The 2013 Litmus Email Design Conference

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I just made the extremely last-minute decision to fork out the dosh and attend the Litmus Email Design Conference in London in October! I am very excited to attend and mingle with all my email-loving mates from around the world.

If you also have impeccable taste and decide to attend the conference in London, I’ll look forward to seeing you there!

Great Examples: Code School’s beautifully responsive Summer Camp email

This has been a great week for email design! Look at this little beauty by Dan Denney for Code School, with amazing illustrations by Justin Mezzell. Dan has done a great job with the email build and it’s fully fluid, adapting to absolutely any size. All of the illustrations and text scale perfectly. (Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the email that I could pop into Litmus Scope, but Dan did kindly share the code on Twitter!)

Click to view full size

The illustrations and colour palette all blend perfectly with the Summer Camp site which is also very beautifully designed. Brilliant! I just can’t stop using exclamation marks for this one.

I love these illustrations!
I love these illustrations!

Great Examples: Tinkering Monkey’s excellent responsive email

My buddy Niall sent me this fantastic responsive email from Tinkering Monkey and I absolutely love it. It’s really well designed, fits in so wonderfully with their beautiful website, and is fabulously responsive. It’s proof of what’s possible using the built in template editor over at MailChimp with a great design, great images and some clever customisation know-how.

Once I saw the email I immediately sent an email to Paula Chang, the developer at Tinkering Monkey who is also responsible for their lovely website. I asked her a couple of questions about the process and she kindly spared a moment to give me her thoughts.

What were some great resources or sources of inspiration that helped with creating your responsive email?
When I designed the HTML, I designed it to look as close to our website as possible ( MailChimp gets credit for the responsive layout – they did an excellent job with their new email builder.

Were there any pitfalls or tricky aspects?
Didn’t really find any – again, MailChimp’s new email builder made it super easy.

Any other thoughts on the overall process of building responsive HTML email?
Keep the design simple and scannable!

Tommasso Font from the Lost Type Co-Op
Tommasso typeface by Eli Horn from the Lost Type Co-Op

I love the bold use of a huge header that then shrinks down beautifully on mobile. Sometimes people are afraid to use enormous type but I always think it’s a total winner, especially with such a short, punchy headline. This email also makes great use of the free typeface Tommaso which looks particularly good at large sizes.

Red text links are easy to spot

Using a contrasting red for links makes them very easy to spot as you scan through. Excellent photography is also a big help, and of course having lovely products in the first place doesn’t hurt!

Well done to Paula and the team at Tinkering Monkey.

Creating a Responsive HTML Email Newsletter for Codecademy

Codecademy HTML Email Newsletter in Android Mail

Note: This article has been updated to include information on revisions that were applied to the template after seeing how it performed and how it was being used.

I recently had the pleasure of converting Codecademy’s monthly email newsletter into a responsive one. I thought I would share the process because it is a nice example of creating a responsive template from an existing newsletter without redesigning the desktop version.

The Desktop Template

This is the Desktop template that I created which is almost identical to the original supplied files from Codecademy. The only change that I made was switching the view online text from ‘Email looking funny? Let’s try it in your browser.’ to ‘View this email in your browser here.’ This was changed simply to keep it positive since sometimes this text can sneak into the preheader if the actual preheader isn’t long enough. It also suggests that we’ve made a quality email and people can view it in their browser if they need to, rather than suggesting to all that we’ve built a faulty email!

Click to view at full size

Setting the breakpoints

This design actually has three ‘breakpoints’ or set sizes at which a certain layout displays. There is the desktop design, then there is an in-between size where the tiny text links (in the header and footer) turn to buttons, but the main call to action buttons are not full width. Finally, there is the smaller mobile size, at which the main buttons are full-width.

I do this because I like my layouts to be flexibly responsive and take up the full width of whatever device they are on, but there is a point at which it looks ridiculous to have full-width buttons (anything over 400px). This is as easy as setting up two sets of media queries:

Creating a mobile-friendly header

On mobile, I wanted the date to be big enough to read, and the social media icons to be big enough to see and far apart enough to tap comfortably. Even though I wanted them bigger,  I didn’t want them to overpower the masthead logo and name, so I was able to take advantage of the fact that mobile email clients support the opacity property which I set to 0.5. I also created versions of the social icons a 2x their normal size so that they would look great on high resolution smartphones. I also styled up the ‘View this email in your browser here’ link so that it would turn into a nice, big tappable button on mobile.

The social media icons are enlarged on mobile

The CSS:

Creating the headings

Version 1

I wanted to keep the swirly dashed headings, but avoid them just scaling down on mobile — they would be tiny and the text would be illegible.

Left: Desktop, Right: Mobile view
Left: Desktop, Right: Mobile view

To solve this problem, I created a style in the media queries that set the header image to display: none; and then applied that same image as a background image on that same cell. Using the code below in the media queries, it was positioned in the centre but maintained its height. This meant that as the cell got narrower, it would just obscure the edges of the images. I also saved them out at @2x their size so that they would look nice on high resolution screens.

[It turns out that we need a more flexible method for the headings because they actually need to change every month. I’m in the process of developing a hybrid image/text solution for these headings.]

Version 2

It turned out to be much more versatile (and simpler) to have plain text headings so that these can be changed every month. You can’t argue with simplicity!

Creating the buttons

The buttons were a tricky point. (I still haven’t found a method of creating buttons that I am 100% happy with because each method has its pros and cons.)

Version 1

For the first version, I used Stig’s Bulletproof Button Generator to create the buttons so that they rendered well in everything, including Outlook, and the clickable area covers the entire button (not just the text). The trade-off is the fact that using this method means the entire button will appear in the inverse colour on click in Outlook (see image below).

The alternative was to create buttons that LOOK like buttons, but where only the text is clickable/tappable, so the active space is smaller and they can feel a bit weird to use. It’s a quandary!

This is a problem that I hope to fix in a new version of this template as, even though the majority of subscribers are on mobile devices, I still don’t think it’s ideal if it isn’t perfect.

When using a fill in VML as a link, Outlook will invert the colour of the shape on click

Version 2

In the revised version of the template, I switched back from the generator buttons to  this simpler style of button with a smaller clickable area. On mobile, I add some padding around the text to make the buttons larger and this means that when you tap on them, a fairly significant portion of the button does appear to be active. On desktop, you need to click on the text, but accuracy is much easier on a desktop using a mouse pointer.

Each button is its own little table:

The result.
The result.

Easy-to-tap footer and text links

I added some media queries to bump up the size of the footer links and turn them into nice, big comfortable buttons.

I also turned the text links in the copy into easily tappable buttons on mobile as I think that text links can often get quite lost on mobile. The code is so simple to do this, that there is no reason not to:

Optimising the Alt Tags

Finally, I optimised the alt tags for the best possible experience, even with images turned off.

Some email and webmail clients simply display big ugly grey boxes instead of images ( and some show gaps with little icons and no alt text (Outlook) but some clients do have very nice alt text display which makes it worthwhile optimising your alt tags for when images are turned off.

Below is a screenshot of Gmail in Firefox with images disabled. (This is arguably the best case of alt tag display.) Where appropriate, I centred the alt text, made it the same colour as the headings and bumped up the font size so that it was clearly legible. For the tiny Facebook and Twitter icons, I made the alt text a “t” and an “f” that are still almost recognisable as social media icons. Voila! A usable email, even without images loaded.

That’s a wrap!

Codecademy are such an awesome organisation doing such brilliant things and I was very honoured to be a (tiny) part of what they do. Thanks goes to Karen at Codecademy for being such an awesome sport and for sending me such fantastic Codecademy goodies that I now wear with pride!

Litmus Screen Grabs: Android 2.3 (top), Android 4.0 (Below Left) and Windows Phone 7.5 (Below Right)

Email news this week: Twitter cards, Tabbed Gmail inbox, Triage for iPhone

There were quite a few things of note going on in the email world this week.

Gmail unveils new tabbed inbox

First up, Google unveiled its new inbox design which features tabs for separating personal mail, social media stuff, updates and promotional email.

Image from Mashable
Image from Mashable

Google announced the new look on its Gmail blog and says that it will be rolling out the update “gradually” on the desktop. Updates for iOS and Android will be available in the next few weeks. Users that don’t want the new look on the desktop can switch back to the classic view. — Mashable

One on level, this makes it easier for people to ignore email newsletters that get routed to the ‘Promotions’ tab, and it also strikes me as a little weird that the algorithms have been created by Google and you can’t edit them in any way. However, it could also mean good news for email marketing, as users won’t be so overwhelmed by their email, and may wish to happily sort through their Promotional email at a time that suits them. As Co.Design‘s Kyle Vanhemert wrote:

“Today, though, our inboxes are choked with a different sort of spam. These aren’t scams and supplement ads but messages we might actually want to read at some point–things like newsletters, catalogs, daily offers, and social media status updates. They don’t require our immediate attention, but they may be of value to us. This isn’t spam, exactly. In many cases, we asked to receive it. And it’s not entirely useless stuff, either–among those dozen unread Living Social emails, there’s a chance that there might be a really good one. Which is precisely why we leave the things sitting there, unread, to be processed later.”


Triage is another development reflecting the myriad ways in which we’re trying to figure out how to deal with our email.

Image © MacStories

Triage is an app that is supposed to complement your existing email app on iPhone. It’s simply a tool for sorting your email before you actually process it properly and it only has three actions: Read, archive or keep unread.

With Triage users are therefore flicking very quickly through their emails and deciding which ones to kill and which ones to keep. So what does it look like when you get to marketing messages?

Well, the first thing I noticed is that they take AGES to load. Lots of time was spent waiting and waiting.. and nothing loads. But you can still sort emails which means many might get sorted based on subject line and sender name alone.

The second thing is that it only displays the text-only version of your email — some of which, I noticed, are not really great.

Finally, it only displays a line for the Sender and a single line for the Subject plus a tiny box for the content, so there isn’t really much room to shine in this environment.

Only plain text is rendered in Triage
Only plain text is rendered in Triage

So if apps like this take off — and I did actually find using it really enjoyable — then we need to start paying even more attention to

  • sender name
  • subject line and
  • text-only version

Twitter cards

Finally, from a subscriber angle, Twitter has introduced lots of different types of ‘cards’ that essentially turn tweets into posts containing video, images, galleries and other features common on other social media platforms.

An interesting one for email marketing is the lead generation card, which allows users to do things like sign up for daily deals, right from within a tweet.


Twitter says:

When someone expands your Tweet, they see a description of the offer and a call to action. Their name, @username, and email address are already pre-filled within the Card. The user simply clicks a button to send this information directly (and securely) to you.

At the moment it’s only available to their managed clients but they are apparently looking to expand the service to small and medium sized businesses soon.

Mid-Week Email Design Inspiration: Typecast

I can’t actually afford to use Typecast, but I love their service and I adore their emails.

Their latest email is no exception; lovely design, beautiful web fonts and the content is excellent.

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 10.05
Desktop view (in Gmail/Chrome)

Mobile View

The webfonts look lovely on mobile

I really like the amount of whitespace that is used across the design. The vertical rhythm is spot-on.

Lovely use of whitespace and graphics
Lovely use of whitespace and graphics


They have used a lovely webfont called Enzo Web Pro Bold.

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 10.48
Enzo Web Pro

They have used the @font-face method in its own <style> tag. All the other styles are within another style tag. This might have been an attempt at bug resolution with webfonts— as you probably know, this can be very tricky.

Unfortunately, this method does not work in Outlook and it displays as Times New Roman. I did a quick test to confirm (bearing in mind that perhaps their subscriber list is devoid of Outlook and also that I ran a test using the code in the Litmus Scope version which may not be perfectly accurate).

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 2.19.07 PM
The method above will cause the text to display as Times New Roman in Outlook 2007/2010/2013

I’m in the process of collating a huge batch of methods for incorporating webfonts because none of the methods for doing this seem absolutely bulletproof to me. I will share the results when I have them.

House Industries using scale and typography to excellent effect

House Industries do have a head start when it comes to designing their email marketing because they sell beautiful products. As creators of amazing typefaces and now lovely iPhone apps, their content basically sells itself.

They do, however, make awesome use of scale in their HTML emails which works really well across desktop and mobile without the need to code a separate responsive version. There are a few points in this email where that falls down (sadly), because the CTA becomes tiny and the body copy (what little of it there is) is part of the images and gets scaled down a lot too. If these two aspects were attended to, it would be a great example.

(I would also suggest, at the risk of being branded a fun-sponge, that their cheeky unsubscribe copy is in fact too cheeky.)

Check out my Litmus Scoped version of the email here.

House Industries' email


Why creating beautiful, responsive emails is not a waste of time

Sometimes I have to explain why it’s important to spend the time and money on creating beautiful, robust, responsive HTML email templates—and this blows my mind.

To me, it seems obvious that well designed, well built emails should be what everyone is aiming for, all the time. To convince others, a graph is required.

Blue Hornet’s latest study, Consumer Views of Email Marketing (PDF), was a study of 1,000 US citizens who were asked about various aspects of email marketing. The results are in! These are my personal favourites.

1. People hate emails that don’t render well on mobile

What people do with emails that don't look good

2. People will indeed think less of you if your email is ugly

75% of consumers say a poorly designed email negatively affects their perception of a brand.

3. If you want to email everyone, you need to have something to say, and not want to say it too often.

Why Consumers unsubscribe

Leslie David’s animated GIFs for La Mode. La Mode. La Mode.

Paris-based designer Leslie David created these animations for a French television show and I think they are a perfectly quirky blend of graphics and animation that would work really well in email — perhaps if they were a little slower and/or were just a big animated CTA with minimal text to read (because I think my mind would explode if I had to look at them for very long).

Via designworklife.

Leslie Davis - 2

Leslie Davis - 3

Leslie Davis - 1