Email Design Basics & Terms to Know

Melanie Balke
June 26, 2023

Your email design says a lot about you. It’s your big first impression, and you don’t want to mess it up!

Unfortunately, it’s also a complicated topic. The average email design can be broken into dozens of different parts, and each part comes with its own unique vocabulary. How can you, as an already hard-working business owner, possibly have time to understand it all? Even worse… How can you discuss your needs with a skilled designer?

First of all: Don’t freak out!

I’m here to help!

Today’s blog post is dedicated to all the lingo you need to know to be in the email design loop. Keep reading, and you’ll be talking like a designer by the time you’re finished!

Types of Email Campaigns

Rows of riveted metal. "Emails: The Different Types of Emails."

Before you can even think about the visuals of your email design, you must know what type of email you’re sending and make sure to hire a freelance designer with a lot of experience.

No! I don’t mean the email campaign goal. That’s an entirely different story.

I’m talking about the actual content of the email, which can be broken down into two massive categories.

The Plain-Text Email

Drawings for a typewriter patent. Overlaid text reads, "Plain-Text: The no-frills fallback for all your email marketing needs."

The first category is the easiest to master.

A plain-text email is what it says on the box. It’s a no-frills email campaign that relies on pure copy. In its purest form, you won’t even have linked text! It’ll just be your words, your website, and your audience.

Notably, every campaign — regardless of its fancy layout — should have a plain-text fallback. After all, if a user can’t view the richer elements of an advanced email, this simplistic version will be your saving grace! Such email campaigns also guarantee viewership, regardless of device or browser version.

The best results come from standardized plain-text email templates. And don’t forget your essential links, too; even plain-text emails need an unsubscribe link.

The Rich HTML Email

Ocean waves. "Rich HTML: The gorgeous everyday email campaign."

The second category is the most common.

The rich HTML email (or, for the curious among us, the rich hypertext markup language email) is a mix of written and visual content. These email campaigns include images, links, and variable levels of complexity. Moreover, unlike their plain-text counterparts, designers can embed different fonts to make the marketing materials more interesting!

You can get as complicated as you want with these campaigns, and some brands have used advanced coding skills to create interactive elements within users’ inboxes. However, if you’re just starting out, it’s okay to send out simple text-only campaigns. (Even massive brands still send text-only emails!)

In addition to fonts, images, and links, a rich HTML email can include any of the following elements:

  • Additional code (e.g., CSS and JavaScript)
  • Built-in shopping carts
  • Charts, tables, and assorted figures
  • Customizable templates
  • Embedded videos (via internal servers or video hosting websites)
  • Interactive questionnaires or surveys
  • Multiple columns and advanced layouts
  • Personalized content

Now, you don’t need to (and really shouldn’t) cram all of these parts into a single email design! You can mix and match them as you please. Maybe you want personalized emails with embedded video content. Or, perhaps, you need a segmented email campaign with a simple one-column layout. HTML email designs can handle it all, even something as complicated as…

Interactive Email Designs

Toys on a shelf. "Interactive Emails: Complex email designs with fully immersive features."


It may sound strange, but you can make immersive inbox experiences. You’ll need some coding skills, though!

The simplest forms of interactive content rely on clever mixes of CSS-powered dynamic effects, internal JavaScript, and HTML. Together, these elements create emails with varying levels of interactivity. The results can be amazing, but they rely on email clients that support JavaScript.

An alternative approach is an AMP email, powdered by Google’s accelerated mobile pages (AMP) technology. These emails can really boost your engagement, but they don’t work on multiple email clients.

Either way, you’ll need more than a pinch of HTML knowledge!

Playing Nice with Mobile Devices

A number pad. "Mobile Device: Deliver Emails Anywhere."

You’ll also want to know how to make your email design work on desktops and mobile devices.

Mobile-first email design is a popular solution, but it’s just one of many modern approaches to this problem.

As far as email design goes, your mobile compatibility overlaps with every other element of your campaigns. You’ll see plenty of the terms in other sections of this article throughout your mobile design journey, so I’ll keep this section brief.

In fact, there’s only one major vocab term to know that’s unique to the field of mobile devices! And that is…

Responsive Design

A flip phone. "Responsive Emails: A common way to deliver dynamic content to anyone."

A responsive email design relies on multiple internal factors to respond to its display.

In other words, the email retrieved information from email readers’ devices — primarily the device and browser. Then, using that information, the content either shrinks or expands to fit the page. This gives users the option to view emails vertically and horizontally. More importantly, it makes any campaign work on desktops and mobile devices.

Parts of an Email Marketing Campaign

A 1902 drawing for a camera patent. "The Parts: What Makes an Email Design?"

Now, let’s look at the actual email.

Everything has its place.

Everything has a purpose.

So, let’s do a digital dissection. Your content can be broken into distinct parts, each with its own unique title and purpose. Every email is made of the same parts, regardless of whether you’re contacting desktop-based office workers or vacationing mobile users.

The Email Layout

Plans for fort layouts. "Email Layout: The catch-all phrase for your overall email design."

One of the biggest parts of an email design is the overall layout. As a whole, an “email layout” encompasses everything a reader sees in a message. It’s the totality of your email, the overall concept, and the intended message.

The body copy, call to action, and design are just a few parts of an email layout.

However, since we haven’t really looked at the anatomy of an email, now is the perfect time to start dissecting!

The Body and Body Copy

Assorted letters. "Body: The meat and potatoes of your email marketing campaigns."

The body of an email is the large chunk of content following your header. It’s where you put all that good, tasty information.

In email design and marketing, a message’s body usually includes text and images. However, image- or text-only campaigns are also common.

This is where you’ll have a chance to push your brand identity. Your body copy can be as serious or as whimsical as you want; ultimately, it’s about what grabs a reader’s attention. You’re (usually) trying to appeal to your target audience in as few words as possible. (Long-form emails are an exception. Examples of such campaigns include informative articles, news roundups, and newsletters.)

The Oh-So-Important Call to Action

Fire. "The CTA: How your users interact with your content."

Next, we have your call-to-action link — usually referred to as a CTA. This may be a button, icon, image, or plain text. Regardless of the format, the idea is the same.

You’re trying to entice action. You want email readers to click on this link!

The best CTAs convey their purpose with a few words. These short, snappy, and actionable redirects keep your emails mobile-friendly. More importantly, shorter blurbs tend to attract higher click-through rates.

Position-wise, a CTA can be placed at the beginning or end of an email design; some designers may even put it in the middle! Think about the flow of your content. How do readers progress through your email message? Your goal is to stick that CTA in the most enticing place possible. You want it at the apex of your email users’ excitement!

Again, this is usually the end of an email. However, an additional CTA at the top is a great way to pull in impatient readers.

Email Footers

A cube-like abstract design. "Footers: The closing text and disclaimers for your emails."

The next part is less exciting, but it’s still important!

An email footer is part of many pre-made templates, and it’s always found at the end of a message. These standardized email elements tend to be multi-line affairs that contain important links. Most brands use footers to display physical addresses and eye-catching banners. You’ll also want to include unsubscribe links and any pertinent legal disclaimers. Some designers also use this space for social media icons.


A wavy abstract design. "Headers: Titles that catch a reader's attention and keep them engaged."

Finally, we have our headers. Think of these as your email message’s subject line.

They’re big, bold, and eye-catching!

Generally, you’ll have one big header at the beginning of your email design. This is your title, and it’s coded as header level one. Each subsequent header is a subheader, and these go in ascending order (H1, H2, H3, and so on).

You’ll usually want to use plain text for your headers. However, if you choose to use an image, be sure to include appropriate descriptive alt text! Otherwise, you’re excluding a massive chunk of your audience from your email communications.

Email Elements

A brick wall. "Email Elements: All the Little Things."

Now that we know the structure let’s look at the building blocks.

Your email elements are the little odds and ends, and they all come together to form your email marketing.

These terms may seem simple, but there are some technicalities you should know about. In fact, these details can be the difference between gorgeous dynamic content and run-of-the-mill marketing campaigns!


A Sony camera with a Canon lens. "Images: Eye-catching visuals elevate your email design."

Anyone can add images to an email design. Modern user-friendly drag-and-drop editors have made cumbersome attachments a thing of the past. Now, anyone can craft gorgeous mobile-friendly emails with a few clicks.

But that’s not the end of the story!

Engaging images are worth a thousand words, but they take up space.

Yes, those gorgeous decorative features may be adding unnecessary bandwidth to your campaigns. Fortunately, there are ways to use custom images without maxing out your email design!

One of the easiest ways to minimize your email’s size is to know your file formats. As part of this ultimate guide post, I’ve included a list of the three formats you should know. Check it out!

  • GIF (Graphic Interchange Format): These images are ideal for animated or low-detail content. Their use is limited by their 8-bit-based 256-color palette.
  • JPG and JPEG (Joint Portable Export Group): Both JPG and JPEG files remain common in modern web design. They’re able to support large images with small file sizes, although they suffer from quality loss with repeated editing. Moreover, you cannot make transparent JPEG files.
  • PNG (Portable Network Graphic): Like GIFs, PNGs support transparency and animation. However, these files also offer lossless compression (unlike JPEGs) and a massive color palette. This format is ideal for transparent images, and it’s perfect for graphics containing large swathes of a single color.


A chain link fence. "Links: Send your subscribers to the right destination."

You’ll also have links.

These blocks of text (or, in some cases, images) often redirect users to external landing pages, although some also lead to internal anchors. Either way, links are an essential part of any email, and email recipients will be left baffled if you fail to include any.

Links appear as underlined blue text by default, but you can use CSS and HTML coding to incorporate on-brand colors.

There are two major types of links in both email and web design:

  • External Links lead to an external landing page. More often than not, you’re directing readers to item pages or your storefront.
  • Internal Links rely on internal code and anchor text. When clicked, these links automatically move a user to a predefined section of a webpage.

Links can also come in a few different flavors, namely:

  • Buttons use CSS, HTML, or JavaScript to display dynamic content. These links look like a standard web buttons, but they redirect users to the desired location when clicked.
  • Image Links may rely on custom content or predefined icons. When using an image, designers should use the alt text to tell users where they’re going rather than describing the content.
  • Plain Text links are what they sound like. They’re no-frills links that work well on any platform, making them perfect mobile-friendly solutions for any email campaign.

In addition to your CTA, you’ll always use some sort of link for your unsubscribe button and any legal disclaimers.

Let the Pros Handle Your Email Designs

Overlapping leaves. "Find the Pros: How Can We Help You?"

That’s a lot of information, and we’ve barely scratched the surface! There’s still so much more to learn about email design. From web fonts and dynamic content to email clients and landing pages, you’re still at the tip of the design iceberg.

Feeling overwhelmed?

That’s okay! I’d even say it’s understandable.

You have so much to do as a business owner, and perfecting an email design isn’t at the top of your priorities, right? Who even has time to tweak and fine-tune an email layout?

Well, I have an answer! At The Email Marketers, you’ll find a team of specialists dedicated to just that. My hand-picked pros know everything — from marketing to visuals — and we can take your email marketing to the next level.

Ready to see what we can do?

Get in touch, and we’ll have a free strategy session! I’ll show you how we can elevate any email design and catch the right reader’s attention. In the meantime, check out the rest of my blog! I have plenty more guides on email marketing.