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The Evolution of Email Design

Matthew Smith, founder of Really Good Emails, discusses the current challenges of email design—and the challenges coming in the future.

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Email, like Winona Ryder, was born in 1971. And both are currently enjoying a midlife revival of sorts. Sure, email doesn’t have a hit Netflix show, but its continued evolution could end up turning the marketing world upside down. (Sorry, we couldn’t resist.)

Matthew Smith, founder of Really Good Emails, likens the explosion of email design innovation to an earthquake. And he sees more change coming. “Disruption is just around the corner,” Matthew promises.

We recently spoke with Matthew and several other industry luminaries, and we’re excited to share the fruit of those conversations with you. Our hope is to help you meet the current challenges of email design, and prepare you for the challenges to come. There is no better place to start than with Matthew.

Gotta serve somebody

Matthew Smith started out as a studio artist, but fell in love with web design after experimenting with hex code and patterned backgrounds on Blogger in the late ’90s. Before long, he’d built and sold a couple of businesses, worked as the chief creative director of 3 different startups, and helmed projects for clients like The Gates Foundation, MIT, and Seth Godin.

Today, Matthew owns The Fathom & Draft, a design firm in Greenville, South Carolina, that specializes in brand experiences and interface systems. But he has various other irons in the fire too, like running Really Good Emails.

Really Good Emails is exactly what the name suggests: a gallery of more than 1,500 great emails divided into nearly 100 categories. Smith and his team curate the gallery based on design quality, subject lines, copy, mobile responsiveness, and other criteria. The site has become wildly popular among designers due largely to its usefulness. That’s no accident.

“What has become important to me over the course of my career is the utility of design,” Matthew says. “If it’s not serving someone, if it’s not doing a specific thing that a customer has asked for or didn’t know they wanted, then, at its core, it’s not good design.”

Limits are lies

Really Good Emails has made Matthew a minor celebrity in the email community, but not everyone in his circle gets the hype. “Most of my friends and colleagues think I’m sort of a sellout for thinking this much about email,” he says.

To be fair, there’s plenty about email design to scare folks off. It’s an open platform with no coding standards. Many popular email clients don’t support standard design techniques. And designers must test on multiple browsers and across more than 50 clients.

Still, Matthew doesn’t buy the “Email’s too hard” line.

“People claim the technology holds it back,” he says. “That’s BS. Constraints have never been a bad thing for design. There are plenty of examples of designers who use them to their advantage.”

Those examples are in large supply at Really Good Emails. A quick search will uncover emails featuring interactive design elements, animation, video, carousels, live feeds, and more. It’s a treasure trove of proof that smart designers are having great success as they experiment with ways to work around the limitations of email — and smart brands are investing in their efforts. “Most of my friends and colleagues think I’m a sellout for thinking this much about email.”

Curative power

When Google announced it would begin supporting CSS media queries in Gmail last month, email designers and developers rejoiced. Along with Microsoft’s recent partnership with Litmus to improve email in Microsoft Outlook, it signaled that the titans of the internet are finally ready to make email better.

As far as Matthew’s concerned, it’s about time. “I find it appalling that one of the most effective tools for building businesses and engaging customers is lacking so much,” he says. “Email is the most widely used digital product on earth. It outperforms all other social channels in terms of actually serving customers.”

If you talk to Matthew long enough, you’ll come away with 2 pieces of insight. One: He’s opinionated, but thoughtful and humane in his opinions. Two: He has an abiding passion for the concept of service. And he views the type of curation provided by Really Good Emails as service in one of its most valuable forms.

“Showing people intelligently selected email designs instead of showing them all of them and asking them which are good takes work — it’s a service to our customers.”

Furthermore, he thinks email designers should think of themselves as curators, too. “Great design is a curation,” he says. “It’s a trimming away of all that’s not serving the customer. The best design never stops trimming.”

“Great design is a curation. It’s a trimming away of all that’s not serving the customer. The best design never stops trimming.”

If Matthew has his way, every email in 2020 will deliver exactly the experience the user is looking for — nothing more, nothing less. “There is so much that can be done with personalization and creating micro-focus,” he says. “It’s like giving a customer their very own store with none of the things they don’t need and all of the great stuff they want to fill their carts with.”

But don’t confuse “trimming away” with minimalism. On the contrary, Matthew believes email is on the brink of becoming a far more robust medium — one that will allow email designers to curate all types media right inside users’ more fully-evolved inboxes.

“It will be your messaging browser,” he says. “Email will be just one of those kinds of messages. Email design will be about how to present the content that’s coming in as text, images, HTML, audio, video, multi-lingual content, time-oriented content, etc. It should be about showing people the web, not creating a tiny, limited throwaway web in an email client.”

In this age of designing with tables and limited support for basic HTML, it sounds kind of crazy. But when even Microsoft Outlook is taking email standards seriously, anything is possible.

“Disruption is going to happen,” Matthew says. “Cue inspiring music.”

The 3 things every email should do

Matthew could talk all day about how emails should behave. But you’ve got things to do, so here’s a brief, handy guide.

1. Declare its purpose: “The first job of an email is to tell the user why it matters. This starts with the subject line and the from address. These things can communicate clarity, intrigue, curiosity, intimacy, and more. They are areas that can serve customers or manipulate them. Manipulation is for punks and skunks — cut it out!”

2. Deliver value: “It should provide something better than what the user spent to get it. You might get away with not doing that by playing to the baser instincts of people for a while, but in the long run, it’ll kill your brand. So instead, make sure your email is doing something for the people who are dying to hear what you have to say or do for them, instead of just being noisy for the people who are desperately trying to unsubscribe (to paraphrase Seth Godin).”

3. Delight the reader: “This is less tangible. The user’s body should remember the email. Sounds weird, right? It is. Your mind is focused on the content, but if you delight, or really intrigue, or cause curiosity beyond a base level, you have the opportunity to create memory in the mind — read: body and brain together — of the customer. If they feel good about what you’re giving them, then you’re moving from transaction into relationship and creating attachments and bonds that are the stuff of super companies.”

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