How Email Design Limitations Can Actually Be Liberating

Authority Intensive Presenter Dean Levitt

Long before email newsletters became a central part of my life, I harbored dreams of being a famous jazz guitarist.

While I know now that fame and jazz is a mythical combination, akin to a unicorn triple-crown winner, that was my goal in my early twenties.

One of my jazz improv teachers would force his students, including me, to practice for hours using only two fingers (on the piano or guitar). It was frustrating, annoying … and then, eventually, freeing.

One day, it clicked.

Freed from the pressure of virtuosity, I could focus on just keeping it simple.

Similarly, limited by inbox space, mobile devices, noise, attention span, and reader habits, email offers an opportunity to distill your content, align it to your goals, and share something that works.

Skip the email newsletter intro

Jakob Nielsen’s research shows that email recipients spend less than a minute reading your newsletter and simply scan the content.

Eye tracking showed that readers didn’t waste any of that time on introductory content and instead scanned the headings (mostly the first couple of words) looking for content that offered value and interest to them.

Your readers have asked to receive your emails, and there is an implied agreement that the content you send will be the content they want. So skip the intro, throw away the fluff, and get right to the point.

Make it happen now

As writers, we have the instinct to embellish, expound, and explain. We say the same thing in three different ways. We tell a story and draw the reader in. We take them by the hand and metaphorically walk them down the path to …

Stop! (Or at least wait.)

Here’s the thing about email presentation on any screen, desktop or mobile: there’s a fold. That’s the bit that is visible without needing to scroll.

Your email newsletter should have a goal, and you should be able to achieve that goal above the fold. Craft your content so that whatever you truly need to say is said, right there, up at the top.

Be aware of that severely limited space and take advantage of it.

You can allow yourself to write gorgeous copy below, but if you have five seconds of attention span to make something happen, then it needs to happen above the fold.

Shape your content visually

Guil Hernandez of Treehouse says, “Most readers are usually looking for reasons to stop reading. Whether it’s subconsciously or not, readers will base it on how the text is laid out.”

He’s referring to the following things:

  • Headings
  • Paragraphs
  • Images
  • Lists
  • Line length
  • Line height

When reading, a natural rhythm occurs. We scan the content for the things that interest us, and when the writer ignores the way we read, it becomes difficult to find that content.

By keeping a visual hierarchy with shorter paragraphs, elements to hang the eye on (like lists and images), and a comfortable line length and height, you do your content justice. If your reader isn’t able to find her rhythm when looking over your email, her eye will drift to the noise surrounding it.

Good copy is good design

I used to consider this stuff “design” instead of copy. That was a mistake. Now, I go over everything I write and make sure I slim it down and shape it and mold it into something that works visually.

Often, I need to choose a different word, longer or shorter, to get the block of text looking like, well, a block. Sometimes, this means a title that doesn’t convey all the details. Occasionally it even means leaving out thoughts I felt were important.

This is the hardest part of all. Very few people write because it looks good … but in an email, with the clock ticking and the unsubscribe link enticingly present, visually appealing copy can mean the difference between success and failure.

Free yourself and achieve your goals

These limitations of space, attention span, and design elements are simply encouragements to get to the heart of your message. By accepting these constraints inherent in email, you’ll free yourself to achieve your goals in a way that’s true to the medium.

Take a look at these high-performing email newsletters and see if you think they succeed within email’s limitations.

Network with Dean and other influencers

Dean Levitt will be joining Seth Godin, Darren Rowse, Brian Clark, and an esteemed list of others at Authority Intensive this May in Denver. As of this morning, there are only a 10 spots left, so reserve yours now.

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Reader Comments (17)

  1. says

    Hi Dean,

    Thank you, great ideas.
    Would be nice to have some recent study how these things change when the platform is mobile. Is reader behavior modified by the small screen?


    P.s.: For engineering: The link in the About the Author section should be corrected to

    • says

      I did dive into mobile reader actions but unfortunately there’s much less research out there and what there is has tended to focus on apps over newsletter design.

      However, I believe (partially from analytics, partially anecdotally, partially just good responsive design) that the only real difference between my words above as they apply to desktop vs mobile is the design “shape.”

      For mobile, a format that has text and image laid out above/below rather than side by side is more effective simply considering how mobile devices render text and images.

      That said, I don’t see much difference between good content presented simply as served to any device.

      I’ll dive into this more though. Thanks for the great question.

      • says

        So, true keep it simple & to the point. Gosh but how we struggle to figure out the perfect recipe for emailing/marketing – in my case I promo my photo classes + do stuff for an office supply company.

        Mine are easier to do because I know my students & potentials ones too. So the open rates & clickthru’s are pretty good. But for the office supply company, well I struggle.

  2. says

    Hi Dean,

    Thanks for the article.

    There is something I stumbled upon. And as you say, readers are looking for a reason in the text to stop reading, I was looking for a reason to write a useful comment. So here it is.

    You say: “Your email newsletter should have a goal, and you should be able to achieve that goal above the fold.”

    I think that the section above the fold can be aimed at making a reader to scroll down. Then the whole newsletter has bigger chances to reach its goal than just the section above the fold.

    • says

      Hey Michael,

      That’s spot on! I think that does depend on your goal though.

      If the goal is to “share these 5 awesome topics” then yes, the way the goal influences your design would possibly result in an “above the fold” area designed to get people scrolling down.

      However, if your goal is “get people to this landing page to do X,” then I’d recommend slimming the content down, presenting a strong call to action and saving the real “meaty” content for the landing page.

      Great insight Michael!

  3. says

    Thanks Dean, best email marketing advice I have heard in donkeys years! I agree 110%. It takes a genius to make things simple, cut out the crap and get to the point 😉

  4. says

    I agree that content trumps design to some degree and keeping it simple is the way to go. Your suggestions are sound, but I would still argue that design matters.

    And unfortunately, too often email tools include design templates that are limiting and restrictive. They can undermine your brand identity, compromise your content, and generally lead to a poor user experience.

    And if that happens, it sorta doesn’t matter what you say or how you say it.

    • says

      Ruth, you’re right. You shouldn’t compromise your brand nor your content. Design always matters.

      The thrust of my argument is that you can work within a limited format and still delivery your valuable content with style by accepting the limitations and adapting when needed.

  5. says

    Hi Dean,

    Thank you for this.

    It come at a most auspicious time for me as I wrestle with syncing my new AWeber account to a flurry of websites I’m moving to Synthesis hosting over the next few weeks.

    What I’m hearing you say is that design IS content.

    This is something I’m very much coming to appreciate as I drink deeply from the postings of both Pamela I Wilson and Dustin W Stout.

    Note to self: No flash in any website design. No sliders above the fold of websites. Keep the formatting for newsletters clean & simple. Do not give mobile views reason to sprain their collective index fingers.

  6. says

    I enjoy posts such as yours – beautifully designed, right to the point and then followed by valuable information.

    No temptation whatsoever to stop reading – quite to the contrary, always looking forward to the next paragraph.

    The best method to apply what you teach is a copy-write fundamental I grossly undervalued in the beginning (ie didn’t do it), until I was reminded of its pivotal importance again by Jon Morrow:

    To write 25 (or more headlines) before you even begin to write your post.

    I find it, metaphorically speaking, like “practicing for hours using only two fingers – frustrating, annoying … and then, eventually, freeing.” :-]

  7. Lauren Ashley says

    Hi Dean – Thank you for this post.

    Your post was helpful and interesting, and I feel it would be difficult to argue. The most interesting piece, though, is in the title and the idea of constraining to simplicity can be liberating.

    Portraying limitations as liberating is a refreshing statement for someone who thrives on creativity with the need for rules in problem solving. If there aren’t any limitations/rules/regulations, it can make advertising boring and non-challenging. But the more restrictions for a better score, the more interesting it can be for creativity to flourish.

    Do you think there are many that would disagree with your ‘freeing’ concept? Maybe not in advertising, or maybe so… but more on the artistic side, in any medium?

    I appreciate your insights!

  8. says

    I cannot agree with you more, Dean. Many companies choose to send a roundup of stories or articles published weekly or monthly. And if you truly want people to read these email roundups, it’s critical that you share them in a visually appealing way.

  9. says

    Personally, I try to stick with basic text and designs on emails because 100 percent of the reciever can read the intended message clearly.

  10. Tracy Austin says

    I recall that back in the 90’s the ‘welcome’ opening for a newsletter was all the rage!

    These days, I receive one newsletter in particular that still has a ‘welcome’ style opening that I never, ever read. But I stay subscribed because I am the forgiving sort and the rest is content I look forward to.

    Many thanks.

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