10 Questions to Consider When Writing an Email Design Brief

Want to impress your client with a stunning email? Start with a great email design brief!

The design phase is a critical step in the email production process for many digital marketing agencies. It’s when your email takes shape visually for the first time. According to Litmus, out of all production tasks, the majority of senders spend the most time in the email design phase.

The email production process typically involves:

  1. Conceptualizing the email campaign
  2. Developing content (copy and visual assets, like original photography)
  3. Designing emails (this is our focus today)
  4. Developing emails
  5. Testing, QA, and final approvals
  6. Sending!

A good email design brief ensures that you have a smooth transition from Steps 1 and 2 to Step 3. You need to both 1) meet your client’s expectations and 2) communicate with your designer and design team.

So today, we’re gearing this post toward agency-based project managers. We’ll walk you through how to communicate with your designer via an awesome design brief, which will help create the first version of a fully-designed email.

Photo by Luis Llerena

What a good email design brief should accomplish

A good brief provides a design roadmap without being prescriptive. It should give the designer some context about the client and the scope of the project, as well as critical technical details like HTML color codes and your brand’s font styles.

Your brief should be clear and concise. Don’t make it a whole separate project just to read the brief! It should also be relatively high-level in explaining how the email should look; it’s the designer’s job to synthesize the information and deliver a design that helps everyone achieve the project’s goal. Let your designer do what he/she does best: creating a beautiful and effective email for your client’s subscribers.

Let’s look at 10 fundamental, albeit sometimes overlooked, questions that your design brief needs to answer to set your designer up for success.

1. Who is the client?

Let’s start with the basics. Provide the client’s name and any relevant information, like if you’ve worked with the client before (if so, should the email align with previous designs, or is there a new direction?). In a few sentences, let the designer know the client’s mission and work, including why they’re asking for the work. Indicate what makes the client stand out from the competition, both in what they do and the visual style they want to achieve.

2. What’s a quick description of the project and its primary purpose?

Explain why you’re sending this email. What are you hoping to achieve? What’s the primary call to action?

3. What’s the scope of the project?

Is the email in question part of a larger email campaign—and also part of a larger marketing campaign? Be clear about how this email figures into a larger project. Don’t leave the designer working in a silo. Make sure the designer knows the full scope of the project, and connect other team members working on the same assignment. Also, give them the context needed to design an email that delivers on expectations.

Photo by William Iven

4. What does success look like, and how will it be measured?

Will success be measured by the number of opens, click-throughs, social shares, or by another metric? Indicate typical engagement rates for previous email campaigns. Maybe success will be reached by gaining insight into the audience—like if they don’t respond as well to a subject line style or to a change in design.

5. Who is the target audience, and how do they view email?

Describe the audience for the campaign—e.g., 20-something women athletes—and include the proportion of the total audience within a particular segment. Also consider: Have past design approaches been particularly effective with this group? Will different versions of the email be created for individual segments?

Be clear about the email clients and devices your target audience uses, so the designer(s) can design accordingly. As we discuss in our post about making data-driven email design decisions, the number of email clients is growing every day, so it’s not realistic to have designs tailored to every user’s email service. Instead, designers should know the main email services (and devices) an audience uses in order to optimize designs for the most significant environments. (Litmus reports, for example, that recent versions of Outlook (2007-2016) don’t have the best HTML or CSS support).

6. What is the style?

Define the style in a few words. Think about the tone/feeling the client is hoping to evoke. Is the client looking for something clean and minimal, or friendly and playful? Avoid using common design adjectives, which tend to be jargon-y or get overused. When in doubt, communicate visually (see #8). If this is a new client, it’s especially helpful to provide previous examples, letting the designer know if the same style should be used moving forward, or if the client wants to achieve something different.

Don’t make the designer or design team reinvent the wheel. Is there a template that should be used, or a standard header or footer design? In most cases, there are, so be sure to provide these assets.

You’ll also want to give the designer access to the client’s style guide and—importantly—let them know how closely it should be followed. Sometimes there’s wiggle room to break away a little bit; other times, the guidelines must be closely followed without exception.

Style guides can be 100 pages or even longer. Guide your designer by pointing out which pages are particularly important, like where colors, fonts, logo standards, and illustration or graphics libraries can be found. Let the design team know if there are particular colors preferred for this email or ones to avoid. Indicate font standards, especially if the designer will be creating imagery with text overlay.

Photo by Chris Barbalis

7. What are the dimensions?

When it comes to email, the most important dimension is width. Usually, 600 to 640 pixels for desktop (320 pixels for responsive mobile) is a standard guideline for legibility and good rendering in emails. Of course, you can let the designer know the desired email width, in pixels, and if there is a vertical constraint. But, usually, the designer can make recommendations based on what the client wants and explain if something doesn’t fit any standard formats. (Also, read more about email clipping, when applicable.)

8. Are there other emails to draw inspiration from?

Often, when communicating about design, pictures are better than words. Provide examples of inspiration emails from the client and indicate which specific elements the client likes and dislikes. Or, create a simple mood board or image collection to communicate the aesthetic you want.

9. What’s the content to be designed?

Always provide the copy for the email—and it should be final. Revising content after the design is in progress can become time-consuming and difficult. Make sure to indicate section delineations, header text, and CTAs. In addition to text, provide images to be included in the design as needed, like anything the designer isn’t creating from scratch.

Photo by Eric Rothermel

10. What’s the timeline?

This is an important one! Make sure to provide a clear timeline with deadlines for each milestone. Just remember: it’s always valuable to talk with key stakeholders (include contact info), to confirm who will provide feedback and when. With all this info, your collaboration with the designer will start off (and continue!) on the right track.

What questions do you ask?

What questions do you ask in preparing an email design brief for your design team? Let us know in the comments!

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