Table of Contents

Austin Woodall always wanted to be an artist. And in a way, he is. But instead of oils and pastels, his medium of choice is email.

It’s not glamorous work by many designers’ standards, but Woodall finds the challenges of email design fascinating and flat-out inspiring. And he’s made it something of a personal mission to take email design to a higher level.

“A lot of email design when I started out was bland and lackluster,” he says. “I wanted to push it as a medium and an art form. Email definitely needed a makeover.”

In our conversation below, Woodall talks about how he started his own small email design revolution by putting brand experience first — and why email remains his first design love, even after moving on to web and digital product design.

How long did it take for you to embrace email as a medium?
It’s true that, in the beginning, it wasn’t the most exciting work in the world. Email design and development usually gets dumped on some poor developer. But I came to love it. It’s great — basically, you just take web and then you strip out all the cool stuff.

You’re really selling it!
With email, you are really kind of stuck in the ’90s of web development. You’re using things like tables, most of it isn’t responsive, and you have 18–20 different email clients.

How did your background in fine art influence your approach?
In art, it’s all about conveying emotion and building a relationship with the viewer. That’s how email was for me. You’re trying to build a brand, and you need to relate to customers. The way most people had been doing email, it didn’t make connections. Users weren’t invested. They didn’t have any desire to open the next email. That pushed me to get crazy and really push what email could be.

You saw it as a neglected medium.
Definitely. There are a few people out there, a few companies — like MailChimp and Litmus — who are really trying to expand email and push the boundaries. But when I look in my inbox and I see large brands with lackluster emails, it’s crazy. We’re talking companies that are built all around brand, but this touchpoint they share with me doesn’t really engage me, and I’m not super-excited to open their email.

The struggle with email design is it’s usually dumped on people who don’t have the experience or the time to do it. It takes a lot of time to master some of the techniques, like doing a 360-rotation on a product. That kind of thing is huge in terms of e-commerce. I look at emails from sneaker companies, and I just imagine if you could hover over the shoe and see a full rotation of it, flip it over. You can do that in email. I have done it. But the designer and developer probably never had any experience with that, or didn’t have the time or resources.

Austin at his desk at Studio Science in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA.

Do you have an overarching philosophy when it comes to email design for e-commerce?
One big rule is that I don’t look at other emails for inspiration, I look at web design. And I think you have to toss aside the traditional e-commerce way of thinking where you only make decisions based off data. You’ve got to focus on building the brand experience.

The problem, of course, is that it’s harder to measure brand experience than conversions and clicks. In my earlier days of starting out, I remember being in conversations about stuff like why green CTAs are more successful than blue CTAs. And I was like, “Where is our brand?” You shouldn’t sacrifice everything just for the numbers.

What common mistakes do people make in e-commerce emails?
The biggest is relying too much on image-based emails. A lot of times when I look at image-based email, they don’t swap out the image for a mobile version, or it scales down and you can’t read the text unless you pinch and zoom.

Speaking personally, coding from scratch is a terrible thing to do every day. So figuring out how to modularize and build your email in blocks is important.

And it’s important to keep exploring. To scour the web for resources and see what other people are doing. And subscribe to every brand you know, even if you don’t particularly like them or their product is not in your niche area. I think it’s easy to be locked in your own world when you’re designing in email, and not get different perspectives.

And it’s important to think critically about “rules.” Take the whole concept of “above the fold” where you have to have all of your CTAs up at the top. That’s not true. People don’t mind scrolling. We are such a mobile-focused world now and people are used to scrolling. It’s second nature.

"You have to toss aside the traditional e-commerce way of thinking where you only make decisions based off data. You’ve got to focus on building the brand experience."

Some of those widely held assumptions seem like holdovers from print design, right down to the language.
That’s exactly right. In traditional print marketing, it’s, “How do I cram all of this text in here?” And I see that happen all that time in email. But email looks so much better when it’s airy, when it has nice line height and letter spacing, when it’s focused on the user and not just on pushing the product.

Why should agencies — especially smaller ones strapped for resources — invest in email design, especially for e-commerce?
For a small business, it’s a great tool. You’re landing in this personal world of your customers. They may not go to your Facebook page every day, but if you are sending them nicely-designed email that works for their device, then they are more likely to learn about your upcoming events or whatever promotion you’re selling. There is a lot of value in investing in nice email that works everywhere.

Five Email Design Pro-Tips from Austin

1. See the big picture. Literally. Use analytics to determine the size of the devices the people on your list are using. If a lot of people are using large screens, take full advantage of the real estate available to you. Don’t be afraid to go all the way to 1920 x 1080.

2. Get interactive. “In my experience, emails with interactive images and animation have consistently outperformed emails with static images. People respond to emails that do more than just sit there.”

3. Break dumb rules. For example, don’t insist on putting all of your CTAs “above the fold.” We live in a mobile world where scrolling is second nature to people. Before blindly following best practices, think critically about them.

4. Set your sights on websites. Don’t just emulate what other email designers are doing. Aim to bridge the gap between email design and web design. And that starts with becoming a student of great web design. When looking for inspiration, look there first.

5. Compromise your style. Email design is all about give and take. You may have to sacrifice a crisp photo for a blurry one if it provides a better experience for your user than a high-res image not loading at all. The end goal should serve the needs of the user, not your personal aesthetic preferences.