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November 23, 2011
Design for Responses, Not by the Rules
 
Brands once knew the rules. Email conformed to a single-browsing width and web-safe fonts ruled inboxes. Resistance was futile — at least for brands that wanted entry to consumers’ email inboxes. But designers have begun to throw down their gauntlets and to embrace creativity in direct marketing. They’re designing for responses, not by the “rules.”
 
Everything we know about direct marketing is shifting. Print-inspired email design is emerging from the cautious best practices once responsible for rigid templates, preview panes, and (gasp) plain-text emails. As Lisa Harmon and Alex Madison discussed recently on MediaPost

The focus was always on telling the whole story in the preview pane to grab subscribers before we lost them. But these days, we're seeing that when you use design elements to pull people's eyes through the layout, people will scroll. 

Women consumers are scrolling through emails, which are beginning to resemble glossy magazine ads more than unresponsive direct marketing sell sheets, which typically frequent inboxes. Brands are being rewarded for their design rebellion with opens, clicks, oohs, and ahs.
 
Design Rules
There is no single set of rules for email design. Through trial and error, a set of email design best practices has begun to emerge, replacing old dictums: The most important content should conform to a single-browsing width to capture readers immediately. Email design was confined to boxy templates in an attempt to ensure compatibility with multiple email clients and devices. It was easier to play it safe or, even worse, send plain text emails.
 
Brands, such as Nordstrom, are greeting inboxes with emails designed to out-style templates. The multi-platform retailer’s print-inspired email designs inspire women to scroll beyond preview panes and enjoy entire messages. Each number serves as a visual cue, which ushers the eyes from product to product and then takes shoppers online for social commerce. Is it more work? Yes. But print-inspired email design can gain responses from women consumers who are immune to emails restricted by rules.  
   
Design Responsively
Email design is not about landing in inboxes on a single device. Smart brands are calibrated for multi-platform responses on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Corresponding direct marketing campaigns are too often static and unable to travel with consumers across platforms. Smashing Magazine offers a reminder of the challenges that await brands that attempt device agnostic email design:

Designing an HTML email that renders consistently across major email clients can be time-consuming. Support for even simple CSS varies considerably between clients, and even different versions of the same client.

What appears as design genius in Outlook can show up as gibberish on a mobile device. Brands are incorporating principles of responsive web design, which adapts to users’ devices and platforms.
 
Some Best Practices Still Rule
Some industries continue to heed best practices. A financial services firm may not have the benefit of using visual cues to guide consumers through its catalog of services. A real-estate developer, on the other hand, can guide clients on a tour of a residential or commercial property — taking users beyond the preview pane by showing a property as it’s being developed.
 
Multi-platform brands, especially retailers, have an advantage in this age of design rebellion. Banana Republic’s email design fashions an outfit, which features its products from head-to-toe. Women are invited to “get this look” via social commerce.
  
Even Trader Joe’s, which bucks the e-commerce trend, designs its emails for responses and appears to have no allegiance to traditional email design best practices. “Deriving perfectly from their brand message and usual a linocut/printmaking style, their humorous choice in imagery and type has thrown caution to the wind,” says Paoling Che of Inbox Junky. “Now, I really do want some ice cream.”
  
It’s responses like Che’s that make skirting email design best practices a risk worth taking. Discovering the right visual cues and creating design agnostic, cross-platform emails can inspire readers to devour messages, positively respond to brands, and evangelize their social circles. That is a design rule we all should obey. 

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Ayesha Mathews-Wadhwa is Founder and Creative Director of PixInk, a San Francisco-based design microagency serving a macro niche: businesses marketing to women, who drive 83% of purchase decisions. She nurtures emerging brands and strengthens iconic ones through powerful design, insight, and a deep understanding of the female shopper. PixInk's microagency structure works extremely well for iconic yet nimble brands such as Apple, Facebook, Oracle, Cat Footwear, Riverbed, Camel, Sephora, and Picaboo, among others.
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