Designing for the Inbox

Chapter 2

Designing Plain Text Email

Before we launch into a discussion about designing HTML email, I’ll briefly touch on the importance of designing plain text email. You don’t have to be sending some fancy web-page-in-my-inbox email to benefit from design skills. Even plain text, the base format for written communication, needs to be designed.

Have you ever received plain text newsletters? An excellent example is this Highrise newsletter by 37 Signals:

Notice anything? How about those typographic characters posing as borders? This is a common approach, using asterisks, equal signs, or underscores to simulate the kind of design elements that books and magazines use all the time.

Even print books that are 100% text undergo the design treatment. Typography is well worth studying as a web designer, and there are some excellent resources online from which to start.

Though many maintain that plain text is all you need for an email, a big old block of unformatted text can be very hard to read. Look at what’s missing:

  • Ability to control text size for headings
  • Ability to emphasize text through bold or italic type
  • Possibility of using a display font to draw attention to a subtitle
  • Control over margins and padding to increase clarity and allow the email to be quickly scanned for the most important information

Thoughtful senders use a variety of techniques to work around these limitations, like the character borders above. Ultimately though, these are often little more than clever hacks, using characters differently from what they were designed for in order to improve the readability of a limited medium.

Despite this, it’s important to learn how to make plain text email as clear and readable as possible. Even if you’re planning to send only HTML emails, you should always provide a plain text alternative. Most email newsletter programs will send a multi-part email consisting of both an HTML version and a plain text alternative, so that the recipient’s email client can show either according to its capabilities and settings.

Guidelines for a Readable Plain Text Email

  • Use lots of whitespace to avoid having a huge gray blob of text. Leave space between paragraphs and after headings, and aim for paragraphs of four to five lines.
  • Use short URLs wherever possible. Again, longer URLs can break up and become hard to click on, or copy and paste.
  • Make your copy easy to scan by dividing it with clear headings.

Text wrapping vs. line breaks at 60 characters?

Traditionally, the advice given to those creating email newsletters has been to add line breaks every 60 characters to preserve readability in email clients. This was done mostly for the benefit of legacy clients, some of which allow text to run unreasonably wide before wrapping it. However, we've now revised that advice, given that:

  • In iPhone Mail, line breaks at 60 characters make plain-text messages look raggedy (pictured)
  • The most popular email clients, Outlook '07/'10/'13 ignore these line breaks
  • Modern email clients tend to have preview panes that prevent lines of text from running too long and/or can be resized to taste.

← Plaintext in iPhone Mail

For these reasons, we recommend that you don't put the extra time and effort into adding line breaks every 60 characters or so. Instead, let the paragraphs in your plain-text email campaigns run free.

The Plain Text Version of the Modern Henchman Newsletter

Our Modern Henchman newsletter will have a plain text version; this is to benefit subscribers whose platform (whether legacy or mobile) prevents them from viewing HTML email, or who simply opt for plain text as a personal preference.
Taking the content from our plan in Chapter 2, here’s how the plain text version will look:

You are receiving this email as a subscriber to Modern Henchman magazine, or because you signed up at
Modern Henchman
In this issue:
* Don't let him get away again!
* Henchman to supervillain?
* Hot Hats for Henchmen
* Lair Maintenance for Beginners

We uncover the 10 most common tricks superspies use to escape even the most fearsome of death traps. You'll never let the boss down again.
Take your henching career to the next level with our easy stepby-step guide to a brand-new you. Can you make it?
Stand out from the crowd with this year's selection of henchmen headwear that's both attractive and functional. Available in a range of fashion colors, and perfect for the balding baddy.
Beware, not every head can handle a hat, so take our hat quiz before you buy.
Meet the milliner at
Henchman Etiquette Expert Aunty Blake answers your tricky questions about showing up the boss in a fire fight.
Finally, the explosive anonymous revelations of a henchman who has worked with some of history's greatest villains. You won't believe what goes on when the giant death ray is turned off.
We have advance copies for every new subscriber to the print version of Modern Henchman, so don't delay, subscribe today.
The boss has captured his arch enemy for the third time, but the laser mounts keep slipping off the sharks and the aquarium guy can't come until Saturday! No need to panic——just follow our simple illustrated guides and you'll be indispensable.
Do your henching colleagues need some tips? Why not send this email to them.
If you're not interested in being the best henchman you can be, please unsubscribe.
The Modern Henchman logo and design are trademarks of Hench International Pty Ltd.

Now we have a readable and effective plain text email template that we can use for all our future newsletters. This presents a challenge: if our readers can obtain all the information just fine from this plain text version, why bother with an HTML version?

The Case for HTML Email

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