7 Design Mistakes That Make Readers Trash Your Emails

It’s heartbreaking to think that people are making snap judgements about whether or not to read your emails based on a quick glance.

But they are. You are, too! Here’s how we all sort through our inboxes:

  1. We choose an email message
  2. We give it a two-second glance
  3. We decide if it’s worth our time
  4. If it is, we keep it and read it
  5. If it’s not, we hit the delete key, and send the email to the trash

How can you keep your email out of the trash? The secret is good design. In those first two seconds, that’s all your reader sees.

Let’s take a look at seven common design mistakes that get emails trashed, and I’ll offer more than seven solutions to help your next email get read.

1. Forgetting to say hello

Your emails should feature an instantly-recognizable, consistent header image. Over time, your header image will be associated with the high-quality information you share.

Ideally, this email header should relate to the business or product your reader signed up to learn more about. So if you’re a dog groomer and you have a special email newsletter just for poodle owners, your header should identify the information you’ll share, and look visually related to your overall dog groomer brand.

2. Hard-to-read fonts

Your email newsletter’s main goal is to communicate, and — obviously — that happens through words. But what if the words are hard to read?

Be sure to avoid these two errors:

  • Using fonts that are too small. This is especially important if some of your readers are 50 and over, and may have eyesight problems. And with so many emails being viewed on smart phones, it makes sense to increase font sizes.
  • Using too many fonts. Combining too many different fonts makes your email look messy. Pare it down to no more than two fonts, and just use the italic and bold weights to add variety.

Find out more about how to use fonts.

3. Color catastrophes

For your email to look professional and inviting, you have to master color. The biggest color mistakes are:

  • Garish color. Stay away from colors that are overly bright or florescent. Tone them down so they don’t compete with your words.
  • Too many colors. Use a color palette with two dominant colors and tone down the rest to make your emails look cohesive.
  • Light text on a dark ground. The most readable combination is dark text on a light ground, so stick to that whenever possible.

4. Muddled information

You can make your emails instantly look more inviting by avoiding these formatting problems:

  • No hierarchy of information. When a reader glances at your email, they should know right away which information is the most important, what they should look at next, and what’s the least important. Make this obvious by using a larger, bolder and brighter main headline. Make your subheads smaller and less prominent. Make your legal information, notices and “housekeeping” messages smallest and least important.
  • Great walls of text. To make your messages easy to scan, use plenty of subheads. Write in short paragraphs, breaking up your text into easily-digestible chunks.

5. Awful images

There’s nothing that says “an amateur designed this email” like cheap-o clip art. Avoid cheesy images and stock photography that looks staged and fake.

Remember, people want to do business with real people, so use your own photos or stock images that are high quality and look natural.

6. No base to stand on

Sometimes predictability is a good thing. Featuring your contact information, your company mission, and your social media profiles in a consistent footer area at the base of your emails makes them look professional. It also makes it easy for your readers to stay in contact with you outside of their inboxes.

7. Too frequent makeovers

You may want to tweak your email template after reading this article, and that’s great. I encourage you to improve it!

Once you’ve got it looking good, though, resist the urge to keep changing it. One way to keep your emails from being trashed is to choose a look and stick to it for a while so people recognize who the email is coming from in a quick glance.

Make your emails ‘keepers’

Take steps now to make your emails clear and readable. Use these tips to create a recognizable brand experience with every message you send. It’s the best way to ensure that the great information you share doesn’t end up in the virtual trash heap.

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Leave a comment »
  1. karyng •

    These are great tips, Pamela. I think I need to go back through the past 5 or 10 email newsletters I’ve sent to make sure I’m not making some simple mistakes.

  2. This is a great list of things to watch for. I’m a huge stickler for consistency, and when I get an email from a brand I trust that isn’t in their usual “style”, I get immediately suspicious, as I assume I’m trying to be sold something (like it’s an affiliate marketing email).

    • I agree: when an email comes in that looks completely different it can throw you off. And it’s not a good idea if you’re trying to build a recognizable brand, either: one stray email can weaken all the nice recognition you’ve built up over time.

      • This is so true Pamela. Dealing with over 300+ emails a day and a goal of 0 unread/uncategorized I quickly delete those which are too colorful or not relevant to what I do each week in my business.

  3. softenbrownsugar •

    I enjoyed this, Pamela! It’s becoming more and more difficult to keep readers’ attention. Any tips we can use are welcome! :)

  4. Stacy •

    Great tips! :) The wall of text mistake is the one I see a lot of. Having things broken up so we can scan and choose what we want to read is important. :)

    • Those walls of text aren’t very inviting, are they? There are lots of ways to break up text to make it more readable: we just have to remember to use them!

      Thanks for your comment, Stacy.

  5. Great list! Color catastrophes kill me! If I can’t see it, I can’t read it!!

    • It’s sad when color becomes a turn off … it can be your greatest ally, but it’s easy to get it wrong, too.

      I agree that readability is the ultimate goal, and color has to be in service of that, always.

  6. Thank you Pamela for a great article, changing my design is something I ma in the middle of working on right now.

    I recently changed from text to html for my daily messages. I got a few questions asking why the emails all of a sudden looked different, but not too many.

    I am working my way to a new look that is not terribly different from the way my emails look now, but one that is more in line with how my site looks, so I can have consistent branding across all platforms.

  7. Here’s another one: Not signing it. If you aren’t Sony or something, your business name isn’t enough–I want to know who you are.
    This is really helpful, Pam–thank you!

    • I agree! When the email is coming from one person, it’s important to sign it. It makes it seem much more personal, too, which is a big plus.

  8. Thank you, Pamela.
    Excellent article and some valid points that have got me thinking.
    Would you please take a look at my last email and let me know your thoughts on the colors!!
    I use Constant Contact for my emails.—Ideal-Software-s-Niche-Notes.html?soid=1107858259338&aid=CSsyJL2mL8M

    Thank you!
    Ian Said

  9. Hi Ian,

    There are quite a few colors in your email — even the text is a color. It’s distracting from your message, in my opinion.

    Your design might work if you use a reduced color palette with two main colors. That would help your words to stand out a bit more.

    I hope that helps!

  10. Do you ever share great e mails with your CC subscribers for inspiration? I would love to see some. Maybe you have to ask permission but maybe the designers would be proud to share. Perhaps you have done this and I missed it?


  11. Jennifer Monahan •

    Another way to make your emails more readable: use left-justified text. Centered text may have seemed pretty snazzy back when we all got our first copy of Microsoft Word, but it’s harder to read. And trust me, it does NOT make your email look more professional.

    • I agree 100%, Jennifer. Centered text is for wedding invitations, period!

      It’s hard to read because your eyes have to find the beginning of each line, which is in a different place as you go down the page. It slows the reader down.

  12. We are a nonprofit animal advocacy organization and the emails we send out are usually actions we need our members to take. Some are on wildlife issues, some on farmed animal issues, some rather generic animal issues. We have a primary email header that is general to our organization with our logo, tag line and animal image. Then we have different headers for some of the issues we address – wildlife, farmed animals, about 4 headers in all. Each of those headers so not have the same image/logo/tagline as our primary header. Is this okay? Or, should be just stick with one header? Thanks for any input!

    • Hi Janine!

      It’s OK to use four different headers, but it will work best if they look visually related to your main header. You want people to be able to see at a glance that they’re coming from the same organization.

      A few ways to do this:

      1. use the same fonts on all of them
      2. use similar background colors
      3. use the same basic layout.

      That way if the image, logo and tagline change, they’ll still look related to one another.

      I hope that helps!

  13. Hi Pamela, This has come at the right time when I’m making efforts to reach out to a big market niche. Thank you very much for your valuable tips.
    Christopher, Malawi. Africa.

  14. Michelle Fusco •

    Good point about increasing the font size for smartphone users. Thank you!

  15. Very helpful, thanks!

  16. Thanks for the tips. Would you take a look at my recent newsletter?

  17. Crystal Calbreath •

    Pamela – Thank you for remembering the 50+ year old readers. Those of us (over 65) with additional vision problems may resort to deleting emails we would like to read – But Can Not.

  18. I have developed our colors in our emailers to match our website and have the website top banner on our FaceBook page. Folks are now noticing our family of colors with our Logo..whoo hooo. Provides professional appearance and familiarity along with consistency for our clients.

  19. Hello Judy,

    Thank you for taking the time to provide these terrific 7 tips that can scuttle an e-mail marketing effort… very helpful.

    regards, Allen Essex Capital Advisors, Ocala, FL

  20. Patsie Potvin •

    How can I get permission to use this article in my newsletter? I think it will be very helpful to our customers. And I would like to reference your website for more assistance.

    • Hi Patsie,

      You’re welcome to use this article. Please credit the Constant Contact blog and include a link to this page. Include my name as author and I’d appreciate a link to my website as well. :-)


  21. Re: Contact info in the footer…

    Not to mention that having your contact info in your footer is required by CAN-Spam. Don’t let your email leave your sending software without it.

  22. Robyn Blanks •

    Thanks for these tips and the new newsletter layout. I love short and sweet! I don’t read newsletters that have way too much text and no images. So thanks for appealing to my tastes.

  23. Hi Pamela,

    I really enjoy your post, you gave me a lot of new ideas to my email-marketing I’m happy that I came across with this site, I see that it contains a lot of great information.

    So Pamela have nice day.



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