. Outside of digital communication, this font family offers plenty of flexibility in print. However, keep in mind that most serif styles — such as Georgia, Tahoma, and Times New Roman — are often seen as “old-fashioned.”


Assorted typeface templates. "Sans-Serif: A modern standard that works well at any size."

Historically known as a “grotesque” style, sans-serif fonts have come a long way since their introduction. The first popular sans-serif design was Futura, created in 1928. As its name implies, this style lacks the flourishing end caps of traditional fonts.

Today, sans-serif choices like Arial, Futura, Helvetica, and Roboto are ubiquitous facets of online interactions. Their legibility at low resolutions has made these styles a favorite of designers worldwide, and their legibility at a distance earned them a spot on American highway signs.

If you’re looking for a good, neutral choice, then sans-serif is the way to go! It’s the bread and butter of modern design and works well on desktops and mobile devices. Its widespread use makes it a great way to fulfill email readers’ expectations, and breaking that convention can help a design pop.

Unlike traditional serif font families, sans-serif text looks great at any resolution. It’s perfect for anything that requires a tiny font size! (Just check out any disclaimers on a television ad to see what I mean.)

Notably, most email clients default to a generic sans-serif font if your content has no pre-defined style. Arial is the most popular choice, although it may also be a non-standard font.

Decorative Fonts

Assorted printing press blocks. Overlaid text reads, "Decorative: Flashy Looks to Spice Up Your Designs."

Finally, there are decorative fonts. This category also includes handwriting-like “script” fonts, often used for embellishment within standard campaigns.

These styles don’t fall into the traditional categories, and their unique look makes them ideal for headers. However, their non-standard nature also makes them tricky to work with and implement.

When possible, avoid decorative fonts if you’re looking for mobile-friendly solutions.

These options have poor readability at smaller resolutions and may even confuse your target audience. If you absolutely must use a fancier font, consider adding it within a larger image and adding a well-written alt-text description.

How to Choose the Right Font

Assorted printing press blocks. Overlaid text reads, "Keep It Legible: Avoid overly flowery or excessively complex font choices."

Regardless of which style you pick, the bottom line is that your email must be legible. Otherwise, nobody’s going to take the time to read it!

Most default email templates come with suggested font styles — generally sans-serif. If you’re ever unsure about your readability, best practices suggest you should stick to that suggestion. However, if you want to try something bolder, you should always view a preview of your emails before sending them.

Pay particular attention to mobile previews, as responsive emails may turn formerly wonderful font choices into tiny word salads. Remember: Your font should grab a reader’s attention, but they should also be able to read your content.

Understanding Images and Attachments

A newspaper press. Overlaid text reads, "Media: Images Tell Stories."

Speaking of images and previews, there’s a standard for those, too!

When you find a good email template, you’ll usually see a few default images that go with it. These email elements add visual appeal to your content, but they’re also a potential point of failure.

Again, previewing your campaigns is one of the best practices to keep in your advertising arsenal, and doing so will help you nail your layouts and optimize your mobile designs.

Rules to Know

The key points to know as you create marketing emails revolve around visual appearance and functionality. Large images are great for printing and web design, but they can severely limit the reach of your email campaigns.

Generally, you’ll want your images to meet the following requirements:

  • At least 600 pixels wide
  • Between 20–70 pixels tall for smaller features (i.e., headers)
  • Between 2,000–2,500 pixels tall for full-length images or backgrounds
  • Up to 203 KB maximum

Note that any email with more than 203 KB of data may be “clipped,” and its images will fail to load. In these situations, users must agree to display the content, lowering the overall effectiveness of your marketing email.

Mastering the Visual Hierarchy

Assorted photos. Overlaid text reads, "Hierarchy: Understanding Tendencies."

Finally, I want to dig deeper into the visual hierarchy.

Everything — from books, manuals, and newspapers to films, paintings, and sculptures — has a visual hierarchy. Or, maybe, people have a natural tendency to focus on certain elements in a specific order.

There are many ways to manipulate a reader’s attention and switch up the reading flow, but the essential triad consists of color, contrast, and size.

The Natural Order of Things

A film camera with overlaid text, "How It Works: Most content is read left-to-right and top-to-bottom."

For starters, an email has its own built-in visual pull.

Most emails (unless you’re writing for a language that reads right-to-left) will be read left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Most email designs take advantage of this tendency and design according to these principles.

The only major exceptions are language-dependant. Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Yiddish are just a few examples of languages with a right-to-left reading flow. Moreover, written Chinese and Japanese are traditionally read top-to-bottom and right-to-left.

In these specific use cases, an email marketer may want to design unique campaigns for these audiences.

Using Color to Spice Up Your Email Design

A film projector. "Color: Use color to emphasize important elements in your email designs."

Aside from being one of the easiest ways to make on-brand emails, color is an important part of an email’s visual appeal.

Most modern email design focuses on bright colors and eye-catching visuals, but you can absolutely play with those conventions.

I’ll illustrate this with a simple example. If I type most of my content in black, the default font color, and then suddenly switch to bright red, you’ll probably focus on the colorful content. (This relates to contrast, but we’re not covering that yet.)

Moreover, an email design can use colors to tell a story. Welcome emails tend to have cool, calming colors — such as green, blue, or teal — to make users feel at ease. Conversely, sales emails may use warm colors — red, yellow, orange, and so on — to convey a sense of energetic urgency.

Fortunately for everyone, modern user-friendly drag-and-drop editors have made coloring your content simple. And, if you ever encounter problems, most software comes with an on-call support team.

Create Contrast to Emphasize Your Content

Assorted plants. "Contrast: Break from expectations to create interest and add texture."

Another way to boost the numbers in your campaign monitor is to use contrast.

Now, most people will think of color when I mention contrast.

Yes, pairing clashing colors can result in eye-catching contrast. In fact, you’ve probably encountered the principle without realizing it! Sci-fi movies often use the red-blue dichotomy to display good and evil (looking at you, Star Wars) or orange and blue to create a uniquely vivid scene. Going back a little further, you have the captivating switch from black-and-white to color in The Wizard of Oz.


You can also use your email design to your advantage.

More specifically, you can break conventions.

Think about it this way: If your entire email — from the headers and subject line to the body copy — is left-aligned, using a center- or right-aligned block will naturally draw your audience’s attention to that content. Or, perhaps, your email design is largely centered! In this situation, pulling a header to the left or right can highlight particularly important information.

Similarly, you can use a different font to emphasize something. However, be mindful of which font you use. Don’t go too wild with your choices, lest you end up with something entirely illegible.

Draw Attention With Size

Egyptian hieroglyphs on a vaulted ceiling. Overlaid text reads, "Size: A reader's atttention naturally goes the the largest objects."

Finally, you can use the old-fashioned method of scale.

When we encounter content — written or otherwise — we generally look at the largest thing first. This tendency was noted as far back as Ancient Egypt, whose artists depicted importance through a figure’s size.

In the context of email design, you want to balance your content’s size with plenty of white space. CSS-powered dynamic effects allow designers to create content that scales with a user’s display, making for gorgeous, responsive emails. Moreover, when dealing with interactive elements (i.e., CTAs, links, and surveys), white space becomes an accessibility issue.

Again, use your software’s native previewing functions to ensure your content is mobile-friendly. Testing should also be done on a client-level basis, as some email clients do not support JavaScript and similar formatting tools.

It would take an entire blog post for me to write an ultimate guide to font size, but a good rule to follow is that interactive elements should have more white space, and content must be designed accordingly. Conversely, body text (particularly disclaimers and patter) requires less white space, as it usually doesn’t include anything for the user to click.

Stop Worrying! Work With The Email Marketers

Overlapping leaves. "Make It Easy: Hire a Team of Experts."

At this point, it may seem like the perfect welcome email is out of reach.

Who has enough time to understand all of this, much less implement it for dozens of email clients?

It’s hard to run a small business, but you can make things easier. Invest in a team of always-available experts at The Email Marketers, and stop worrying about your email design. We’ll handle it all, even your email templates, and we’ll do the hard work to generate leads, too!

Give me a call and schedule a free strategy session today! And don’t forget to browse the rest of my blog for more tips and tricks to amplify your email marketing!