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We’re big Zeldman fans here at Campaign Monitor. His web standards work has been an important influence in our thinking as web designers and web application builders. So we were disappointed to read his recent post, E-mail is not a platform for design.

The core of Jeffrey’s argument is this:

But when I say HTML mail still sucks, I don’t mean it sucks because support for design in e-mail today is like support for standards in web browsers in 1998.

I mean it sucks because nobody needs it. It impedes rather than aids communication.

Essentially Jeffrey seems to be making the mistake of equating the work of bad designers with the communication medium of email. Obviously we are going to be biased, but we’ve heard from enough of you guys, and your clients, to know that HTML email can be a great thing when done correctly. To say as a blanket statement that HTML email impedes communication is an extraordinary generalisation. There are many times when a well designed, and well laid out HTML email can be a lot clearer, easier to scan and overall better experience than the equivalent in plain text.

The Threadless weekly newsletterAs an example, check out the HTML email sent weekly by Threadless on the right. It’s a smart, simple layout that works in every email client out there. Instead of forcing their subscribers to click on a link to check out each new shirt via plain text, they can preview each design right in their email client. Not only is this a better user experience, but it’s also the reason more than half of their recipients click through to their web site each week. You see a design you like, you click it to find out more and make a purchase.

Obviously, there is a lot of really over the top, poorly designed HTML emails being sent, but I suspect that the percentage of really badly designed websites would be pretty close to it.

Should we say that all websites impede communication because most people don’t design well? Consider transactional emails, things like hotel bookings and purchase receipts. Every single instance should have a plain text alternative of course, but being able to give the key information like booking dates or serial numbers a bit of visual weight is exactly what designers should be doing – making the experience better for the person on the end.

Zeldman goes on to explain:

Your uncle thinks 18pt bright red Comic Sans looks great, so he sends e-mail messages formatted that way. You cluck your tongue, or sigh, or run de-formatting scripts on every message you receive from him. When your uncle is the “designer,” you “get” why styled mail sucks. It sucks just as much when you design it, even if it looks better than your uncle’s work in the two e-mail programs that support it correctly.

I’m assuming that he is exaggerating for effect here because his earlier link to our CSS support in email in 2007 article clearly shows that it is possible to design emails that work well for almost everybody. For even simpler proof, checkout our gallery of email designs, many of which work in every major email client, desktop and web.

Instead of trashing the concept of HTML email based on bad designers and personal preference, it would be much more constructive to continue the fantastic work on web standards in browsers and extend it to the email clients. In fact, the W3C has recently held a workshop on HTML email to investigate the issues and possibilities. We should be thinking about what is best for our readers, and not ourselves. Some people don’t want to receive HTML email, and of course, they should not be forced to. Many people prefer HTML for some uses; who are we to tell them they should not want it?

Spam is bad. Shoddy design is bad, and no arguments from us. Saying all HTML email sucks based on particular usages and personal preference is also bad. We should all have learnt by now that we as web designers are not in charge of what technology is going to be used for, it’s the people at the end of the chain who get to decide that.

5 steps to better HTML emails

  • Always send a plain text alternative. Choose “HTML and plain text” as your campaign format.
  • Design differently for email. Good design understands the context it will be seen in. Don’t just paste in your 3 column homepage
  • Test in different email clients. Make sure your message can be read by everyone
  • More copy, less images. You can’t rely on images being seen in emails.
  • Listen to your readers. Don’t base your decisions on what Zeldman tells you, or what we tell you. Listen to your customers, they will tell you what they like and don’t like.

Email is not a ‘platform for design’. Email is a communication tool, and sometimes HTML can communicate better than plain text.

[UPDATE] Jeffrey Zeldman has responded to our concerns with a well thought out and much more moderate post, Eight points for better e-mail relationships. It’s definitely worth reading.

This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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