E-mail is not a platform for design

All these years of internet use later, HTML mail still sucks. You may think I mean “HTML mail doesn’t work properly in some e-mail clients.” And that statement is certainly true. Companies spend hours crafting layouts that may not work in Eudora or Gmail, or may no longer work in Outlook.

Even in programs that support the crap code used to create these layouts, all that hard visual work will go unseen if the user has unchecked “View HTML Mail” in their preferences.

As for CSS, it is partially supported in some e-mail applications and in web apps like Gmail, but only if you author in nonsemantic table layouts and bandwidth-wasting inline CSS. Which is like using a broken refrigerator to store food at room temperature.

But when I say HTML mail still sucks, I don’t mean it sucks because support for design in e-mail today is like support for standards in web browsers in 1998.

I mean it sucks because nobody needs it. It impedes rather than aids communication.

E-mail was invented so people could quickly exchange text messages over fast or slow or really slow connections, using simple, non-processor-intensive applications on any computing platform, or using phones, or hand-held devices, or almost anything else that can display text and permits typing.

That’s what e-mail is for. That’s why it’s great.

E-mail is not a platform for design. Unlike the web, which also started as an exchange medium for text messages but which benefited from the inclusion of images and other media, e-mail works best when used for its original purpose, as the most basic of content exchange systems.

“Designed” e-mail is just a slightly more polished version of those messages your uncle sends you. Your uncle thinks 18pt bright red Comic Sans looks great, so he sends e-mail messages formatted that way. You cluck your tongue, or sigh, or run de-formatting scripts on every message you receive from him. When your uncle is the “designer,” you “get” why styled mail sucks. It sucks just as much when you design it, even if it looks better than your uncle’s work in the two e-mail programs that support it correctly.

Even though it doesn’t work right in many e-mail applications, and even though many users dislike it, HTML appeals to clients because it’s another place to stick their logo. And it appeals to the kind of designer who thinks everything, even a bullet hurtling toward his own skull, would improve if decorated. I hate that kind of designer almost as much as I hate people who hate design. That kind of designer gives all designers a bad name, and is chiefly responsible for the slightly amused contempt with which many business people view designers, art directors, and “creative” people generally.

Say it with me: HTML is for websites. CSS is for websites. GIFs and JPEGs are for websites.

ASCII means never having to say you’re sorry.

Discussion closed

The conversation has moved on. Feel free to contribute to the follow-up posts.

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Eight points for better e-mail relationships

Okay, so under the right circumstances, when people have requested it, e-mail can be a platform for design. Here are eight ways to make it work better (and avoid pissing off people who hate HTML mail).

[tags]HTML mail, e-mail, marketing, internet marketing, design[/tags]

189 thoughts on “E-mail is not a platform for design

  1. Hey, who let Steve Champeon use your computer?

    I kid! But it’s funny ’cause it’s true.

    Of course, I agree about 150%. The first thing I do with any new e-mail client (or client version) is switch off all the HTML display options for any mail, set it to always compose in ASCII, and set it to never ever display linked images.

  2. … to the choir, man—preaching to the choir.

    I still love Eudora for its near complete lack of support for styled emails. In fact, Eudora won’t even handle the display when (for some rare reason) I want it. Instead, I hand it off to my browser of choice by selecting “view in browser.” Lovely.

  3. Can I just ask how you’re supposed to create an effective advertising mailshot with pure plain text? Surely that wouldn’t entice users to buy a product or service? What if e-mail is the only communication tool you have to advertise?

  4. As someone who still works for the man (=major corporation) and has to code those damn html-mails so they display correctly across all kinds of webmails (hotmail, gmail etc.) and mail clients (tbird, outlook, mail.app etc.) I couldn’t agree more – Why the hell doesn’t anyone tell people that mails are not the same thing as a web page? It’s not that I mind images in mails, but I do mind nicely designed emails, where the images are for decoration use only.

  5. I have to disagree on this one to say HTML email is inherently bad is just wrong. Well produced HTML email can be much easier for the majority of people to read. Something along the lines of the Amigo emails is, in my opinion, better than ASCII.

    The important point here is to provide options to the user, allow them to sign up for a plain-text alternative to the HTML email, include a link in each mail that makes it easy to switch between.

    It is of course wrong to force people to have HTML email but it’s equally wrong to inflict ASCII on evryone because that’s your preference.

  6. Great thought provoking article.

    Are there any instances where HTML email is useful? From a marketing perspective, do email messages that contain a product photo generate higher response rates than plain text messages with no photos? (I’m talking about legit, opt-in email, not spammy erection dysfunction junk.)

  7. Hehe. My thoughts exactly Eric. When I was reading the post my first thought was that it could have been written by Steve…whom which I agree with 100% regarding email. He’s the incredibly well-spoken Soup Nazi of email…I love it!

    Very refreshing hearing this coming from a designer.

  8. I don’t know if it’s only me I speak for, but I hate when I get html emails with offers and adverts in them. Like John, if I’m interested in the contents of an html email, then I’ll visit the website based on what I’ve seen before I even decide to download the pretty content.

    If you’re sending html emails, then email isn’t your only form of advertising – you should have a website as well. How about an RSS feed of your offers? That’ll show you which people viewing your advertising actually care about whether they receive it or not (if they even do receive it) – and it’ll make it easier to train your junk mail filter.

  9. The same arguments against HTML email were used back in the day against images on web pages, the use of tables for layout etc etc.
    I’m not sure the argument “Unlike the web, which also started as an exchange medium for text messages but which benefited from the inclusion of images and other media, e-mail works best when used for its original purpose, as the most basic of content exchange systems.” really works, simply because it isn’t true – in my job I often need to send images to people to explain concepts, and I use a CSS-styled signature that a) gets a lot of comments from people and b) degrades well when people can’t ‘see’ it.

    Of course, I hated the period a while back when I used to get loads of spam messages that were basically web pages. And I hate some HTML emails I get if they’re unsolicited – but I hate far more non-HTML emails, so what does that tell you? (Erm… nothing, probably)

    I think ignoring the potential of email as a communication device that transcends plain text and ignores the fact that visual literacy is more prevalanet than textual literacy is an ignore too far…
    Next you’ll be arguing that all pens should be sold in 3mm black ink only to avoid your uncle sending letters and cards with green marker messages all over them.

  10. Jasper –

    Whilst i’d agree RSS would be nicer than sending clunky HTML emails – unfortunately not all people who you may send emails out to would understand how RSS works or even what it is.

  11. Great topic! I’m with Victoria – as a publisher of medical illustrations and animations, there is no easier, effective way to show off my company’s products than with an email containing graphics (www.nucleusinc.com). HTML email’s 2%+ conversion rate crushes the text only emails we used to send out.

  12. Are you kidding!?

    Of course email is not a platform for design (DUH!) but that doesn’t mean to say you cant design HTML emails that work!

    I’m in marketing and I can tell you now that text emails do not produce anywhere near the ROI that HTML does.

    The author of this article needs to wake up from his dreamland sleep

  13. Great article! I work in a company where HTML emails are the order of the day. We have several brands, some of which email their consumer three or more times a month. I am the resident standards evangelist and the HTML emails, complete with their table-based layouts, and inline CSS just make me cringe. Unfortunately for me, they are a necessary evil. I don’t think I’ll ever convince them that by focusing on the content of their emails, the “branding” will come through without the need for the extra work and waste of bandwidth. In fact, most of our emails don’t even contain a plain text option, and there’s only so much you can do with alt text.

    Email I’ll tackle later. For now I’ve got to keep working on convincing them that we need to adopt standards on the sites themselves. Good grief.

  14. I agree!

    The only problem is when you are part of a company that does not understand this and insists on a ‘html-mail’ only policy.

    I fought it, long and hard, but I eventually lost the battle.

    The good thing is that, like all disgruntled employees, I manage to set my mail-app to only send text anyways and no one has complained yet…

    So in my own little universe: I WON!

  15. How do you feel about “rich text” emails? Emails that aren’t full HTML pages, but may contain slight enhancements to the text styles, just to make them more readibly (hopefully), which degrade nicely to plaintext.

  16. Aaron,

    Do you work at my company?

    PS : this website is adding an extra a onto your name

  17. I don’t feel strongly one way or the other about HTML in e-mails, but I think it’s hi-larious that the Deck ad that appeared in the sidebar when I pulled this post up was for MailChimp: “HTML Email Newsletters Made Simple.”

  18. I think you’re all luddites.

    Just because that is what email once was doesn’t mean that is how email needs to be today. Email is not just about the quick exchange of messages, it is a form of communication. Saying all emails should be plain text is like saying all letters should be black and white, in typewriter fonts, on A$ / Letter paper. They don’t have to be, and neither does email. Websites didn’t stop at HTML, we now have Flash, AJAX, etc. and much nicer experiences because of it.

    If you want to get emails clients to make a better job of displaying HTML / CSS, then that is one thing, and I agree with you. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

  19. I can’t tell if this is an honest, educated view or simply a rant – a rant I certainly agree with and have said myself many times.

    Unfortunately, whether you work for the man or think you don’t work for the man, I don’t think this view holds water.

    Marketeers, as much as we hate them, use numbers to justify their actions. And the numbers seem to always point to better responses form HTML emails.

    Email is not the place for design, it’s the place for marketeers and spammers… and html emails.

  20. Hi Jeffery.
    I think i have to disagree with you on this one.
    While i enjoy text only messages from friends, family and co-workers, i do also quite like seeing a well crafted html mail from some companies like Apple.
    i find that their newsletters are very well designed.
    As with everything else in life, you get the good with the bad…i’ve seen some horrendous email marketing and newsletters, along with some beautiful ones…
    but to say that email should stay permanently locked into a text only state…i don’t think thats reasonable or likely.
    If i didn’t know any better, I would have thought this article was written by Jakob Nielson….
    but i do know better, and i think that most likely you’re just having a bad day.
    I recommend going outside for a bit, grabbing a coffee, and strolling around fro a bit.
    cheers Jeffery
    i may disagree with you on this one, but you’re still our hero!

  21. Philosophically, I couldn’t agree more. I’m a text-only purist in my personal communications. When the design brief is to produce mailings that get people to buy stuff though, html emails do the job considerably better than plain text, so I can’t really say I agree with the article.

  22. Wow, I would’ve thought that twelve years of being on the web would have taught you that you’ve changed as the landscape has changed… guess not. I have to strongly disagree with you Jeffrey and agree with some of the people from Bedrock and say that, if done properly, HTML Email is a great way of sharing well designed information, a great way of advertising to people that want to get the information that they sign up for, and a great bang for the buck.
    As you stated, the web was once just for exchanging text info, as email was created for, so why is it that the web can grow up but email can’t?
    Sure, there are some hangups in the way that HTML Emails need to be developed and sent out – but that’s part of the challenge. Same with a web site… making sure that it renders in all browsers and OS’s properly is part of the challenge as well.

  23. Love the sentiment, Jeffrey. I think it’s a little more nuanced, however, than saying that a certain technology is good for one thing and not for another.

    For example, lots of folks are using RSS to read content in an environment bereft of the style of the site on which the text originates. I’ve heard some designers decry this as Armageddon, while some readers state this as the way things should be.

    I daresay that most folks are ambivalent…not that they don’t care when they can’t read (because they surely do) but that most interfaces are good enough so they don’t have to worry about it.

  24. E-mail is not a platform for design. Unlike the web, which also started as an exchange medium for text messages but which benefited from the inclusion of images and other media, e-mail works best when used for its original purpose, as the most basic of content exchange systems.

    That’s nonsense.

    So the web can and has evolved, and we’re all grateful for that, but email should remain a plain-text medium because… Jeffrey Zeldman says so?

    You might as well go on a tirade about email no longer being sent from one individual to another if you’re such a believer in it’s purpose as a quick form of personal communication. Maybe mass emailing shouldn’t be a technological option because it leads to a crappier email experience for everybody, since we’re talking about the “integrity” of the email experience.

    I hate spam and annoying corporate newsletters and ads and offers as much as the next guy, but that’s because they’re information I don’t want, not because somebody tried to stylize that information to be more eye-catching.

    Blame the content, not the medium. If you’re upset that email comes with headlines and paragraphs of text these days, then by all means complain about the cramming of too much information into the email. Discuss why email has become a medium for marketing rather than communication these days.

    But don’t berate a designer trying to make a headline look like a headline to be easier to read in the context. Otherwise, you should turn of the styling on your site, ditch the semantic markup, and let us all experience Zeldman.com in glorious plain text.

    not including a plain text version of content with the html version is totally lazy, and slightly evil

  25. And what if in the wonderful world of Utopia all major email-clients could handle all html fine so that everyone could drop their crappy table-and-inline-style-html and create their semantically correct html e-mails so nice that I could turn of all images and styles and enjoy their structured content properly (somewhat like RTF I give you).

    The good thing about e-mails (in contrary to web sites) is that you don’t have a lot of many-year-old html e-mails lying around that you have to support (not really true, but to some extent). Go html e-mail standards, go!

  26. This rant surprises me. I suppose the issue is “barrier to entry”: Your uncle can’t design a website and force it into your face every five minutes, but he can design an email to do the same thing.

    However, to blanket-bar all of this because “it just isn’t what it’s for” is a little backward-looking. We could have applied the same arguments to the web in 1996. In fact, a lot of people did – the web is “for” documents and structured information exchange, not design.

    Isn’t it?

    Maybe instead of ranting about how your inbox is piliing with HTML spam, someone (cough) should be lobbying mail client developers to better support CSS so that you can turn off the “design” by default and just have your plain text version. You know, semantically? Like the web?

    Isn’t that what the whole “standards” thing is about? Write once, view in any client? Delegate control to the client? Sounding familiar yet?

    Or do web standards crusades only extend to the areas of the web we don’t have a grudge against?

  27. I disagree. Sure, emails should apply minimal styling – readers are used to reading email in their chosen font. But why not include graphics?

    Plus MIME allows much better fallback than websites do — you can provide a plaintext version and mark it as alternative to a HTML version.

    MIME document design is more perhaps constrained towards simplicity than HTML web pages, but that’s a good thing, and does not mean there is or should be no design involved.

  28. Hate if you must, but html drives increased traffic and sales. Whether you’re designing a text-only or html email is irrelevant. You’re designing it period.

  29. You’re such a luddite! Solicited, legitimate HTML email marketing is a great way for brands to comunicate their message. To suggest that “[HTML email] impedes rather than aids communication” is cleary absurd. Do images in a newspaper impede communication?

    On the subject of CSS and standards in relation to HTML emails: it really doesn’t matter, so long as a plain text version of the email is also sent, which is inherently accessible.

  30. For those of you that are insisting that HTML mail enhances the message you are trying to convey to the recipient, please take a moment to consider what happens when that message is garbled beyond recognition.

    Jeffrey’s point is that there’s no guarantee to how the message will be presented. If your message revolves around a product image, and that image is missing, what will I take away from the correspondence?

    Another consideration is the growing amount of image SPAM. Filters around the world are learning to ignore messages that contain image data. By sending your message as HTML, it’s likely that it will go missing before it even gets a chance to reach your client.

    Finally, as an ever increasing flood of information arrives in our inboxes, brevity is a huge bonus. Giving a 25 word pitch that leads me to your website will be much more effective than trying to cram that website down my throat.


  31. Agreed on *so many* levels – and I share the common rant on styling Email templates.

    Actually, it reminds me of a lot of things I’ve been asked to build as a web designer – like interactive forms on PDF’s instead of web forms*. Why does the bridge have to be so large between print/advertising design and web design? Is it the small community I work in? Do I need to communicate better with my design peers?

    I think a great case study for this is the AIGA redesign by Happy Cog, and it’s encouraged me to challenge the GDC Victoria Chapter (Graphic Designers of Canada) to re-consider the web industry. We may be a small community, but it’s a step that could bring understanding to both sides. Heck, maybe we’ll even stop bitching at eachother :)

    *yeah, this depends on the user goal – but if all you’re doing is collecting sign up’s?…

  32. I think one thing that has been left out of this entire discussion is the amount of bandwidth that is wasted by HTML email. It’s ridiculously irresponsible. Think green.

    I’m also personally tired of people claiming that feeds are too complicated for their users and customers. Feeds are easier and more convenient than emails, and you don’t have to worry that your email is getting flagged as spam or looks like a hideous mess. The problem is that people aren’t taking the time to show people how easy it is. Shameless plug: feedquickstart.com

  33. Craig, you are 100% wrong. As others here have noted, people open image-laden emails moreso than purely text emails (talking about email marketing campaigns here.) The numbers just don’t back you up. People respond more to images. Think about it… if I get an unsolicitated email and actually get to the stage of opening it… would I be more likely have a message communicated to me by being forced to read the content or by being shown an image. The answer is clear. And I would venture to say that your message is communicated to a greater number of people despite not showing up in some email apps than having people read what you write.

    Zeldman, the sentiment that email should be used for its original purpose is like saying cell phones should only be made for making phone calls. Furthermore, at one point browsers weren’t supporting css right? Should everyone have stopped using it? No… in the beginning, you just won’t have perfect support, but you have to keep pushing forward. Hopefully in the future, you’ll have a greater range of email apps embrace standard based html/css. Why the hell not?

  34. I agree with you @90% Looking at the responses, it looks like most of the people who agree with html emails are looking at it from a marketing prospective. And the ability to look at what they are selling, is one of the foundations of modern advertising. See the prices for advertising at the superbowl for example. The point is made stronger by the fact that we live in a world that is becoming… more… um… illiterate. When you get hit with more and more visual input, some people think, I don’t have time to read through this email to find out what this person is trying to sell me.

    But the points against html email is strong to. I, for example, am on the road a lot and use a laptop for most of what I do. When I’m able to plug my laptop into the world wide web, I might only have a couple minutes to download a copy of my email before the next flight. I don’t want my time and bandwidth wasted downloading ads for things I don’t need in a format that looks detracts from the actual ad. No, I don’t want to read that “funny” chain mail about you coworker’s father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.I don’t want to read you’re flashy signature with the company logo and this week’s slogan. Oh no, you’re email was made to work in outlook. I guess it’s my fault for not getting that new version of the office suite…

    I’m not anti-social, but I would just like to get to the facts.

  35. Like it or not, html email is here to stay and it does work. I created countless html emails in our various campaigns and the bottom line is that they do the job.

    It is true that you cannot create one [html] email that will be guaranteed to display properly in all mail clients, but you can hit most. The key is knowing what you are doing. Images are adjuncts to messaging in html emails…if the user can see them, that’s great. If they cannot, you need to make sure that your core message is readable.

  36. I think this reaction is standards purists sighing when faced with the new axe of Word rendering falling on Outlook, pondering the steaming pile of workarounds they’ll have to dive into and just, giving up.

    So where’s the contempt for MSFT and the developers of email clients that refuse to embrace standards?

    But if you work with any kind of group that needs to communicate to the consumer – a consumer that you used to have send tree-mowing direct mail to – email is now your only direct link to them. And while you website may be great, if you’re product or service is seasonal, you’ve got nothing now except email to communicate with them. Adding between season content only gets you so far.

    Perhaps M. Zeldman has a unique knack for writing very persuasive copy, but with all the other general “noise” hitting inboxes these days, I still think visually connecting with your client is long going to be the best way to motivate them.

  37. Although I agree with you in principle and because I personally dislike html email, your arguments are really just opinion, and you cross the line into hyperbole when you say things like “I hate that kind of designer almost as much as I hate people who hate design.” Do you really think that designers are responsible for the decision to send html email? Should every designer required by management that is asked to produce html email take a stand on principle, even if it means losing their job? ‘Cos that sort of seems to be the logical end to your reasoning.

  38. “ASCII means never having to say you’re sorry.”

    ASCII? Surely you meant UTF-8 encoded Unicode, yes? Email isn’t just for English anymore.

  39. While I’m sure a 2% response rate is something to be proud of in the advertising world, those of us who are forced to consume this detritus would rather not be the 98% that finds this irritating and invasive.

    Left unsaid is that people are reviewing emails in many different ways. I have corporate email access via Crackberry, Outlook Web Server, Outlook via Citrix, and Outlook via normal desktop. Receiving an html email on my Blackberry sends me into new levels of irritation, and I can assure you that it is immediately deleted. I can’t use it, I can’t get any information from it. Send it to me in text, give me… content, not color, and then I’ll read whatever it is you want to communicate.

  40. Most of those speaking here in favor of HTML e-mail support their position by arguing that it is easier to sell stuff with heavily formatted e-mail, because all the pretty pictures short-circuit the reader’s critical faculties.

    From my perspective, they’re making Zeldman’s point for him.

  41. I’m not against HTML email. I’m against unsolicited email, poorly designed HTML email, and quirky email readers. The web has had similar problems, but there has been more improvement with browsers than with email readers.

  42. @Tim Swan:

    Do you really think that designers are responsible for the decision to send html email?

    In most cases, of course not, and I don’t begrudge any designer for doing what a client requires. We all sometimes have to do things we disagree with; we can’t always persuade every client to choose the right things.

    What I’m talking about is the designer, and there are some, who seize inappropriate opportunities to flash their chops without ever considering what the person on the other end of their design communication really needs.

    Should every designer required by management that is asked to produce html email take a stand on principle, even if it means losing their job?

    Of course not. Not what I said. I work too, you know.

    @Karl von L (how European is von L!):

    Surely you meant UTF-8 encoded Unicode, yes? Email isn’t just for English anymore.

    Indeed, and it never was only for English.

    But no writer of any sensibility would perpetrate a phrase like “UTF-8 encoded Unicode means never having to say you’re sorry.”

    @BC said:

    While I’m sure a 2% response rate is something to be proud of in the advertising world, those of us who are forced to consume this detritus would rather not be the 98% that finds this irritating and invasive.

    Thank you.

    @Adam Rice said:

    Most of those speaking here in favor of HTML e-mail support their position by arguing that it is easier to sell stuff with heavily formatted e-mail, because all the pretty pictures short-circuit the reader’s critical faculties. From my perspective, they’re making Zeldman’s point for him.

    They are indeed! But they don’t realize it.

  43. Mr Zeldman,
    when you say “… nobody needs it. It impedes rather than aids communication.”
    the [It] in question is design itself. Surely the whole point of design is to enhance communication.

    The sad fact that 99% of these designed communications fail to do this might be the fault of a mismatch in delivery, and technique/design skill of the author, but you can’t ban it because you don’t like what people do with it. Most of the time, for most messages, you don’t need to make design decisions outside the text. But as designers, we should be able to expand our communication using design, if we want to.

  44. That’s horse pucky man!

    Nylon was not invented so that people could jump out of planes, but guess what… it makes a damn good parachute. Still, there are rules or boundaries that one needs to follow. Like you can’t jump with only 1 square foot of nylon or with 50,000 square feet. As long as you use it in a reasonable manner it works great. Like nylon, HTML email can be a very useful and even beautiful thing when used reasonably.

    It’s like I once told my network admin… you can’t lock everyone in jail because one person might someday break a law. You need to post the laws and when someone breaks them, kick their A** to the curb!

    Hmm… maybe that’s the solutions. We just go up and kick the people that abuse HTML in email. Sounds fun to me.

  45. For those wondering what the alternative is to styled emails: Good and terse copy writing! And a link to your enriched newsletter, website or splash page.

    Don’t forget that all those images and code also take up bandwidth and disk space. The rich styling on your own site doesn’t take up any space or bandwidth on my servers or hard disk.

  46. Most email could be just as well served ASCII? Agreed.
    Being able to send as ASCII, and not load images on incoming email is a good thing? Agreed.
    All email? Disagreed. At the very least, things like links, fonts, and colors are not without merit.
    ASCII email wouldn’t have this problem of tackiness? Disagreed. I still remember before HTML email, and heavy, unnecessary use of smilies, all caps, and ASCII art.
    HTML is part of the problem? Disagreed. I also remember the tackiness when desktop publishing first came out. I believe there were also calls to stick to line-printers.

    It’s not the HTML that makes the emails tacky. It’s the majority of its users. Removing HTML doesn’t make the users more stylish. I see the solution in templates and other ways to encourage good design. And let UTF-8 be the default.

  47. Zeldman,
    This was one of the best and most concise arguments I’ve seen against HTML email. And while I disagree with the sentiment – in part, because I believe in the theory of evolution :) – I appreciate your putting this out there.

  48. I work for a small nonprofit and while all the basic rules of marketing apply, the biggest part of the HTMLification has to do with looking credible in the eyes of an audience that is mostly consumer-driven. Unfortunately, a text-only email from us could look unprofessional and under funded (though users do get the option to switch to text if they’d like). We’re like one of those coral snake impostors with the pretty colors but none of the poison–our emails are actually informative and we don’t have to wrestle the pig to put the lipstick on.

    As for the metrics, HTML emails have upped our click-through and donation rates, though there’s an M+R study that found that even an adorable picture of polar bears in an email appeal did not up donation rates. Gives us noncute nonprofits hope.

  49. I think it’s a case of the right tool for the job. Some things html mail is better, other things text mail. Yes you might want to use html mail for some marketing purposes, it would depend on the message and the target audience. Would be nice though if the marketers realised you don’t have to go overboard with the html.

  50. Dear foamy-mouthed designers and braindead marketers,

    Please, put one-tenth the effort you put into your crufty HTML emails into a text-only layout and then gather some metrics. Text-only does not mean a single, large block of incomprehensible babble that gets sent along with your HTML.

    I very rarely see a nicely-formatted text email from a marketing company. It’s not an impossibility, you’re just too damn engraved in your HTML mindset to try it.

  51. The big advance Apple is touting in the mail client in Leopard is how easy it is to make beautiful HTML mails. Many templates are provided. If animation is provided my email template will have a melting iceberg a rising sea level and a mosquito whining in stereo from one ear of my email recipient to the other.

    I will have them all click through to this excellent article by Mr. Zeldman on how we should be using words to communicate with each other.

    Ice is hot by comparison to this cool idea…

  52. Using html mail allows me to reduce my advertising budget allowing me to pay for YOUR salary to design my website and Mail – so quit your whining and design what I tell you to!

  53. I’m amazed at the quantity of marketing droids piping in here. I really don’t understand why one would put any effort into design for marketing that will get lumped in with “Enlarge your strawberry today!”, “Wife thinks your jar is too small? Take our p1ll totally great valencia!”, “Marketing Corp. XYZ wants you to be their customer!”… I suppose its already been said, but I wanted to say it too.

  54. Have to agree with Victoria and Ron Collins…email marketing is BIG business for most web retailers. My dad, wife, and friends don’t know the difference between plain text and HTML email and that one is better, faster, more efficient than the other…all then know is they click on the pretty pictures. Though I love your work as much as the next web geek Jeffrey, we all can’t make a living being protocol purists. Wink, wink. Love ya Jeffrey…seriously. :)

  55. I agree that most companies’ HTML emails are obnoxious, but only because they’re not well designed. Not just because they’re designed. I don’t think we should eliminate email design, but improve it, in much the same fashion that we have been improving design on the web.

    There are instances when design can aid communication, even in email. I agree that it should be minimalistic, but I see no reason why a person/organization shouldn’t include an image here and there to support their point, headlines and bulleted lists for structure and improved readability, and maybe even some of their company branding if the brand is important.

    I normally agree with the things that you say, but in this instance you seem to be saying that design impedes the message, whereas as a designer of course you know that good design compliments a message. Why email being the medium would change this basic premise of the art baffles me. I don’t think you support your point well.

    As far as technical limitations are concerned, there are plenty of people with images, JavaScript, or Flash disabled on the web and a fair few who browse from handheld devices, but that doesn’t stop us from using these technologies so that they may benefit the people who do have them enabled. I see no reason that email should be any different, so long as we ensure that things still work when technology is limited.

    The way that you equate decoration with design here worries me. I’m certain you know that they’re not the same.

  56. @Blain:

    It’s not the HTML that makes the emails tacky. It’s the majority of its users.

    Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

    However, guns will never go away as I’m sure HTML email will not either.

    The point I think Zeldman is making is that anyone can go online and start inundating the world with their cleverly crafted HTML email marketing messages. The problem with that is by law now, if you want to send out a bulk email message of any kind — you must provide a double opt-in mechanism. This means that we have to jump through some hoops in order to get your marketing material in our inboxes… yet so many of us still get them anyway.

    Who’s sending out HTML emails? Marketers trying to sell something? Hmmm… aren’t I already a customer if I have to opt-in to receive your email TWICE?

    Generally, if I receive an HTML email trying to sell me something, it came unsolicited. As a “power user,” I have Procmail filters and scripts that automatically report said emails to spamhaus.org et al before I even see them. So really, you’re not catching me in that 2% of yours.

    I really don’t see the point of HTML email. It’s ugly, kludgy, and spammy. All the design and flashy graphics in the world don’t save the paper versions that appear on my doorstep; it sure as heck doesn’t work for email either. Blasting out a few hundred thousand emails and hoping 2% of them respond and by something is like the exact definition of spam.

    I have to side with Zeldman here.

    In the interest of full-disclosure, I am a programmer and still use mutt as my preferred email client. I like monospaced fonts and the stark contrast of black and white. I can read. I prefer minimalism — how little does something need in order to operate effectively as intended? Email IS fine the way it is and the client does have a choice as to how it displays the textual information. With vi as my editor, I have syntax highlighting for emails that “prettify” the display of the emails for me according to how I, the client, choose to view my email.

    No markup is needed to do that.

  57. I’m going to parrot the comments that say that the pro-HTML email folks are making JZ’s point splendidly. I searched for one of those supporters who didn’t favor HTML email for marketing reasons…but I don’t see any.

    Content on the internet and content in email are not analogous, and it all comes down to choice. You choose, the vast majority of the time, which websites you want to visit. You choose which sites you do business with.

    You do not choose what hits your inbox…and this grows more and more true every day. Unfortunately for those that would like to use HTML mail for legitimate reasons, that medium has the sterling reputation of being a spammer’s favorite, which leads to many people choosing to set their email programs to summarily discard all that hard work you put into designing a 200KB email to send me that I probably didn’t ask for in the first place.

    And for those who say that you can’t market without the graphics…remind me…what is the most popular ad delivery system on the web right now?

  58. I think that there’s a way to use HTML email responsibly. A nice graphic header with appropriate alt text, a body properly marked up with and and tags, maybe even , etc. And possibly a graphic footer, also with appropriate alt text. Some links so I don’t have to do the whole copy-paste thing, especially if a long URL ends up broken on two lines and I have to deal with multi-line paste problem. And of course, a text-only option if that’s what I want.

    That’s about where it should end. This whole 16 nested tables and 100KB of inline css is just over the top.

  59. Tell me about it. I finally got everyone on board with our re-branded legal practice newsletters is nice, clean semantic HTML that degraded perfectly in a blackberry. All has to be redone … to circa 1999.

  60. Doug:

    I searched for one of those supporters who didn’t favor HTML email for marketing reasons…but I don’t see any.

    Um, me.

    I guess I just want to emphasize that my point is not that HTML email is okay as it stands, but that it has the potential to be, when done properly.

  61. Marketroids need to realize that there’s a serious problem with getting kickbacks beneath 5%. The problem is that there is an equal percentage of people so offended by being spammed, that they’ll look for alternatives to your product. These people don’t bother to inform you of this, they just quietly decide to avoid your stuff.

    It is, for example, why companies like google, with it’s splash site free of extraneous content, and free of banner ads, steamrolled companies like Altavista and Excite.

    Passive Advertising; offering comprehensive information to the customer on-demand, used to be a very unfeasible medium before the advent of the current broadband internet. This is why advertising had to work through active advertising; through shoving your products in the customer’s face; as intrusive as it was, it was the only way to notify them of your existence.

    But that paradigm is starting to fail – these days, through things like amazon, google, and wikipedia, customers can look for your product with ease; in fact, it’s now the primary means by which they find you. The majority of your advertising budget should be spent on being meeting their informational needs when they come to you – things like having a clear, informative website, like having a direct e-commerce system, or direct amazon links so that people can purchase your product without the ordeal of figuring out where they can order it from.

    Cite figures all you want to contest this; but be aware of the mixed variable in your surveying methods, such that people who prefer to recieve passive advertising also prefer not to respond to surveys asking “how they found out about your product”.

    Just curious, but if you were a business owner selling widgets, how would you rate the following in terms of its importance to your success? 1 is highest, 5 is lowest.

    -Web presence
    -Graphic design
    -Work environment/esprit de corps
    -Satisfied customers

  63. How did this become an argument about spam and unwanted marketing? I’m not a marketer, and I have my mail client set to only display text email. That said, if someone wants to subscribe to an email newsletter that uses html formatting what, exactly, is the harm?

    Is html poorly supported in mail clients and therefore a crappy design medium? Yes. Is email somehow better if kept as text only? Maybe.

    But let’s not cloud the waters by bringing spam into this discussion – we already hate spam. And why all the vitriol toward marketers, designers, etc.?

  64. I recently tried and failed to find studies on the relative effectiveness of HTML versus plain text emails. Does anyone know of any such studies, ideally conducted by independent researchers?

    This aside, successful email campaigns can be conducted using plain text emails, just as unsuccessful campaigns can be conducted using HTML emails. Moreover, the ever increasing volume of email people receive would seem to call for a light touch when it comes to marketing emails.

    Of course I say this as someone who has turned off HTML display in his email client, so perhaps I’m not able to see past my own bias.

    I do know this, though: effective communication does not require a background color.

  65. After reading half way down the comments I took a step back and started thinking that people on both sides (if there are only two?) of the argument may be talking about different things. We as people usually do not refer to the technical concept but of our own perceived function / purpose of that concept.

    For example.
    Email – as a way of advertising your product similar to leaflets and flyers is radically different from:
    Email – as a way to have a conversation with other people.

    Compare it to snail mail. Designed ads, leaflets, flyers may be unwanted and annoying. But they are usually clearly separated from my “real” letter and bills by the nice postal service. When I get advertising in a normal envelope I get quite annoyed because I expect a “real” letter.

    Personally, I primarily use the “Email technology” as a way of talking to other people asynchronously (was that spelled right?) and with a log kept of who said what. In this frame of reference, HTML-email offer little enhancement. Proper threading and sorting of messages, remote mailbox access from any computer, phone or other device are all issues of far greater interest to me. A merging of IM and email is also a much greater step forward that the ability to “design” messages.

    But it all depends on what email is to each of us.

  66. So this is what happens to old bitter designers?

    You are on a streetcorner two hundred years ago proclaming that written word wasn’t meant for the masses because it took too much time to learn to read.

    Sometimes to create compelling conversation (through text, visuals, and beyond) you lose those that can’t keep up.

  67. @Adam Rice

    Most of those speaking here in favor of HTML e-mail support their position by arguing that it is easier to sell stuff with heavily formatted e-mail, because all the pretty pictures short-circuit the reader’s critical faculties.

    From my perspective, they’re making Zeldman’s point for him.

    Right on, brother. It’s pretty fascinating to see the “marketers” in the house making the sorts of arguments that I’d expect from spammers and their ilk while the designers, whom one would expect to be all for “rich” email, are in support of plain-text. I suspect that has something to do with designers understanding that design isn’t just what a thing looks like but how it works, how the end user actually engages with the thing, whereas the marketers get all twitterpated by veneer. Understanding the medium is just as crucial to design as what the message looks like.

    I’d wager a bet that the same folks who are calling Zeldman a luddite are the ones who think that content-free evite emails are “engaging” because they send a user to a webpage filled with ads.

  68. Email could advance a little bit. I would love it if people were good about embedding calendar events, addresses, and contact info, or if the email client could semantically pick them up.

    Think of invitations to events like a BBQ at the park. Nobody minds receiving a pretty little card with a map of the park showing where you are going to do it. They might look at you strangely if you sent such an e-mail to a business client setting up a meeting or conference.

    Why should I go to Google Maps to map an address if the person is willing to make a direction map for me? Or what about when I was out shopping the other day and saw the perfect messenger bag for my roommate, I snapped a camera-photo and sent it to him in an e-mail.

    Design to convey information is key. For example, if you open a card and see lots of white with pink flowing script, it is probably a wedding or baby shower or something similar. You know something about the message without having read a word. Just like an e-mail with lots of product images, specific layouts and so on is probably spam and you can recognize it as such immediately.

    People who want e-mail to be quick and dirty tend to write very unconsidered, rapid-fire e-mails in my experience. Sure designed e-mails will be overused. But there are valid reasons for them.

  69. Thank you for this message, as an in-house marketer where our entire sales staff is on Lotus Notes, and with the newer versions of Outlook using Word versus HTML for display, this couldn’t be more true. A well-written plain text email beats a graphics- and design-heavy HTML email anyday. I’m hanging this up to point to, the next time a request for HTML email comes up.

  70. A few years ago I wrote an opt-in newsletter for a web retailer and managed the transition from text to HTML. After we introduced the HTML version, our conversion rate doubled. I still wrote the copy, and the basic structure of the copy did not change, but there was no denying the fact that it was effective in generating more sales. I, too, would be interested to know of any other research in this area.

    That is not to say that HTML e-mails are a magic bullet, or that the other building blocks of effective communication are any less important. Or that the effectiveness of marketing e-mails should be the guiding influence of e-mail usage. But to claim that good design cannot enhance the e-mail experience flies in the face of the claim that good design can enhance the web experience.

  71. Most of those speaking here in favor of HTML e-mail support their position by arguing that it is easier to sell stuff with heavily formatted e-mail, because all the pretty pictures short-circuit the reader’s critical faculties.

    This is missing the point, IMO. It IS easier to sell stuff with design. Email is a medium. Period. As a designer, I see every medium as having potential for design. Seems to me, you are either ok with or not ok with email being a medium for design. If you are against it, fine. But the fact of the matter is that it does bring in revenue (even at 2&) click thrus.

    Also, assuming everyone who is in favor of using html email is a spammer is just naive.

  72. @yaxu

    Sure, emails should apply minimal styling – readers are used to reading email in their chosen font

    Most e-mail clients let you chose the font to use when viewing plain text e-mails. The problem is that most people don’t even know the difference between a plain text and an HTML e-mail. They just know that if they use HTML then they get a toolbar that lets them change the font.

    One of the main reasons for the unnecessary use of HTML e-mail is because a lot of people don’t like the default font that is used to display plain text e-mail in the most popular e-mail clients. e.g. Outlook 2003, uses Courier 10pt by default and it’s much easier to use HTML than to dig deep into Tools -> Options -> Preferences -> Mail Format -> Stationery and Fonts -> Fonts -> Message Fonts

  73. Wow, far be it for me to disagree with JZ but in this case I think you’re plain wrong, wrong, wrong and a little out of touch. This article more or less confirms our experience with email marketing.

    Our clients using html email report increased website traffic, massively increased enquiry rates and far better customer communication, to the point that a lot of our clients have dropped print advertising altogether. We see professional permission-based email marketing as part of a whole with standards-based web design. Its part of the marketing mix. Without a means of delivering traffic most websites make a great billboard in the desert.

    To those who’ve jumped on the non-html bandwagon here, denoting email marketers as spammers or ‘non designers’ – grow up. I’m not seeing many plain text websites around here. Are you? If your argument stood up to scrutiny, why bother with the design for websites? Because its a medium for communication – just the same as email.

    Shouldnt you be joining the queue of standards-aware people working hard to get some sort of standards behind html email. I dont disagree with you in the case of html emails that are all image or employ no fallback techniques but there are growing numbers of people, like ourselves, working hard to professionalise html email in much the same way as you have with websites. We’re using primarily pure CSS layout, image replacement, few images and offering embedded text-only versions for those who dont want or cant read the html side of things – with a browser-based version as a fallback option for everyone who cant see the email rendered effectively in their client software.

    Regarding the email client issues – where were we with browsers 6-7 years ago? It also wasnt that long ago that a lot of people had your opinion regards websites. Jakob still thinks websites aren’t a platform for design. Seems to me that html email is in pretty much the same paradigm that websites were a decade ago – no standards, widely differing client software, bad design techniques etc etc.

    But look how far we’ve come with web design – a lot of the journey prompted and caressed by yourself. Time to get on board and fight the good fight (again).

  74. Stebbins:Also, assuming everyone who is in favor of using html email is a spammer is just naive.

    Naive? ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’

    Any marketing message with 2% response is spam, period. Do us all a favor and find a different career.

  75. @Damien

    I’m not seeing many plain text websites around here. Are you? If your argument stood up to scrutiny, why bother with the design for websites? Because its [sic] a medium for communication – just the same as email.

    Not to belabor the point, but I think that (unintentionally) proves my point. Email and the web *are* both mediums for communication, yes, but they are *different* mediums. Understanding that difference, understanding how the thing works, is what makes a designer.

  76. Any marketing message with 2% response is spam, period.


    I agree that 2% response (not my comment by the way) is poor, well short of the typical 10% response marketers would be looking for in other mediums such as direct mail etc, and more than likely unsolicited or poorly presented.

    However, we routinely achieve 30-50% open rates (recordable as this doesnt take into account those who read the plain text or are not opening the email with images displayed) and up to 30% click-throughs.

    If 30% of readers click-through to the site, can you still argue that this is not an effective medium? If so, you show me another medium with these kind of recordable results.

  77. @Jim

    Understanding that difference, understanding how the thing works, is what makes a designer.

    This kind of divisive arrogance we can do without. Being open minded and able to recognise and employ what actually does work as opposed to the how, why or what we think in principle, makes for a successful designer.

    I’ve found a minority of ‘designers’ who are actually able to make it in the real world precisely for that kind of lordly art school attitude. You may well be a good designer though without the ability to spot and harness effective, developing trends, I’m afraid you’re dead in the water.

  78. @Damien – thank you for a well-written critique. I would like to hear Zeldman’s response. I think the comparison of today’s email to 1997’s web is appropriate and apt. We did not respond to the problems of ten or fifteen years ago by excoriating anyone who tried to extend web pages beyond text (all of the things Zeldman says about email could be said with equal validity about http), and I think it is a mistake to do so with email today.

    Also, I take issue with those of you think the only people who want to use HTML in email are scum-of-the-earth marketers. Think about your own correspondence using paper mail. How many of you would be content if the USPS banned everything but letters written on 8.5″x11″ paper using mechanical typewriters? No more birthday cards or postcards or home-made collages. Just letters, so that people can “quickly exchange text messages”. I enjoy being able to use different font sizes, italics, bold text, and images in emails to my friends and family, and I don’t see how any of that makes me less of a designer.

  79. I’ve written a follow up on this post, here and I’m really curious to know how much of your opinion is influenced by the announced changes on Outlook 2007.
    I see valid arguments being made both for and against HTML e-mail in specific uses, and I see that as an extra reason to say that one should use real and thoughtful design processes in e-mail composition and not consider that “e-mail is not a platform for design”.
    I understand that what the Campaign Monitor’s people consider a 5 year step back in mail reading for a huge share of users has to have some impact in how we approach mail, but should we decline to use it as a design medium? I don’t think so, bu I was counting with the help of experts such as yourself.

  80. Instead of focusing on marketing, I’d like to focus on HTML email as a communication medium. Just as the few HTML “tags” that can be used in this commenting system make comments more readable, so does HTML email. I can block quote for responses.

    It is said that a “picture is worth a thousand words”. This is especially true when giving instructions or reporting a software bug. Inserting an image can be very helpful for technical support. Just as in an article at A List Apart, code blocks can be helpful when sharing a coding concept.

    I think the backlash for HTML email is for unsolicited spam. To lump personal, internal business or business to business email is overkill.

  81. I’m glad to discover I’m not alone in hate hate hating HTML email. But it’s also silly to deny the ugly fact the marketers keep pointing out, which is that it is extremely effective.

    So given that HTML email is irritating, the key question should really be: is it really so irritating it should be forbidden? Paper junk mail is irritating but effective, and as a society we put up with it. Trucks rolling down the street with megaphones, blaring advertisements into our dining rooms 24/7 — this would also be irritating but effective, yet we do not allow that. What is the implicit norm which distinguishes these cases, and how does that apply to email?

    Let me make a suggestion. I think the difference is that my email inbox, like my home, feels like a *private space*.

    A company’s website is their website — it’s “out there”, and it can look however it wants to. I visit it, then I leave. But my inbox is “in here”. It’s only for me to access. It is central to my work and social life. If I keep old messages effectively using the inbox as a todo list, and as a time-sorted storage space for attached documents, then it’s more than a messaging system. It’s actually a kind of organizational system disguised. At this point, it starts to feel like part of my brain, and I feel like I have a right to dictate the formatting of the inside of my brain. I want to be able to impose uniform design on separate pieces of email, so I can handle them in the most efficient, content-oriented way possible, without interruption.

    I think this is part of why HTML email provokes such anger: the inbox has become the cockpit for a large part of work life and social life, and highly decorated email intrudes into what is, cognitively, a personal space.

  82. Hey Jeffrey,

    Mathew from Campaign Monitor here. It seems the core of your argument is this:

    I mean it sucks because nobody needs it. It impedes rather than aids communication.

    Now clearly we are wildly biased here as enablers of html email, but we do work with many thousands of designers and their clients using html email every day. Nobody wants spam, nobody wants really badly designed email, and nobody wants html forced on them. However, if I am being sent spam, I really don’t care if it is html or plain text – it’s spam!

    To say as a blanket statement that html email impedes communication is an extraordinary generalisation. There are many times when a well designed, and well laid out html email can be a lot clearer, easier to scan and overall better experience than the equivalent in plain text.

    For example, I’d much rather see a photo of my new niece than a thousand word description :) Or a map showing me where the party is. Obviously there is a lot of really over the top, poorly designed html emails being sent, but I suspect that the percentage of really badly designed websites would be pretty close to it.

    Should we say that all websites impede communication, because most people don’t design well? Consider transactional emails, thinks like hotel bookings and purchase receipts. Every single instance should have a plain text alternative of course, but being able to give the key information like booking dates or serial numbers a bit of visual weight is exactly what designers should be doing – making the experience better for the person on the end.

    HTML email doesn’t need to be full of images and ’18pt bright red Comic Sans’, it can be structured text with a decent line height and some helpful headings. The sooner email clients get some common support for web standards, the better for everyone.

    Shouldn’t we be thinking about what is best for our readers, and not ourselves? You clearly don’t want to receive html email, and of course you should not be forced to. My personal preference is for plain text in most cases, but not all, and many other people prefer html for some uses; who are we to tell them they should not want it?

    To summarise: Spam is bad. Shoddy design is bad, and no arguments from us. Saying all html email sucks based on particular usages and personal preference is also bad. We should all have learnt by now that we as web designers are not in charge of what technology is going to be used for, it’s the people at the end of the chain who get to decide that.

  83. Question: Why does this blog allow for XHTML tags in the replies?

    Perhaps it’s best to look at what, exactly, everyone means. I’m either fortunate or unpopular enough that what spam I do get is caught before it stays in my inbox. And what items that do get through are mostly plain text ones, mooting the HTML=spam argument for me.

    When I mean HTML, I do include things like Apple ADC newsletters and Opted-in spam, sure. But honestly, I think mostly of my emails to myself including not only notes from my phone, but photos as well. I mean emails my mother sends me (Although I’m not sure if that actually weakens my case; She forwards a lot of chain letter feel-good things).

    How about UTF-8 plaintext with nonloading attachments? Would that fall into the HTML or Non-HTML camps?

  84. Is every “designer” here missing the bloody point? Or are you just marketing drones who think that using Photoshop to slice up a mess makes you a designer?



    Try it, measure the results.

  85. It is 2007. High speed internet is the majority. We cannot tailor to those who are stuck behind or are too incompetent to get an HTML e-mail to display correctly. I find HTML e-mails to organize information in a great manner, and encourage more use of it! Each of my credit card companies, my bank and my bill companies send me HTML e-mail, and I am greatfull!

    And secondly, e-mail was only sent in basic design (i.e. white background, black text, no images) because everyone and their mom had 56k or the like. Now that we don’t, let us take advantage of high speeds!

    Interesting article though. To each his own.

  86. I will not agree that email IS a medium open to use and abuse with Spam and other slightly more legit marketing. That is, as I wrote in my previous comment, only ONE view of what email IS.

    The technical platform of email is in now way as sophisticated as ordinary snail-mail coming through my mail-slot each day. The reason I find most email advertising more invasive and offensive than direct-mail and other flyers and leaflets I receive is simply that email does not have an envelope. There is is no way to universally indicate what class of massage you are sending. There are many non-standard ways to try… no standard.

    I can see the large print and bright colors before I even get close to the pile of mail at my front door. In my inbox however, I can usually not determine if a message is an important message about my payment, product update or something useful until I open it.

    That is probably why you can get stats that indicate many people “read” your newsletters. You have to open it to before you can determine the type of message it is.

    Some envelopes I get look like an important “serious” letter but inside there is a “hidden” marketing message with no real value IMHO. These are a minority since most advertisers want their leaflets and flyers to look like advertising, not like a boring bank-statement. The problem is that the only type of email advertising that actually manages to look and smell like advertising is good old spam. Your spam-filter can pick out and sort these for you… usually into the trash but that is my choice.

    Email designers. Design email ads that I can pick out from other messages BEFORE I open them.
    Remember, I pay for my internet connection. That means I pay to download your images and bloated HMTL. A small problem on a DSL line but a bigger one on my cellphone where the rates are much higher.

    And again: I do not agree that email IS a medium for advertising. That is only the opinion of the 2%…. How much do you piss-off the other 98%?

  87. Come and buy!
    Buy now, click here!!!

    Maybe…designed blog comments is the new advertising platform? :)
    If I can, why should I have to desice if I should?

    How come Rolex does not send out spam?
    Why doesn’t BMW call me during dinner to offer great prices on a new car?
    Answer. They do not want to reach their customners that way. I call is taste. I call it good sense.

  88. Whats the fuss about? Mails are used to covey what you want the other to understand, but or sell… The content has to be designed for that other to prtoactively get involved and send you the feedback!! Designing on webmails is an absolute must. You are loosing vital customers and their thoughts by not giving them the option of saying their minds!!

    Not done!

  89. I’m with Fred Flintstone. Whilst not a brilliant designer myself I received some brilliant emails from the likes of GoDaddy. As for me I tend to find the original use of e-mail suits me fine!

  90. I think the post is pointless, though I’m on the side of the author. Because:

    1) The marketing people won’t listen e-mail geekies like us, they are right when it comes to “ordinary” people: People who can barely use gmail and be proud when they can change the color of the text to purple. HTML is much more powerful medium to sell by visuals, even though it’s not appropriate.

    2) Therefore no one can stop HTML mail and we’ll see much more adoption of it. Bandwidth argument also fails, because if the default e-mailing format will be HTML, the preference of masses is more important for bandwidth. One can’t expect HTML mail to disappear because it sucks. People use sucking OS’es, sucking MUAs, sucking everything because they only know it and too lazy to look for the better.

    3) Therefore the argument boils down to personal taste. In that manner one can always use gnus (like me) or change their MUA’s e-mail preferences. I don’t mind if anyone sends me HTML, in 99% of cases it’s not important and be discarded, for the rest I can save the file and open with my browser.

  91. I clicked through from Daring Fireball… was looking forward to a well thought out explanation as to why HTML email is just undesirable, and everything started out swimmingly. Unfortunately by the end, your conclusion boils down to “HTML email is bad because I don’t like it or the designers that make it.”

  92. I now huge fan either – but I do believe HTML email has it’s place.

    I receive a couple emails weekly that are done in HTML that are great and could not get across the same message using plain text.

    One is the ‘fontfont’ newsletter / another is the ‘creative tech tips’ newsletter. Its also worth looking through this gallery to find some of the cream of the crop .. http://www.campaignmonitor.com/gallery/

    Most types of raw information can improved by good careful design – why would information in email not be one of them ?

    I guess the main issue is that the good ones are few and far between.

  93. Really zeldman – do u live in a cave?
    websites – even css ones take up completely unnecessary bandwidth and require such expertise and so many workarounds by experts to work that you can just barely design for them. Most of the info cld just as well be ascii on websites. So whuy not appealling – half decent clever emails. What is the objection.
    I send emails to about 4000 ppl every week and I have never, NOT ONCE had a complaint that it was html. On the other hand I have had plenty of appreciation from ppl that they received a good looking easy to read email. I have also had complaints that the email was in some way broken – but not could you send plain text – rather “can you fix the html”!!
    Sure plain text is well and good for lots of purposes. But just leave me alone with the guilt trip and the I know better than you that email was designed to be just text ORIGINALLY. Fiffle – so was the web!

  94. If you’re saying that HTML mail is supported in wildly differing ways by different mail clients, please take into consideration the fact that Outlook can’t even follow the RFCs for plain text mail correctly. (It completely ignores the format=flowed and delsp=yes attributes, which leads to fixed-width columns of text with URLs that are broken in half.) Further, its display of plain text messages, as Mike Birch pointed out, is hideous by default. I would love to send plain text messages everywhere, but in the environment in which I work – a small college where most people are using Outlook with the default settings – plain text mail is actually less readable and usable than HTML. And when you include a proper plain text fallback, what’s the harm in using CSS with restraint?

    (That said, I still use plain text for all my personal mail, because I personally believe that people using Outlook are not my problem. However, the organization I represent has come close to throttling me in the past for using plain text in official communication and announcements, for the reasons mentioned above.)

  95. As someone who is normally tasked with generating the HTML for these, I agree that it may be a false use. A browser was invented for HTML, email clients weren’t.

    On the flip side, HTML emails tend to have better impact when recieved correctly. If no one is going to stop producing HTML emails, then surely the question should be shouldnt support for HTML in mail clients be improved?

  96. So many comments… I doubt anyone will get to the bottom for mine, but just in case…

    I like text to be easy to scan and read. Plain text doesn’t always work for this purpose. I think HTML styling for the purpose of readability and getting your point across in a quick glance would be the exception to this “rule”.

  97. I wholeheartedly agree, and this time I also thank you for reminding many people of the backbone of Internet’s killer app #1, namely being able to send text mails.

  98. Text vs. HTML

    OK, text it text.

    But HTML can be a lot of different things. It can be a nasty, image laden cluster bomb of images and fan-fare… or it can be a well thought out, professional effort to truly enhance readability, scan-ablity and provide impact and emphasis to the copy.

    I do HTML emails several times a week, I use images maybe once a month and then it is only as a reference to the copy.

    HTML is merely a tool. Its use is to ensure what I am trying to convey is presentable, that links don’t get garbled or broken, and that my reader enjoys the correspondence.

    I see where Zeldman is coming from… but the brush stroke is far, far too broad.

  99. I think ASCII is bad (evil?). As well as the whole 7bit stuff. As a non English speaker I’m supporting Unicode, and its utf-8 encoding. But even in 2007 you have to deal with many systems denying this international solution. Some people are sending utf-8 mails to lists, but they miserably fall apart when displayed with iso-8859-1 or iso-8859-2. So we shouldn’t put forward ascii anymore. It’s waaay too old. 7bit was cool when it was invented about forty years ago. And for english-only people: utf-8 degrades gracefully to ascii. We do not need those And of course: without html, but I don’t have to say this. Some people out there are still using pine :-)

    bandi from Hungary

    p.s. hope I wasn’t too off topic, I just wanted to point out that ascii should be forgotten

  100. Shh. Not too loud or my clients will hear you. HTML emails are big chunk of revenue for agencies, where it is another opportunity to overcharge for simple work :-)

  101. I guess one or two people who might ignore a text message might click on HTML email… *IF* It renders properly in their client, and *IF* important parts of the message are not stripped out by paranoid email gateway filters, and this is how we get the 2% conversion rate some people are so proud of (sorry, but *snort*)

    But… What about the rest of us? Those people who turn off HTML rendering in our email client (assuming it was ever an option to start with)? What about those whose client garbles the message because it doesn’t understand the layout techniques in use? What about those who get the images stripped out, and the vast body of the message WAS an image (this seems common these days)?

    HTML email absolutely guarantees that these people will NEVER buy from a promotional mailshot.

    Who knows, if marketing stick to just writing compelling prose and including a few links to see the product on a website somewhere, and get off their current ‘race to the bottom’ to embed ever more rubbish in emails, they might someday achieve the lofty goal of a 3% conversion from their mailshots.

  102. I might be a designer yet I dislike to see html crafted messages. In my own view of the world every advertising email equals spam – and what do you know, all HTML messages are adverts! Informational images are fine (attach them!) but I don’t want to see any crappy designers’ little purple spacer GIF or animated NEW! button flasing around.
    After all, do those HTMLmail defenders realise that most people don’t even have a mail client but just view their messages in Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo?
    Why not write a simple description of the item or service you want displayed on your newsletter and then provide a nice link that takes the user to a proper website?

  103. Hmmm… I agree, but the problem is that the highest conversion is still achieved by email marketing.
    Email is not a platform for design, but is a great platform for communication if it is done the wright way.

  104. I wonder how many of the people arguing for HTML mail in marketing have been using the Internet long enough to remember when our mailboxes were full of notes sent by people we knew, and there was no need for software to automatically cull the huge volumes of spam mail.

    To the marketers, and with respect to those who only use opt-in lists: you may be getting a 2% return on your bulk mailings, but that means that your average customer is getting 98% fluff. For some of us, it’s a much higher ratio.

    How many of the pro-HTML marketers are willing to put to add a “Priority: bulk” header in their newsletter, catalogue or flyer to help us set our own priorities?

  105. Anyone know how well PDAs and Internet-capable ‘phones display HTML e-mail? I see a rapid trend toward the use of hand-held devices to download and read e-mail. So that may be a consideration, too.

  106. HTML emails are a waste of time and resources. It’s like developing a product you know is going to be defective for at least half of your client base. Don’t be guilty of releasing your very own marketing equivalent of the Ford Pinto.

    I agree with the pro-RSS for marketing arguments made above. Feeds are a much better means of promoting to those who have solicited it.

  107. You do sound like Jakob Nielson here. I disagree with you in the same why i disagree with some of what Jakob has to say. The truth is there but taken a little bit to literally. Who says email are not a platform for design?? since when?? The web, as you well know, is not ‘technically’ a platform for design. Who says nobody wants to receive well crafted HTML emails – especially when they have asked for them?? Why do marketing emails created in HTML out perform simple text emails??

    So what is this site? a slightly more polished version of http://www.unclebob.com?

    I dunno, maybe you got out of bed the wrong side.

  108. I really don’t get this – the “anti-design” drones popping up here missing the point entirely:


    For someone like Zeldman to miss/ignore this fundamental issue is embarrassing.

  109. PS “interesting I have to be ‘ALIEN” for post to go through…. interesting

    # SRA said on June 11th, 2007 at 9:13 am:

    “Where can can validate your claim?”

  110. As a designer who’s had to produce A LOT of html emails, I can tell you there are arguments for and against.

    Firstly, to say there are designers who ‘over-decorate’ things is pretty subjective. You can’t just pigeon-hole a certain group of designers who ‘over-design’ and say the rest are alright. That fact is neither here nor there, there will always be designers who ‘over-design’ things. They’re called sh*t designers.

    Now to say html emails are a bad idea is pretty stupid. Html email is just another form of medium that benefits from design. To say it’s bad and that plain text is best is like saying magazines are bad and novels are good.

    But if you asked me, as a designer, do I like html emails, the answer is a resounding NO. I hate them. I can’t stand them. But the unfortunate fact is that there will always be clients who want them, but it doesn’t help that we’re in a kind of limbo, with such a mixed level of support for html emails, we can neither design them to fully work accross all platforms, nor can we ignore them completely.

    Perhaps the issue should be ‘should email clients just do away with any kind of html support and spare us all the pain, or should they give the same level of support as web browsers?’

  111. I’m not a marketer.

    I really dislike most marketing emails, even the ones I opted in for.

    I’m a huge proponent of the semantic…uh…everything. Every type of communication transported over a digital medium would benefit from it. Email included.

    HTML email, done right, is usually easier for me to read than plain text.

    It drives me nuts when you get a bunch of designers on a long email thread, and only one of them is a plain text zealot – and insists on reformatting (maybe that should be nonformatting) all of the previous messages in plain text. Even if I’m that zealot (yeah, I oscillate on this one…depending on humidity, current email platform, personal whim, and who I’m rollin’ with).

    Plain text does not manage white space well enough.

    Granted, much of the problem is with email clients. And users.

    Still, it strikes me as *slightly* hypocritical that the comments portion of your blog, Jeffrey, allows HTML – blog comments are at least as symantically text-based as email, perhaps moreso.

    Personally, I’d love to see an email platform that supports Microformats, OpenID, and user preferences without overriding the intent or content of the OP.

  112. To all the html email haters: who are you to tell me that the html emails that I signed up for don’t communicate to me better than plain text? “[HTML email] impedes rather than aids communication.” …mmm I don’t think so. I’m on a list to be updated about parties here in Philadelphia. Pictures of flyers and photos of what happened at past events are much more effective than words alone.

    Here’s the real issue though: Jeff, although you’re pissed off by HTML emails, they’re not going anywhere… right? I mean really, they’re here to stay, you cannot deny that. So instead of bitching about them, why don’t you be proactive and use your position and stature as a web standard evangelist to do the same for HTML emails? Advocate some kind of email HTML/CSS standard? Enabling stylesheets for emails read on mobile phone?

    Because, what I feel like you’re not realizing, is that whatever email started out as (purely text messages), it has for most people completely replaced snail mail. And snail mail is more than pure text… right? Newsletters, brochures, whatever… so to say email should be purely text is, well, meaningless. Going on a rant I suppose. But turn it around, and say that while HTML email pisses you off, it’s here to stay, so let’s make it less painful… and perhaps even embrace it.

  113. Hallelujah… between this and the article linked maybe, just maybe I can convince the boss (who has only just noticed HTML emails and uses a Mac besides) to go a different route. Maybe I’ll be able to avoid having to code these nightmares for another year… I’ve done it in the past, and it’s unbelievable what people ask for.

    Last year: I’m designing a template for a client, the type of email that always looks the same no matter how much content and pictures they decide to squeeze in there and she says “I want it to look exactly like my home page” – a 5-column wide mess of primary colors with a 350px high image on top and bottom. In an email? Outlook 2007 is going to chew that up till there’s nothing remotely recognizable left!

    HTML email may be “here to stay”, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing in it’s current state. It’s impossible to code, and knowing that it’s going to look terrible for most people means it’s pretty much worthless as an advertising media! Broken images (hence no content) infuriate more people than a plain text-based message would.

  114. SKERichards:
    “It’s impossible to code, and knowing that it’s going to look terrible for most people means it’s pretty much worthless as an advertising media! Broken images (hence no content) infuriate more people than a plain text-based message would.”

    For a medium that is “impossible” to code and is “going to look terrible for most people” and is “pretty much worthless as an advertising media”, html emails sure bring in millions of dollars worth of leads…millions.

    And Jess:
    “Naive? ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’”

    I only used the word once and I do indeed know what it means…

  115. Email is a great medium. I think there should be a consortium for all email application & email service providers on standards that they can all follow when building a new email client. If you all follow a set of standard, it will make life easier for the recipient, the sender and the content of the email. We can achieve phenomenal results with email as long as it’s consistent in every way and form; be it a marketing tool, way of communication or just d@ng spam.

    How about Feb ‘2008, y’all meet and talk that one out. Great! :)

  116. I’m neither designer or marketer – I’m a hobbyist in web design as well as CG. I frequent many sites on the subject and sign up for their email newsletter. I happen to like both text and html email from them, for instance I get text email from awn.com, but I get html email from daz3d, renderosity, CGsociety, contentparadise, etc. I enjoy seeing new product images in the email, and yes, it influences my buying decision many times. So I think like everything else html email has its place – it’s all about knowing your client, as well as your client’s customers.

  117. I’m sure this has been beaten into the bush by now, but I think the crux of this argument lies on a distinction between design and decoration. Good design communicates and directs attention, whereas good decoration makes something shiny and attractive (not that I need to tell you that). Most of your points demonstrate that decoration makes email bulky without doing anything, but that doesn’t say much for design.

    Email is just a medium, like the web or mail or newspapers or magazines. It’s driven by its ability to visually communicate with the end user. Unlike a website, it’s something that can be sent to your address. That makes it a particularly valuable design medium. That’s why junk mail (online or not) attempts to communicate visually apart from sheer text. As a simple example, I often prefer RTF/HTML emails simply because the responses can be color coded. I can visually distinguish conversations without having to dig through angle brackets.

  118. I have to say I find the logic used to explain your opinion rather lacking:

    “E-mail is not a platform for design. Unlike the web, which also as an exchange medium for text messages but which benefited from the inclusion of images and other media, e-mail works best when used for its original purpose, as the most basic of content exchange systems.”

    How is it you can state that the web benefits from images and other media, but not email? Your assertion that email “works best when used for its original purpose” is absolutely correct – except you beilieve that email was created for the sole purpose of exchanging of plain text. Just like phone lines were created ONLY for analogue voice communication? No, it just so happens that plain text was the only thing the creators of email wanted to send (or perhaps though to send?) – but the medium has evolved, much like the web and out phone lines.

    I know a lot of people, my uncle included, that prefer images and colours in their emails. You’re right, just because he likes large red comic sans text doesn’t mean everyone else should, but in the same way just because you want to return to 1990’s plain-text emails, doesn’t mean everyone else should. What we’re talking about is a medium for communication. Your opinion may be one way or another, but at the end of the day it is about choice. Which is why your mail client has a button that allows you to view emails in plain text should you wish to. And why good organisations allow you to choose which type of email you receive – text or HTML.

    Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but surely an opinion that takes into account others would be wiser?

  119. And it appeals to the kind of designer who thinks everything, even a bullet hurtling toward his own skull, would improve if decorated.

    Preach it!

  120. @Tyson Jakob Nielsen’s all for HTML emails. I thought the same thing.

    This is a rather evil ploy from Jeffrey Zeldman to separate true standards believers from those who pay lip service. Email is defined by standards. If you were truly pro-standards, then you would be pro those standards as well, which happen to be text-based.

    HTML email is like the broken box model of IE for web designers who haven’t yet realised that IE is actually the one that has it wrong. Perhaps an argument that the specs need updating exists. But abiding by standards is a good idea, even if you disagree with the standards.

    (@Marc Email standards are different from web standards. Email is not the web. There are different standards that apply.)

    The correct form of handling HTML in email is to display it with the message, as essentially tag soup. Which is what many email clients still do, today (think Agent, unless they have finally released version 3). I used to change ‘

  121. all the < s to dollar signs and send the email back to the sender so they could see what I was seeing. Hehehehehhe.

    @alexis Perhaps we should do to *legitimate* HTML email what we do to junk mail? We should send it straight back, And change all the < s to dollar signs.

    Bother! What happened to my comment?

  122. To say that email is not a design medium is not correct. Design is more than just colours and positioning. It includes the text, the style and the grouping of related material. A well-designed plain-text email is a magnificent thing.

  123. Sounds like the easy answer to sell to your clients. But that’s more like of a cop out than a solution.

    There are a number of newsletter that I like to receive in HTML and I wouldn’t be happy to get them in plain text. I think sending multi-part message in both html and plain text is a much better idea.

  124. Gotta disagree on this one Jeremy. Personally I’m far more likely to delete an email comprised of nothing but text than I am an attractive HTML design – some emails, and I’m thinking Lastminute.com as an example, are beautiful and one of the first things that springs to my mind when I think of HTML email.

    Sure, there’s a lot of crap out there, and if you want to receive text only then that’s great, but to dismiss the entire “world” of HTML email just ‘cos you prefer text….nah.

  125. A message from the real world:
    1. Yes HTML mail sucks.
    2. Clients don’t know what an RSS feed is, and they don’t care,
    3. Clients love HTML mail.
    4. More people respond to an HTML mail than a plain text one.
    Have a nice day :)

  126. I’m a text email lover… but it is somewhat disappointing to read such an oversimplification coming from someone as influential as you.

    You are basically saying that a specific technology should only be used as it was initially intended, no other and/or unforeseen use of this technology should ever be considered because… “nobody needs it.”

    Quite an unusually shallow argumentation…

  127. It impedes rather than aids communication

    Rubbish! That is, as others have said, because some people who send HTML emails don’t make a good job of it. That’s no reason to punish everyone else.

    Well designed HTML emails can be a great aid to communication. By enlarging headings, emboldening important points, including unobtrusive hyperlinks, showing relevant graphics – these can all serve to make your point more effectively.

    I’m not just talking about marketing here. I’m talking about communication. I send and receive emails all the time both for business and personal matters, and in some cases (not all the time, but often enough to be very noticeable) the only ways to convey the information effectively are to send the email as HTML, or to attach a Word/RTF/PDF document instead, which doesn’t strike me as a better option.

    If people are going to write bad messages, they will write bad messages, whether they are HTML emails, plain text emails, printed on paper or carved into the feet of carrier pigeons. The medium is not the message.

  128. …and I suppose that we should also only send letters with bland fonts blocked on white paper too. And don’t you dare send a greeting card or anything with a picture.

    And bring back my Wall Street Journal and New York Times when you could only get them in black and white- color is for unprofessional hacks who have nothing of value to say.

    Because all of these intrude into my world too.

    I’m sorry, but this is simply arrogant and condescending. The point about providing a text-only version is well-taken, but the overall tone is ridiculous. We live in a Hi-Def, THX sound world. Why should our email be forced to still smell of old newsprint?

  129. There are a few reasons why HTML is preferred by this marketer — in my experience it is less likely to be perceived as SPAM, and it is much more effective to show the features of a product rather than explain them without any visual guide.

    Also, legit emailers will send a multi-part message with both HTML and TEXT versions. If this is the case, then what is the problem? Every reader and consumer has the ability to control what version of that message they want to view. Even so, general consumers (who do not know the difference between HTML and TEXT) prefer to see something that “looks pretty” than a glob of text they do not have time to read.

    And a 2% conversion rate for email is phenomenal. That’s hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars for some marketers — on 1 simple HTML email message. Not too shabby and definitely not something HTML emailers would abort any time soon. No other medium has the same ROI.

  130. @marketers not sending out spam —

    Maybe it’s because HTML emails aren’t the solution.

    Maybe I am missing something about your business — but if your customers have to double opt-in to receive your newsletter in the first place; you’ve already sold them… so why inundate them with an HTML email? They’re already interested in what you have and would probably appreciate a smaller, faster, and easier to respond to message.

    By double opt-in, I am saying that not only do they have to register to receive the newsletter at your website, but they must also confirm that registration by opting in a second time when they click on a confirmation link in their registration email. This process is required by law. It’s also quite the process, not something impulsive Joe-average will care to sit around for unless Joe-average is really interested in receiving your newsletter.

    It just doesn’t make sense to me. One requires a website to sell product; wouldn’t that be the primary (and better) place to place your marketing material to capture the random browsers while the newsletter supports your loyal customers?

    As for design… there is a word called, “excessive.” Most things in life are best when they are in balance; sugary foods taste good but it’s not good to eat them all the time. I can appreciate good design, I really can even as a programmer. However, designing and redesigning everything is excessive — sometimes minimalism is key. As it stands, text-based email has everything it needs to do what we need it to do. It doesn’t need to evolve or add features… especially since the features the marketers are claiming to be an evolution of email are features specific to their intended use of the medium; not the use of the medium as its own purposeful and distinct medium.

  131. I couldn’t agree more. Like kimblin, I still work for the man (=major corporation) and also have to code html-mails. It frustrates me to no end having to dumb things down for the email, then go build a duplicate version or landing pages in code on a website. Seems like there has to be a better way to reach people.

    For myself, I end up deleting most of the email newsletters I get from companies in my email.

  132. This is a pointless debate, in the fact that you are not going to stop people from sending HTML email. If it’s something that makes people money there will be someone there using it.

    Why waste time even reading this page?

  133. A slight side issue really, but one thing I haven’t seen mentioned yet (although I may have missed a comment or 10) is an issue here; measurability.

    One of the online marketeer’s biggest “weapons” is their ability to track their e-mails, how many opens, click throughs, what was clicked – and by whom.

    Even if HTML e-mail isn’t a platform for design (and I disagree with that), agencies and clients will continue to use HTML for that measurability alone, and whilst HTML GIF calls are the method for that measurability, I expect e-mail will continue to be a channel for design.

  134. While I agree that there are a lot of issues with HTML emails in many clients. The next time you open up a newsletter you signed up for and it’s got a decent looking masthead and is easy on the eyes to read, think of what it would look like in Courier New and how long you would spend reading it.

    Thought so.

    But, rant on… as I hated creating emails in the position I was in for a long time, but I did it well and made sure I got them to display correctly on as much of the medium as I could.

  135. This topic just keeps on rolling. This piece is remarkably similar to a piece I wrote in 1998: Why HTML in Email Is a Bad Idea, which has been one of the most-trafficked pieces on all of Birdhouse since that time. I’ve gotten the sense in the past few years that many people who formerly hated HTML email have softened on the idea or at least thrown up their hands and given in (I admit that I myself have grown more accepting of it over the years). But the vocal opposition remains very vocal and very opposed!

  136. Anything can be a platform for design. A Napkin can be a platform for design. Anyone who thinks otherwise probably shouldn’t be a designer.

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