Guidelines for HTML email design

If you create or send email newsletters, you need to read David Greiner’s post Email Design Guidelines for 2006 at Campaign Monitor. That is, if you’re interested in your newsletters actually reaching and being read by their recipients.

I am definitely no fan of HTML email, so I have configured Apple Mail to display the plain text version of all messages. Sometimes that will make newsletters look like this to me:

Error message: Your email application can’t display HTML email. That is why text is displayed. Please contact us for more information.

That’s it. No link to a web version. No apologies. Hardly what the sender intended. Avoid making mistakes like that when you must send HTML email. If at all possible, avoid sending HTML email in the first place.

Further thoughts on HTML email: Do you really need an HTML email christmas greeting?.

Posted on December 1, 2005 in Quicklinks, Usability


  1. Ok…here’s where I stand with HTML emails. I don’t want to come off like this is a great idea… but email clients just aren’t where browsers are at these days.

    I’ll admit this: I use tables! If you want your html news letters to look right in email clients, you’ve gotta use tables. Sure it might look ‘okay’ in this or that client…but there are literally hundreds of email clients, online services, shells…whatever… fact is, we’re using css based designs for websites because we only have about five browsers to account for..(not hundreds).

    Point being: You just can’t count on CSS working well in emails.

    ..sorry :(

  2. December 2, 2005 by Anonymous

    See my “A MIME is a terrible thing to waste” from half a decade ago. I show how to strip the HTML fork using a simple Perl program that can be called from procmail, and give my thoughts on HTML so-called “email”.

  3. Dustin, you might want to check out Mark Wyner’s recent article as an approach for using CSS in HTML emails.

    You hit the nail right on the head though, there are literally hundreds of different environments your emails are being displayed in.

    If you can talk your clients into accepting a simpler, rich text version of your design in some environments, then Mark’s approach is definitely worth considering.

  4. Ironically I am working for someone for a couple of weeks on an Ezine; interesting reading, and luckily most of those best practices have already been covered.

  5. When it comes to e-mail, HTML is 99.999% unnecessary, and it is just plain annoying to download more stuff for unimportant (and improper) formatting.

    (Using GMX, I almost never open the HTML view, so don’t send me HTML e-mails if you want them to be looked at at all…)

  6. Im not a big fan of HTML emails either, however, our marketing department is. No matter what guidance I give them - they want the HTML. I send all emails multipart - so that plain text viewers see the plain text version - and those who want HTML can see that. Regardless, its still bothersome creating 2 templates for an email blast.

    Plain text works fine for me - I can get just what I want without all the crap in the way.

  7. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger advocate of design than myself, and even I think it’s ridiculous to have HTML emails. If you want me to see the pizazz, direct me to your website! Other than that, what in the world do you need HTML in emails for? Do you style your IMs with HTML?

  8. Im not a big fan of HTML emails either, however, our marketing department is.

    Zactly. Regardless how much we bash html emails, we’re gonna end up doing them anyway. I figured the point of this discussion was more or less ‘how to do it’ rather than “Don’t”. Sure I can go for the less styled by just going with “Rich Text” - but marketing wants a webpage inside the email.

    Doesn’t anyone here subscribe to Sitepoints Email newsletters? They’re entirely in tables and I KNOW they don’t advocate that for web site design practices. It’s just what you have to do. Pretend it’s 1996! Afterall, we’ve put together so many great tips together

  9. December 2, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Dustin: Agreed. Many of us dislike HTML email, but we’re never going to be able to convince marketing or clients (at least not all of them), so we’ll need to make the best of the situation. For me that means letting someone else create the nasty “HTML” ;-D.

  10. Nothing I can say which hasnt been already said. I agree fully.

  11. December 7, 2005 by Daniel Jimenez

    HTML is also a document language. I find that sending email in HTML allows me - I am a software developer - to mark up my email in a way that makes semantic sense (code, samp, var, kbd, etc).

    Just pointing out a minor, and limited, positive.

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