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If email designers hold a single thing in common, it’s a collective trepidation towards testing. This task can seem near-impossible when responsive techniques are thrown into the mix, given the variety in email-ready phones and tablets in use today. However, while multi-column layouts can break and images fail to load, there’s one design element that never fails get the message across – type.

Now, we’re not talking about devolving into sending plain-text email here – although as far as consistency goes, nothing can beat it. What we have in mind is a greater emphasis on creating reliable, responsive experiences by taking a type-first approach to email design.

This thinking can be attributed to a similar trend that’s happening on the web, where designers are foregoing fancy layouts for simpler, more device-independent designs. As James Young observes in his post, “The responsive web will be 99.9% typography”:

“Looking at a string of recent releases from individuals, startups and agency clients it feels like there’s an emerging aesthetic that is very stripped back, focused on typography and blocks of simple content that can be easily moved…”– “The responsive web will be 99.9% typography“, WelcomeBrand.co.uk

This aesthetic shift isn’t being driven by some fluffy love of minimalism, it’s being driven by both necessity and results. Necessity, because complicated and media-rich designs mean more testing for designers to do. Results, because successful responsive designs, both email and web, result in happier readers and greater engagement.

A type-first, hacks-last approach to email

While many HTML email methodologies have been long abandoned by the web (table-based layouts, anyone?), responsive design has resulted in the two disciplines sharing much in common as of late. Again, from James:

“We’re reaching the point already where there are more hacks… than there have ever been in order to make a site work on even a small range of devices. 12 months down the line, us, the designers of these sites will be maintaining an increasingly flaky set of templates and nested media queries to deal with screen sizes, retina displays and whatever appears on the device market next year.– “The responsive web will be 99.9% typography“, WelcomeBrand.co.uk

More hacks… Flaky templates… Sound familiar? That’s because email designers like us have had to put up with a lot of nonsense from email clients for a very long time now, as the hacks that fill our blog and forums will attest. As a result of this nonsense, we’ve had to design defensively for the sake of both current and new email clients – minimizing the use of CSS, while maximizing font-sizes and the use of ‘bulletproof’ HTML attributes. Now, instead of setting us free with reliable CSS support, mobile devices have forced us to ratchet this defensiveness up a notch, to cater for a myriad of display dimensions, too.

This email newsletter by Justin Veiga shows this text-first trend in action – it remains readable and beautiful in every client, at any zoom level.

Will the result of this defensiveness be a run towards big-type, only-type emails? For one, these require less hacks and less maintenance from designers, not to mention, less testing. Heck, emails like Justin Veiga’s (above) don’t even require media queries to look big on small screens. And you can forget about the injustices of image blocking altogether when images are secondary to the message in the text.

Then, for email recipients, there’s the benefit of a clearer message, greater consistency between email clients and shorter load times. As they say, less is more.

Should email, like the web, become 99.9% typography? We’d love to hear your opinion, so please chime in with your text-only comments below.

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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