Grid Planning your Email Newsletter Layout

Designing your email newsletter has always been an art. Well maybe we also need to add a bit of science and a lot of common sense. But it is still an art; there are so many choices you can make in content, timing, personalization. Also the way the final email will look can have many variations. We all know the presentation of your mail can have big impact on your results and conversions, but the effectiveness of your email newsletter begins one step before that: by planning your email layout.

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The link between strategy and newsletter design briefing

For a company it is essential to have the email representing your strategy. Normally you would go and talk about your ideas with a designer, agency, freelancer. But not having your ideas visualized yet, makes it hard to get the concept across and even harder when you need to discuss it internally with colleagues who are “email marketing challenged”.

If you are a do-it-yourself type of person, you could for instance directly start with a premade template. And sure be inspired be some great examples of email newsletters. But I would argue there is merit in thinking it through first, and not copying too  much of someone else’s email newsletter design. Avoid the danger of going into the details too quickly. It can’t hurt to think first, and maybe afterwards you can find that template that perfectly matches your wishes.

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Grid Planning

So how to strike the balance between ideas and layout? In this post I would introduce the idea of Grid Planning as one of the ways to start designing your emails. Not to be confused with the Gmail Grid view. Grid Planning is a great way to brief a designer or an agency. With a rough Grid Plan you allow some design inspiration / freedom, but at the same time you will also get all the elements you want.

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How does Grid Planning your email work?

First off, it isn’t rocket science but that is also the beauty of it. It can be done by anyone, even if you have no ecstatic or design bone in your body.

1. Define what the main goal and desired actions / outcomes of your mail are. The outcomes should be monitored as Key Performance indicators (KPIs for short)

2. Now you determine the different elements your would like to see in the email. An effective email has an anatomy:  the header, navigation bar, articles, paragraphs, images and footer. Oh, and don’t forget a strong Call to Action. These would be blocks inside your final layout. Write down what elements and items you want, in text and add why (as much as possible).

So far so good. Now that we know what our elements will be; here comes the Grid.

3. Think of a grid as squared paper.  On this Grid you can a plan the layout of your emails with all the elements you defined in the previous steps to be in there.  This allows you easily plan a visual hierarchy in your layout, without being ‘distracted’ by assumptions or details in design.

  • Which elements go on top, middle, bottom?
  • How big are the elements in relation to each other?
  • Will you be using a one column or two column design?
  • Are there differences between content and action blocks?
  • Which elements could be stripped / removed?

The most important elements should be emphasised and placed on the most eye-catching positions, maybe you could already see the outlines (get it?) of a stairway of mirco-yesses. Making your newsletter clear and persuasive from the start.

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Mobile Grid

A big chunk (up to 75%) of your emails are read on mobile these days, so keeping mobile in mind during design is a must. Just being aware of the possibilities of mobile email can help you get it right. Mobile asks for a second grid layout (for the same email template), but the beauty of Grid Planning is that the original is easily translated to mobile.

Plan for blocks and images to move, be  replaced or resized if needed – especially for the smartphone. Some people choose responsive email design and maybe remove link items from the navigation bar or show a two columns design as one column on smartphones.  Thank god we already prioritized the most important elements of our email!

Planning on a Grid has similarities to what in web and email design is called Wireframing. In wireframes though, you would add more details, while Grid Design could be seen as one step before.
Grid planning can easily be done on paper or a digital equivalent of that. I have seen people mis-use excel or even tables in word documents, ah what the heck as long as it works. ☺

In short, Planning your email in a Grid:

  1. Focusses on the discussion: Which elements are important, how many do we have and where are they placed.
  2. Is perfect for design briefings and very easy to do
  3. leaves designers (or yourself) enough freedom further down the line.