[56] Email Design 101 - A Collection Of Tips You NEED TO KNOW With Roland Pokornyik, CEO Of Chamaileon.io

[56] Email Design 101 - A Collection Of Tips You NEED TO KNOW With Roland Pokornyik, CEO Of Chamaileon.io

CWEG 56 | Email Design


Email design continues to make or break email performance. And we get it - if you are a small company, it is a laboring task to create great, functional emails. If you are a seasoned marketer working for a big brand, you may have your "brand" goggles on, blocking yourself due to making them email "perfect," which likely means you are getting no email out the door or they are built the wrong way. Today, I am sitting down with Roland Pokornyik, CEO of Chamaileon.io. Roland is a seasoned email marketer specializing in email design, dark mode, and email accessibility. You are going to want to have a way to take some notes handy - Roland has some great tips!


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Email Design 101 - A Collection Of Tips You NEED TO KNOW With Roland Pokornyik, CEO Of Chamaileon.io

We are back talking about email design. It is something that if you're a small business owner, you probably can't even get your arms around how important it is to think through the nuances that go into email design. If you're a seasoned marketer working for a company, you might have what I call brand goggles on and you're constantly looking for this email to be an unrealistic depiction of what it is. The truth of the matter is email is a living, breathing vessel. It has to get through internet service providers. It has dark mode functionalities. You have to ensure that it's mobile-friendly. We have accessibility constraints. The more that time goes on, the stricter it is.

Remember, we are not preparing a website or an infographic for a PDF download. We're preparing something that has multiple micro conversions and the first one is, can I get it to the person delivered in the right inbox? Not the spam folders nor the promotions folders. To do that, there are some very important email design no-nos. Spoiler alert, building your entire email based on images is a no-no. If you're one of those folks that you've got to have the typeset and the font looking like your brand, you're doing yourself an in-service in 2022 by sending out an email.

That is why I decided to sit down with Roland, CEO and Cofounder of Chamaileon IO, which is an email creation platform for teams. He's a seasoned email marketer. He specializes in email design, dark mode, and email accessibility. He regularly shares his views on the Chamaileon blog, in communities, and online-offline email-related events. Please read some of the great tips that he shares in this episode. Let's jump right in.


Roland, how is it going?

Amy, it’s nice meeting you. I did my cycling, so everything is fine.

You're having a good start to your day. We're excited to have you on the show talking about email design, which is something that we hear every week in Q&A. It's constantly coming up but before we jump in, why don't you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?

I'm from Hungary. My family name is quite hard to pronounce, so you don't need to. I've been involved in email marketing for many years. In the last few years, I've been the Founder of an email design-related company. We are building an email production platform called Chamaileon IO. This is for marketing teams who would like to scale their email creation process, help them build up their email design system, and speed up the whole production from the two-week timeline to 1 day or 2. In some cases, even in hours. That's what we've been focused on for many years. That's pretty much why I became interested and involved in email design.

That is exciting that there might be some platform coming out that can help marketers do that. Kudos to you for that.


CWEG 56 | Email Design


There are a few other platforms like ours. We have a different approach but you need to differentiate somehow. We've been focused on image quality and design flexibility in the last few years.

I hear that the most when I'm talking to clients. It's design flexibility. You don't have the ability to have a coder in some cases. Some of these tools are very rigid. It's hard to make your designs come to life. That's exciting. I want to go ahead and jump right in. We have a lot of good conversations but first, this is maybe the question of the hour. Talk to us a little bit about how email design can make or break email conversions like sales, whatever that conversion metric is.

Even before, the design would matter. What matters is the subject line, the preview text, and the sender's name. That should deliver some trust to the actual subscriber. That's what I advise pretty much anybody to optimize for at first. Once you have those nailed, that's when you can focus on the design part because they don't reply to your email, no matter how nice it is. We see many of those examples. I see a bunch of emails in my inbox, which otherwise would look nice but I would never open them. That's where it all starts. Once you have it open, that's when you can dive into making them convert to your desired goal. What matters is the email should stand for your brand.

We see that the brand identity is or being on-brand. The bigger the brand, the more important it is but it should be important also for small ones. If I check out the email, I need to see your logo, colors, or pretty much something that I would see on your website or in your other materials. That's a big must-have. We see some seasonal campaigns. If you want to update the color scheme or anything like that, you need to be cautious because some people might not even realize that it came from your brand. Those who are afraid of these changes won't do it.

When we talk about branding being so important, I do think they're right. There is that fine line. You tended to mention the important parts of the brand, the logo, the identity, and the colors. Every time I open that email, I know it's from this brand but some brands take it so far that they're very fixated on the typeset so they ended up building the email and images. Tell me a little bit about how you feel about that.

I'm fully against the image on emails, to be frank with you. I don't think that the font would matter. I have this conversation every month where the customer is like, “I need this font.” I say, “You can have it and add it.” We support custom fonts in our software. “It's okay. You can have it but most of the people won't see it.” To be honest, they don't care. If they only want to read the message or if they don't want to, it doesn't matter what font you use. The image of all emails is a bad practice, especially when you want to enjoy the email on many different devices.

Screen readers cannot do anything with image-only emails. It's hard to optimize them for mobile. You can but it's a tiresome process. They look old in most cases when viewed anywhere else apart from your browser. They even had some YouTube videos. We wanted to create a YouTube video series where we rebuild images on the emails in proper HTML using our software. There are 3 or 4 videos like this. In most cases, it's doable.

Some brands occasionally send image-only emails. It happened quite often when COVID first struck. Everybody had to send out an email fast and they were not prepared to create something nice from scratch. They had to fall back to the image-only. Ask the designers, “Please create a nice email for us so we can send it right away.” I saw emails from Nike. Typically, they tried their best to send each of the emails but some ended up being image-only. To me, it's an absolute no.

Your emails should stand for your brand.

This is one of the biggest battles that we face, unfortunately, with the iOS 15 updates and people that have their images blocked. A fully image-based email can come over as blank, so you've missed everything. You think about conversions and say, “What a waste of an email.” You went out of the gates. Not to mention it can be spam flags and everything else. In addition to that, are there any other components or examples of what you would consider poor email design?

There are many things. I took some notes for myself. It's usually related to how readable the text is. If the text is too small or the contrast between the text, color, and the background is too low, that won't work either. I see many emails buried in the text. Even paragraphs are center lines. You shouldn't expect people to read those. The best practice is to leave the line if it's more than three lines. There are so many brands that ignore it. It's nice to have things center line but don't expect people to read it because it harms the readability.

It's not even natural for our eye path to look at things in center lines.

From a design perspective, it's also important what buttons you use as ghost buttons. Do you know what ghost buttons are?

No, I'd love for you to explain that.

The ghost buttons have only an outline. They are not solid. You only see an outline and some text in the middle. Those are pretty nice from a design perspective. They were a bit overused in the last few years. They are not as trendy anymore but those typically harmed conversions. Not all people realize that it's a button or in some cases, it's not visible enough. It's important what button you use.

That's a great tip. Speaking of the brand conversation, I know a ton of my clients that insist every single time, “The button needs to be white with the black outline.” You're like, “Ah.”

I spoke about email accessibility years ago. There are many things that you would need to consider. I already mentioned the contrast ratio and the size of the text. These are things that matter, even if you want to make your emails accessible. On the other end, what's annoying and I still see are broken emails, emails that are not readable on mobile devices. Thankfully, there are many advocates for responsive design. We don't need to mention it anymore.


CWEG 56 | Email Design


When we started back in 2013, 80% of the emails were not mobile-friendly at all. In 2022, maybe it's only 20% to 30%, which is not mobile-friendly but still, some senders ignore these requirements. I had image-only emails among my notes but that's a big no, at least to me. You can send an image-only email to put on an internal newsletter because if you use Outlook for sending, then you can't send out anything properly. It's okay for internal emails but public-facing messages should be HTML emails or, in some cases, text emails but it depends on your use case.

A lot of times, when we look or deal with clients, especially ones in small teams, they would rather not send an email at all than send one that's more text-based with a logo at the top. I always argue, “The value of the email is what matters.” If you're giving value, you can do the text-only one but I'd love to hear your perspective on text versus HTML. Do you feel like simple can be better in some cases? How do you feel about the two of these? Where might they fit in?

It depends on the industry. Text-based messages are typically for consulting services or info products. If you're selling a course or you're trying to sell information and not something that is a visible thing like tangible products or for example, software in our case or anything like that or any subscription service, in many cases, you would need to rely on fancy HTML emails.

If you are in the InfoComm space or you market your newsletter as a subscription, in that case, it’s not necessary. You can go for a simple design. I wouldn't call it text email because I don't think that anybody would send plain text email in 2022. In plain text, you can even track the operation. It's for us marketers. Minimal HTML emails are good in some industries. In those industries, they perform better than nice HTML emails. This is something that you might want to experiment with but it will depend on your audience and what you're trying to sell on the market.

I can remember one brand. They are called Groove HQ. They are a customer support software provider. They've been sending text emails forever. They tested it a few years ago and it worked better for them than anything else. Their emails are conversational, so they want to make them look personal and start some conversation with the subscriber. If that's your goal, you can go for text-based messages. If you would want to promote something like a product or any service, I would go for HTML emails.

It's funny you mentioned Groove. I also have received some of their emails. They are fun and conversational. They add a lot of value, so it's fun but thank you for that. I'm curious about email design systems. What are they? Why should you care about them if you're in marketing and you're sending emails?

The term design system became fashionable years ago. It started with Sketch and then Figma seems to replace them. We started using the term in email too. Email in our system is pretty much a collection of reusable components, modules, and templates that email teams can use to streamline their email workflow. The goal is to reduce time to market for emails because what I hear about email teams is they are always understaffed and overworked. They don't spend enough time with every message.

It's important to pre-adapt an email design system with solid foundations. This system typically includes a step where you define the main brand, colors, images, fonts, text sizes, and these basic things that you would expect to be carved into stone, especially if you have a brand identity of some sort. It doesn't seem to be as exciting a topic for small teams as for the big ones. The bigger the team, the more important it is to have a solid design system. We see that in many cases. These design systems are pretty rigid.

The bigger the team, the more important it is to have a solid email design system.

For some teams, it means that they once paid for a very long HTML email template. Since they don't want to pay for another one or they want to get rid of the iteration cycle to make updates to it, they slice it up and reuse it as template blocks. That's where you can get started. If you're small, have one solid email template and reuse the whole of it. That's one way to do it but thankfully, some tools let you build this template and customize every piece of it. We are one of those.

We’ve been focused on this specific need because we see that teams want to improve their efficiency. The only way to improve the efficiency of the email creation process is to have a solid foundation and be at everything from those elements. For example, if you design a hero unit once, you can quickly reuse it in any other email. In our case, you can define so-called variables in your emails. It means that you can define colors, fonts, and so forth. For example, if you want to create a seasonal campaign, you can do it in a few clicks because you change the color and it will update the whole email once. That's convenient and it saves a bunch of time.

That's excellent for those small teams who are running on hardly any resources to be able to put their best foot forward and get a good email off the door.

Sometimes I meet small teams, even with companies that have 1,000 downplays. There's still a team of 3 to 5 or, in some cases, 5 to 10 people involved in email somehow but they have many other different responsibilities. Not email-only in most of the cases. That's why it's challenging. If the email service providers are not too helpful in this regard, you can have templates there but it's going to be hard to maintain an email design system.

They are not built for that, especially some of the enterprise-grade. You choose either lack of a proper email editorial interface. Those companies are the ones who suffer the most and that's why they are the ones reaching out to providers like us to be able to create something more convenient than anything HTML.

No doubt. It's funny you say that because I'm always shocked after years go by and the interface of the builder never changes and you're like, “They had to have gotten user feedback by now.” It's hard to work on this tool.

I don’t want to mention service providers but that’s why I thought higher-grade solutions are the ones that lack this functionality.

As we wrap up, one of the things that's near and dear to my heart is testing and optimizing. Especially even when we work with clients, we have a testing log that we're trying to implement but the client is very resistant to testing and optimizing. It's the only way we know if something is going to work to get statistical significance. What are your thoughts about testing and optimizing email designs?


CWEG 56 | Email Design


There are certain must-have steps. One is there will be checklists you can find online. Make sure to send the test email because otherwise, you won't be able to catch any typos, or maybe if there's something wrong with the personalization tag that can cause you a hard time. There are so many minor details that are easy to mess up because you gave too many things. It's a must-have step to send a few test emails not only to yourself. What we see from a design perspective, the design doesn't matter for deliverability but the size matters.

If the email is too big, they'll be clipped in Gmail and you need to test for declipping behavior especially, there’s a 100 kilobyte-ish limit that you shouldn't lead. It's 102 kilobytes but in some cases, it's a bit less. Make sure to test the email size and the HTML size. Also, try to send it because sometimes, the SPS can add some extra code to it that might push you over the limit. What's challenging is the dark mode. I spoke about the dark mode in an email, even in Valencia, at the books expo. It's a nightmare.

It's hard to tell how many people use it. The statistics are quite diverse but I would say 1 in 10. The 10%-ish is the actual number of people who use dark mode. If you want to prepare your emails for dark mode, you better start the design system because otherwise, it will be a nightmare to test every email for dark mode. The way I did the test, we do have subscriptions to Litmus and email but I had to use my devices.

You need an iPhone and Android device. You need Apple Mail, Gmail and Outlook installed. That's the best that you can do. You need to send a bunch of test emails when you're building up your foundations. The only consistency among the dark modes is if you use a background image, it will stay the same. That's the only thing that you can make sure won't be changed.

Apart from that, everything changes. The text colors and background colors can change. It even depends on the actual content of the email. I tested if I added an image to a block, which had a certain background color, then the background didn't change, but if I removed the image, then the background changed. There are still combinations you need to test for that. It would be quite impossible to publish a checklist like, “Please don't do this or do this.” No, it's unfortunately more complex.

We could only find allocated Outlook’s dark mode logic. That's something that we built into our software. Thanks to a few fellow email geeks. They were the ones who documented it online but district bias tedious testing from a design perspective. This is a hot topic that marketers have been talking about. If I need to say, “If you need to talk about some things related to email design,” then I usually fall back to dark mode because that's a nightmare to test for. You mentioned the AB test and its significance. That's something that I also had among my notes because AB testing is pretty common but you need to make sure that the test was relevant enough before you would make the changes to your emails.

I love that you focused on testing out the email before you sent it. This is one of those things where you've got the person loading up their email and sending it out the same day. They rely on that proof within the ESP to see like, “What's this look like?” The more you can send those tests out to your point, you can start to understand things that keep happening again. To your point, it cuts off in Gmail, you can start to understand, “I need to make sure this email contains this much content.”

Stuff like that is easy for us to move forward. We can create repeatable best practices for ourselves. Every time we send a test email, we might find something new that we have to go back and fix. I am glad you touched on that because, for most of the audience out there, that’s going to be their biggest Achilles heel. They might not even realize that there were any problems because they sent the email out the same day. They never tested it.

What really matters in your email is the subject line, the preview text, and the sender's name. Having all of that should deliver some trust to the actual subscriber.

Who knew that it was getting cut off in their Gmail inbox or having all these dark mode issues? That's so important. I appreciate all the tips you gave. They were beyond invaluable for the audience. The most important thing is where can the audience get ahold of you if they want to learn more about the amazing tool that you're creating or to ask you some design questions?

They can always hit me up via email. It's Roland@Chamaileon.io. It's a bit harder to spell and remember. I typically write things on the website. I occasionally speak at conferences. I do too many things, so I'm not the most active person on Twitter but you might sometimes catch me. It's @RolFic. That's my name on Twitter and pretty much the same everywhere online, including on LinkedIn. I'm not on Instagram and these new things and tools such as TikTok. Go back to email.

Thank you for taking the time and for joining us, Roland.

Thanks, Amy.


I don't know about you but speaking to Roland was a good reminder on email design. If I could highlight anything at all, his last note about sending yourself test emails and looking at your email clients, like sending the email to a Gmail account or a Microsoft account, it's so interesting because our team at Email Growth Society uses Litmus, which is a great tool but sometimes, it's so helpful to send the emails to yourself to where you can look at them as you are a recipient.

When he talks about big no-nos around full image emails and thinking about the dark mode, you can do this all when you're sending these tests yourself. It's something you cannot forget to do. If you have any questions for me, send them my way to Conversations@EmailGrowthSociety.com. Until next time. Happy emailing, everyone.


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About Roland Pokornyik 

I help digital teams transform their traditional linear email creation process into a no-code agile email workflow. The switch usually results in 10x faster email production and eventually a 2-3x improvement in their email marketing ROI.

I dedicated over 7+ years of my life so far to understand how digital teams imagine the ideal email production process and thanks to my team of 15+ smart individuals we managed to build the email design platform of their dreams.

Sounds like an overstatement, I know, especially since there are so many email design products already that we get compared with every day. Each of them seems to miss the point in one way or another.

For example enterprise tools like Stensul or Taxi for Email completely lack email design capabilities since their customers still need to hand-code their master email templates / modules.

If I look at other competitors like Bee or Stripo, they lack design flexibility and the email code quality doesn't satisfy higher-grade customer's needs either at all.

We devoted 30+ years of developer time and millions of USD to build Chamaileon.io the best no-code email design platform for digital teams. But what makes it the best?

1. A no-code visual email builder interface with deep design customization options and the flexibility needed to to create any bespoke email design system.

2. Our no-compromise approach to email HTML quality (https://chamaileon.io/compatibility) featuring background image support in Outlook, Gmail Promo card capabilities and email accessibility standards.

3. Real-time editing, team collaboration, and streamlined review&approval to help teams get their emails to the market ASAP.

Wanna learn more? Join our next Agile Email Worfklow seminar at https://chamaileon.io

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