10 Design Principles That Will Increase Your Email Newsletter Conversions

by Daniel Tay

Last updated on July 27th, 2017

Seven years ago, Seth Godin introduced a groundbreaking, yet startlingly obvious concept called “permission marketing.”

“Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.”

Nowhere is this concept more apparent than in email marketing. As a marketer, you make an offer of valuable content to your would-be subscriber (say an awesome ebook on design) and he or she grants you the permission to send it to them by giving you their email address.

The problem arises when the recipient eagerly opens the first email, and can’t make heads or tails of your email. The link to your ebook is buried amongst a number of bolded propositions (Try Our Product For Free! Get Five Percent Off If You Click Here!); the fonts are so tiny that you had to put on your reading glasses; and all the images failed to load, leaving behind a trail of empty boxes.

Something like this:

hannahs monkey wrenches

The irony of the matter – that it’s supposed to be a design-related newsletter – isn’t lost on the recipient. Unsubscribe.

Marketers are fully aware of their shortcomings in this area. According to a study done by Pardot, 79 percent of them ranked “email content and design” as the most critical aspect of email marketing. 66 percent of them ranked it as the most effective aspect of an email, too.

Let’s have a look at how you can deliver on the promise you’ve made to your subscribers, by applying these 10 design principles to your email newsletters.

1. Clear Visual Hierarchy

Contrary to popular belief, design is not all about looking fanciful and striking. The best designs are extremely functional and simple, accomplishing the designer’s purpose in the most efficient fashion.

And at the foundation of effective design is hierarchy – or more specifically, visual hierarchy. Designer Ryan Heath defines it as such:

“Visual hierarchy, while it may sound technical, is really a pretty simple concept. By using color, contrast, texture, shape, position, orientation, and size, one can organize elements on a page so that users gets a sense of visual importance.”

A clear visual hierarchy is critical for informing the reader as to what is important and what is peripheral at a glance. Without proper headers and sub-headers, for example, all your reader will see is a wall of text in your email, all but convincing him/her to click away in the next second.

Have a look at this:

can bitcoin conquer argentina

Yikes. Now have a look at the same text, but with some formatting thrown into the mix


With a simple change of font size and color, suddenly it looks a whole lot easier to read, doesn’t it? It’s very scannable, ensuring that the recipient can digest the information and not bounce off your email right away.

If you’re not sure that your email’s visual hierarchy is up to scratch, you can put yourself into the first few seconds of an arriving user by trying The Squint Test. Yes, it is exactly like what it sounds.

Simply display your email newsletter on the screen, step back, and squint your eyes:

“The design should become blurry and only the largest, most basic shapes of the interface should be able to be perceived. The purpose of this is to get a high-level view of the visual hierarchy of your work. What elements stand out? Can you tell where the primary focus should be? Are too many elements on the page confusing the eye?” – Jeff Gothelf

Here’s how it should roughly look like:


If you are immediately drawn to the most important elements of the email design, then you’re on the right track.

2. Clean Layout

To make your email design even easier on the eye, make sure that it is clearly delineated into three main sections: the header, body, and call-to-action.

This may seem obvious, but it’s sometimes tempting to want to go off-template in the name of “great design.” However, many so-called great designs can throw off a reader because it is not clear where the email is heading towards.

Buffer’s Open blog newsletter is a simple but great example of a clean, straight-to-the-point email layout:


3. Directional Cues

The two points I’ve mentioned so far are fairly subtle ways to gently prod the reader in the right direction. There are times, though, that require a hard push to get them moving – and directional cues are precisely that.

Directional cues are elements that very explicitly point the reader towards a certain desired action – in this case, the call-to-action button. These elements include arrows, lines, pointing fingers, or even an image of a person staring at the goal.

The last one sounds a bit over the top, but is a very widely used method, though you probably might not have noticed it before (you will now):


Arrows are probably the most widely used of the bunch:


Be careful not to design cues that are too over-the-top, though. People don’t like to be pushed around or manipulated, so a huge bright-red arrow yelling in their faces might have the opposite reaction and turn them off. But as always, test your assumptions.

Let’s have a look at some gentler nudges you can build into your email newsletter design.

4. Appropriate Colors

Did you know that there’s an entire branch of psychology dedicated to studying colors? It is widely acknowledged that colors wield an enormous influence over our emotions, and the subsequent choices we make as a result.

In fact, psychologist Satyendra Singh found that 90 percent of how a consumer forms an opinion about a product is based on its color alone. That’s a pretty big advantage to have, if you can master it!

It is not just a matter of making sure that the color of your call-to-action button stands out (though it still should – more on that later). It should primarily be selected based on what action you want your reader to take.

For example, if you’re having a clearance sale and want your reader to click through to access it, you might want to use red for your call-to-action button. According to Kissmetrics, red creates a sense of urgency, prompting you to take action right away.

Color Purchases KISSmetrics

To be sure, there is no one color that is the best for conversions (a highly debated topic). What is more important is that you test them yourself extensively, as different people react differently to the same color. CoSchedule puts it well:

“The best color for conversions in your content is the one you’ve tested yourself.”

5. High-Quality, Positive, And Relevant Accompanying Visuals

There’s a reason why the phrase “a picture paints a thousand words” is so widely used. Visuals are capable of communicating messages in an instant. Studies have shown that we process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, which means we can use them to motivate readers to take certain actions a lot faster than words can.

There’s a catch. Images should be carefully chosen, as the wrong one can send the wrong message really fast, too.

First and foremost, all the visuals in your email newsletter should be as high-quality as possible without affecting load time. Poor quality will, well, reflect poorly on you.

Next, using irrelevant visuals will not only make your reader confused, but also cause him/her to feel cheated and possibly dismiss the rest of your email outright.

Advertising legend Claude Hopkins puts it well:

“… the picture must help sell the goods. It should help more than anything else could do in like space, else use that something else.”

Here’s a great example of an organization “selling” mission trips by using emotive visuals in its email newsletter:


Finally, positive images, Claude says, also tend to do better than negative ones:

“Show a bright side, the happy and attractive side, not the dark and uninviting side of things. Show beauty, not homeliness; health, not sickness. Don’t show the wrinkles you propose to remove, but the face as it will appear. Your customers know all about wrinkles.”

6. Only One (Highly Visible) Call-To-Action

Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerberg. President Obama. Apart from being famous characters, what else is common between the trio?

Answer: they all wear the same clothes day in, day out. Here’s why, according to Obama:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits […] I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Decision fatigue, a term coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, is very real. When faced with many choices, two things tend to happeneither the person acts impulsively, or avoids any choice altogether.

You might think that the former action – impulsively picking any one choice – would work out for you. The thing is, hasty decisions are usually poor decisions. You might have won a click-through, but leave a permanent poor impression on the reader.

It is more likely that your reader will end up not making a choice altogether, simply because he/she is confused, or can’t figure out what the purpose of the email is.

The solution, naturally, is to have just one call-to-action button prominently located in your email newsletter – preferably at the bottom, in line with your layout. To ensure that the reader doesn’t miss it, it’s also necessary to choose a color that stands out from the rest of the email.

There are cases where having more than one call-to-action button or links still works. The caveat is that they should all promote the same action, like what Hubspot does:


7. Negative Space

This one’s a cult favorite amongst designers. Negative space – commonly known also as white space – is the empty space that surrounds any object or content.

This is an important tool for designers because it helps to direct the audience’s attention where it should go, as well as making it easier on their eyes – no one likes to look at clutter.

And human beings are easily distracted creatures. One study found that people in offices change their focus frequently – as much as 20 times an hour. To make things worse, the dominance of social media and on-demand services have exacerbated our already fleeting attention span.

Try to resist the urge to put as much content as possible into your email newsletters. All elements and content should simply be sufficient in helping the reader along his/her journey to finally click that button, like so:


Allow some breathing room in your design, and remove all potentially distracting elements altogether – especially around your call-to-action button.

However, don’t overdo it. Putting too much white space in between your call-to-action button might have the reverse effect, and cause a disconnect with the rest of the content.

8. Make Clickable Elements Recognizable

This one might seem pretty obvious, but you’ll be surprised by how many people still fail to practice this – and lose many a click because of it.

You see, clicks are considered as the currency of the Internet, and people tend to be very stingy with them. And if you make it hard for them to determine which elements are clickable and aren’t, you can be sure that conversion rates will fall through the floor.

Here’s a (bad) example that Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) used to demonstrate this:


Can you guess which are the clickable elements here? Chances are that you’ll get one or two wrong – more than enough reasons to get frustrated and click away (links are highlighted in green):


If in doubt, stick to one default brand color for all links.

9. Don’t Stray Too Far From The Usual

Capturing your reader’s attention should definitely be a priority when crafting your email newsletter. However, there is a fine line between being artistic and being suitably attractive.

NNG co-founder Jakob Nielsen’s Law of the Web User Experience states that “users spend most of their time on other websites.” In other words, users will almost always prefer that your site works the same way as most others do.

The same goes for email newsletters. The average person sends and receives around 121 emails per day, and are used to certain templates and formats that these emails take. Anything out of the ordinary might be attractive in that split second, but chances are that your reader won’t bother to take the time to figure out what’s what in your newsletter. Don’t take that chance.

10. Responsive Design

The day has finally arrived – mobile has caught up with the desktop. According to Litmus, “nearly half of emails are opened on smartphones and tablets – a 500 percent increase in four years.”


There’s more. Research by Yesmail shows that the “proportion of mobile email clicks increased ten percent between Q4 2014 and Q1 2015, with mobile now representing 45 percent of all email clicks.” As a result, mobile email revenue is also steadily growing.

What this means is that you’ll lose a significant percentage of your email newsletter opens and clicks if it isn’t optimized for mobile. Yes, you should definitely put this at the top of your list of priorities!

The Path To Conversion

At the end of the day, it’s all about making the reader’s path to conversion as smooth as possible. And this applies not only to the email newsletter design, but also to the run-up to it – what is the process you bring the potential subscriber through, and does your promise match up to what you deliver in the end?

That said, email newsletters are a dime a dozen – make sure that yours stands out not just in terms of earthshaking designs, but user-friendly ones too.

Images via Flickr

Featured Image Source

No Comments


Get updates on new articles, webinars and other opportunities:

Daniel Tay

Daniel is a Content Strategist at Piktochart, where he writes regularly about creativity, design, and storytelling. His motto in life: Always be improving, always be loving. Check out his latest articles on visual storytelling over at the Piktochart blog.


Comment Policy

Please join the conversation! We like long and thoughtful communication.
Abrupt comments and gibberish will not be approved. Please, only use your real name, not your business name or keywords. We rarely allow links in your comment.
Finally, please use your favorite personal social media profile for the website field.


Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Show Me My Heatmap

I’m just @crazyegg’ing everything these days.

Kyle Mitchell


What makes people leave your website?