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E-mail, beautiful e-mail.

As much as I try to avoid letting the presentation of the e-mail that arrives in my inbox affect my perception of its message, the truth is that appearances matter. Outlook, Eudora, and even webmail clients like Hotmail and GMail allow users to add various levels of rich text-formatting to their e-mails. But even though a curly purple signature represents your personal style, resist! Legibility should matter more than before typographic perfection.

Anyone who’s ever tried to prepare a newsletter can attest to the challenges of making a message look good across multiple mail clients. It’s an experience that doubles as a good reminder of one of the basic rules of the internet: when in doubt, keep it simple. For e-mail, that means text.

The guidelines I’ve outlined here are loosely based on the Markdown syntax created by John Gruber, a project focused on maximizing the legibility of plain text.

1. Lists should stand out

Lists in e-mails may represent anything from action items to groceries. In general, though, an indentation of 1-2 spaces before and after bullets will clearly set a list apart. An additional carriage return before and after the entire list can also help legibility:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.

  * Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit
  * Voluptate velit esse cillum
  * Dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.

For more involved lists, it may even be reasonable to add a little space between each item in the list:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.

  * Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur.

  * Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

  * Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.

One word of caution: while it can be tempting to insert your own line breaks and indent accordingly, most e-mail programs prefer to receive minimally formatted e-mail. If your recipient is likely to be checking e-mail on a smaller screen (and especially on an older mobile device), it’s probably best to let their e-mail client wrap things for itself.

2. Let links speak for themselves

Links connect e-mail with resources on the greater internet, and should always be presented in complete form. Instead of attempting to link a word or phrase, spell it out clearly:

Dress up your e-mails: http://bit.ly/I4PP4x

For longer links, it’s a good idea to break the link out onto a line of its own. This helps minimize the chance of losing part of the link when the line containing it is wrapped by the receiver’s e-mail program:

Dress up your e-mails:

http://blog.rjzaworski.com/2012/04/e-mail-beautiful-e-mail/
3. Headings can’t afford to mess around

If a personal e-mail is long enough to require headings, it’s probably worth trimming it down. But in longer messages (read: newsletters) headings out to stand boldly.

News for October
---------------------------------------

While most of us understand that it ISN’T POLITE TO YELL, particularly major headers can be an occasional exception:

THIS HEADLINE IS KIND OF A BIG DEAL
---------------------------------------
4. Attachments suck

Just as formatting doesn’t belong in the body of a message, the impact of a rich attachment can be lost if the recipient isn’t able to open it. Once again, my preference is to abide once again by the least common denominator. In this case, that means including a PDF copy of any documents attached to an e-mail. The PDF is hardly a universal standard, but it’s a much better insurance policy than assuming a recipient will be able to read files from iLife or the latest versions of Office.

In conclusion

Dear reader,

Investing a little energy in the formatting of your e-mail messages matters. Whether you're introducing yourself to a prospective client or employer or simply inquiring about a service, a few basic steps can help you avoid frustration and ensure that your correspondence gets off on the right foot.

Do you have additional thoughts or suggestions to contribute? Please don't hesitate to let me know!

Best regards,
RJ