– Christopher Heald
Readers must want to look at it as well as read it
Even if you are not a graphic
designer, you can create a design for your eNewsletter that is
attractive and readable. The time you invest in design will
really pay off later on in reduced workload: once you have
developed a design, you can save it as a template on which to
base your future eNewsletters. With a template, you won’t have
to reinvent the wheel for each new issue.
A simple design can be created using your eMail program with no
further knowledge of HTML, and some word processors can do a
reasonable job as well. If you want a more complex design, you
should have some basic understanding of HTML, which is the
language of the web.
The first goal of your design is to capture the attention of
your readers and motivate them to read your newsletter. Anything
that stands in the way of that, even if it’s pretty, will
ultimately detract from your product. Clean and simple layouts
are usually the most effective.
Avoid dark background colours and a “busy”, cluttered design:
they can make your text harder to read. Small fonts can end up
looking extremely small in some eMail programs. Large graphics
increase the size of your message, which can slow down sending
and receiving times.
Also keep in mind that it is much easier for your readers to
scroll down to read text than it is to scroll left and right.
Design vertically, not horizontally. Use columns or tables to
limit the width of your text rather than having your text run
the full width of the screen.
Plain text vs HTML
There are two main formats for
eMail: plain text and HTML (hyper text markup language).
Plain text is just that – unformatted text. The limitations and
benefits of plain text are:
You can’t reliably space or align things horizontally. In design
terms, this means that there is no way to do absolute
positioning. If you want to present text in two columns in a
text eMail, it’s more than likely that your readers will see
anything BUT two columns. This is because various eMail programs
use different fonts to display plain text.
And many fonts are proportionally spaced, meaning that each
character can take up a varying amount of horizontal space.
Thus, with a proportional font, five spaces will not take up as
much horizontal space as five other characters, even within the
same document. Even with non-proportional fonts, character
widths vary from font to font.
EMail programs differ
Also, keep in mind that even if
you get things looking right in your eMail program, it may not
look as good in another.
The text format also removes the ability to choose font size and
colour, designate bold face or italics, or to include images.
Even using tabs is fraught with peril – again, what may look
right for you may not for others. Some eMail programs translate
the tab character into spaces, with the consequent problems.
The main strengths of text eMails are their size and
portability. They are transmitted quickly and they don’t require
fancy eMail programs to be viewed. You should generally offer a
text version of your eNewsletter to your readers, even if you
create an HTML version.
Some readers prefer text over HTML for its simplicity. And if
your content is good and compelling enough, the format won’t be
critical to getting your message read. In fact, many successful
eNewsletters are text-only, relying solely on the quality of
HTML = more control
With HTML formatting, you have
much more control over positioning, colour, size, and graphics.
The advantages and disadvantages of using HTML are:
HTML gives you the ability to add graphic design to your
Using HTML for your eNewsletter will give you almost all the
design elements that can be used in a web page, including
absolute positioning, columns, tables, and colour.
The main drawback to this format is its complexity, particularly
if you’re not comfortable with HTML. Making changes to an HTML
eNewsletter is more complex, the message size will increase, and
HTML-format eMail can alienate some readers (again, offering a
text version alleviates this).
Better have an editor
While you can create HTML
documents using a text editor or word processor, it’s a good
idea to get some kind of HTML editor, like Macromedia’s
Dreamweaver or Microsoft’s FrontPage, which are commercial
products, or Mozilla Composer, which is free and open source (www.mozilla.org).
Some eNewsletter distribution services and programs also include
HTML editors in their products, but they are often limited in
their capacity. hey are most useful once your design has been
completed, and you are simply modifying the content.
Until fairly recently, there was widespread resentment of HTML
eNewsletters. Now that broadband Internet access and
HTML-enabled eMail clients are so widespread, many of the
original reasons for this resentment are not as relevant.
However, at the risk of being repetitive, consider making a
plain-text version of your eNewsletter available to your readers
if they want one.
Designing the template
Most of this section assumes that
you will be creating an HTML eNewsletter. The biggest element of
design work is the initial layout of the eNewsletter. Some
people find it easier to mock up a design with markers and
paper, and then build out the design on the computer.
To get an idea of what can be done and what works, and to narrow
down your own eNewsletter’s style, research other eNewsletters
and develop a collection of those you like. Look at what makes
them work, and what you think could be done differently to
Beware of complex designs: multiple columns with many stories
and pictures can look great, but remember that if you commit to
using such a design, you will have to come up with the text,
images, and the layout for each new issue of your eNewsletter.
If you have a good idea for a design, but don’t know how or feel
comfortable enough to make it happen, consider getting some
outside help at the design stage. Even if you are an HTML
expert, a designer can give you a head start, and leave you with
an attractive design that you can then use for your subsequent
Common eNewsletter formats include a logo or graphic masthead at
the top, and articles below. Variations include a table-style
layout with tables of contents or bullets down the side of the
main body of text.
Seek out feedback
Once you have a draft design, ask
five people to look it over and give you feedback. It takes only
five reviewers to identify accurately the majority of usability
and readability issues. And, as with your writing, you can (and
should) fine-tune your work over time, based on reader responses
Images and graphics can be included using two different methods:
they can be embedded (or attached) in the eMail message, or they
can reside on the web, and you can link to them. As always,
there are pros and cons to both methods.
Embedded images ensure that all the elements of your eNewsletter
arrive at the same time, at the expense of a larger download for
your readers, but this method doesn’t always play well with all
eMail clients. Some eMail clients show the text, and show that
there are attachments, but the images may not be displayed.
Remember: test, test, test.
Linked images simplify the design and shorten the download
times, and allow your readers to choose to download the images
at their convenience. However, this method forces your readers
to reconnect to the Internet to download the images when they
read the eNewsletter. And readers who choose not to download the
images will see your eNewsletter without the graphics and
pictures. Finally, this method is a little more complicated, as
you need to post your images to a location on the Internet, so
that your message can link to it.
Define the sections
When you reach the point at which
you are satisfied with your design, you may want to use HTML
comments (“text surrounded by” is an HTML comment, which will
only show up in the source code, and is not displayed in the
message), or some other similar method, to mark out the various
areas of your eNewsletter.
This way, when you create future issues of your eNewsletter, you
can quickly replace the old text with the new, and leave the
layout intact. This, in effect, is the act of turning your
design into a template. If you are working with a designer, this
may already be done for you.
To create a text version of your newsletter from the HTML
version, there are several options, ranging from copying and
pasting the text into a text editor, to running the HTML through
a word processor or text converter.
For further information: Christopher Heald,
Technology Manager, IMPACS,