4 minute read

If you’re a web designer, digital marketer, or print designer expanding your horizons, you’ve probably been tasked with some aspect of email design before. Frankly, great email design is hard. Good email design isn’t a walk in the park either. Whether you’re looking to master the art of great email design, or just looking to get by for today, it’s important to understand some of the big, dumb mistakes you can make and how you can avoid them.

On our podcast, Obsessed With Design with Josh Miles, we sat down with Justine Jordan. Justine is the VP of Marketing at Litmus and has quickly become one of the most well-respected minds on email marketing in the world. During our conversation, we talked a lot about what makes great email design effective. Here are Justine’s biggest tips for avoiding common email design mistakes.

Always Design Mobile-First

Her biggest piece of advice is also the most commonly-given piece of advice in email and web design. Despite its ubiquity in the industry, however, people are still making this mistake every single day. Users are accessing email from their phone more frequently than ever, and if you’re not designing for those users first, you run the risk of isolating them.

This is true of all email marketing efforts, but it’s even more important in industries where your customer is on the go. During our interview, Justine complained about a particular experience she had recently with an airline. They needed to send an alert email out to everyone who would be boarding a particular flight, and when Justine pulled the email up on her phone, it was illegible. She had to pinch and zoom to read the text. It was a terrible user experience. 

This is the cardinal sin of email marketing, and you need to avoid it at all costs.

“You’re emailing a traveler who’s sitting at the airport,” Justine lamented. “The email should be readable on a mobile phone!”

Watch the Difference Between Smart Quotes and Dumb Quotes

This critique will sound nit picky, but if you’re dealing with sophisticated clientele, it’s important that you get it right. You’d never put up a billboard without the appropriate punctuation, so why are so many marketers willing to forgive their design team when their emails feature the wrong type of quote-marks?

“I can’t un-see dumb quotes, which is unfortunate for my team... They know I’ll find them and take screen shots.”

- Justine Jordan

For those of you who may not know, there’s a difference between dumb quotes” and “smart quotes.” Smart quotes are the ones with the curls at the end. Dumb quotes are straight up-and-down, like foot and inches marks. If this is news to you, you’re not alone. Most people don’t know the difference, but designers and sophisticated marketers and copywriters have been harping on this detail since the dawn of the computer.

Admittedly, it is harder to do this right. There’s no distinction on your keyboard between the two marks, so here’s a helpful shorthand HTML guide. NOTE - Remove the space between & and the text when you place in your own code!

  • & rsquo; - “Right single smart quote” or “apostrophe”
  • & lsquo; - “Left single smart quote”
  • & rdquo; - “Right double smart quote”
  • & ldquo; - “Left double smart quote”

Get these right, or you will face the wrath of Justine and her fellow detail-oriented marketers.

“Guys! You’re putting tick marks all over everything!” Justine routinely warns. “Those aren’t apostrophes!”

You Have to Design an Experience for Your Users

Finally, it’s important to consider each individual use case before you design an email. Far too often, Justine receives emails from companies that have clearly forgotten how or why she ended up on their list to begin with. Justine recommends asking yourself the following questions before you design an email:

  • What sort of expectations did you set? 
  • What does this person know about your brand? 
  • How did they hear about you? 
  • Why are you emailing them?

“The opportunity with email is that it is such an incredibly personal medium,” Justine said. “It’s hard to do right.”

As opposed to many designers who have a strong focus on aesthetics, Justine really sets herself apart by focusing on the strategy behind the design. Instead of worrying about what the email looks like, she focuses on what the email does and why it’s necessary.

“When I think about email design, I don’t think about the graphics and the layout,” Justine told us. “I do think about the design thinking behind it, which is the strategy.”