Email defensive designRecently, Gmail, and Yahoo! Mail have all started to enable images in emails by default. This is great news for marketers.

For the uninitiated, emails have long been devoid of images when they first drop into a recipient’s inbox. This is usually down to the email client, which blocks the image and requires the user to load it themselves. This was a valiant effort to improve security and allay privacy concerns, but it has always presented a bit of a problem for email marketers.

Email marketing reports generally rely on the loading of images to indicate whether or not an email has been viewed. Thus, if a recipient doesn’t load the images yet reads the email, the sender has no idea, unless they engage with the call-to-action (CTA).

Gmail have led the way by pre-loading and processing the images on their servers before displaying them automatically in the various Gmail clients. Initial fears that this would damage read reports further appear to be mislaid, as email marketing clients such as mailingmanager have been tested and proved to be unaffected.

Regardless of this, the fact still remains that over one third of emails are most likely to be opened with images disabled.

Happily, this means we get to go all ‘military’ and discuss Defensive Design.

What is defensive design?

It doesn’t involve tanks, I’m afraid. Back in the real world of email design, this term basically refers to planning for contingencies. What happens to your design when things go wrong, or elements within it can’t be viewed due to things beyond your control?

OK. What am I supposed to do?

So, you’ve sent your email, but it looks like this:

Failed email images

You may think all hope is lost, but there are actually 3 philosophies you can apply to defensive design to regain some hope.

1. Get the basics right

If you’ve never heard of alt text, HTML text or pre-header, it’s time to brush up.

  • Alt text (or alternative text) is what you need behind every image within your email. If the image fails to display, email clients should always display the alt text instead. The example above has two failed images, only one has alt text. Spot it?
  • HTML text is text which appears on the email and is created entirely in HTML code, not via imagery. Most email marketing clients like mailingmanager will do the clever stuff for you. Email clients will always display HTML text.
  • Pre-headers are what appear at the very top of your email. I wrote a blog about these a few weeks back as they are often the long-forgotten art of email marketing which you really need to be proficient with. They’ve done a good job with their pre-header above.

2. Spend time on the ‘image-fail’ design

The bulk of the time you spend on your emails obviously needs to be weighted towards the images and content, but set aside some time to design the elements which will always appear. I.e. those elements which will be there when the images fail. This means the background colour and content layout. Doing so might even make you question just how many images you require. I’ve long been a fan of a single, vibrant image in email marketing. Remember – the less images there are, the less there is to go wrong.

3. Defensive design is email-type dependent

Welcome emails, transactional emails and those you send to try and win back business are more likely to pop up in users’ inboxes without images. So, spend more time on the defensive design for these and, in particular, include as much HTML text as possible.


Image courtesy of tongdang /


Mark is one of mailingmanager's email experts. His contributions to this blog openly share the tricks, tips and best practices he's learned while running multiple e-marketing campaigns.

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