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Simple Flat UI: Using Design Simplicity to Make Your Emails Stand Out

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by: Darryl Bolduc (@darrylbolduc)
13 March 2014

Regardless of whether you’re familiar with the terms “simple user interface” or “Flat UI,” you’ve probably noticed the results. It’s why your apps are easy to use. It’s why websites no longer need to be navigated with a mouse. And for me, it’s why marketing and advertising look so different in so many digital mediums, including email.

Whether it’s the oversized, vivid nature of brilliant product shots taken in real-life context, the lack of borders and creative use of diagonal lines, or the ultimate focus on what’s really important in the piece, this style is not to be missed.

Uncommon Goods Simple UI exampleWhat Is Simple or Flat UI?

“Simple” or “Flat” UI is a simplified and streamlined interface approach that became popular with Web and app design and is now becoming increasingly popular in designing emails. While the visuals are often striking, the style is grounded in a simple approach to creative email design rather than being flashy for the sake of being flashy.

You might temporarily mistake these messages for Pinterest pins, Vine loops or Instagram moments – until you remember you’re navigating your inbox. This ability to grab the recipient’s attention and cut through the clutter is at the heart of why many brands are employing this new creative approach. Simple/flat UI also looks appealing on a mobile device, and with mobile email interaction soaring, the excellent multiscreen experience is another reason many are taking this approach.

As an email marketer, your life can become easier when you move to a simple UI approach. The nature of the flat UI allows for more HTML in your header, navigation and other functioning parts of your email content. When structured properly, we can all probably agree that updating HTML is much easier than having new images cut for various parts of an email. It happens quicker and often involves available resources. And I would much rather my creative team spend more time on the “heroic” portions of the email, where a communication objective is more easily achieved.

Putting Flat UI to Work

When the creative focus is centered on a Simple UI approach, you have less to work with, less details to drown in, less copy to be overlooked — and ultimately more opportunity to get the message delivered. Some of the best visuals I’ve seen that leverage this design are recipes where the brand being promoted was a basis for the end product — a delicious, elegantly plated dish that gets you interested in learning how to serve it at your next dinner party, for example. This emphasis on the “end product” can also work well for consumable goods, hobby/arts & crafts businesses, and many other companies. Click, browse, download, purchase — success!

I’ve also seen email marketers take the approach of their social counterparts, displaying not much more than a beautiful ultimate vacation location view seen from the infinity pool. When delivered with a price point, destination details and offer-expiration dates, these simple, overpowering creative executions are very effective for travel deals emails, with the imagery selling the concept of simple relaxation. Similar approaches can also work well for retail promotions and other experiential-based messages. Click, sigh, search, compare — buy before it expires — success!

Even less glamorous B2B and B2C products and services can earn a better return on investment from this style. I’m thinking about newswires that grab your attention with a “scandalous” image from today’s headlines, then connect to a robust library of valuable content. This simple and repeatable layout can mean more engagement, enabling readers to quickly pick and choose the content they’re most interested in. Including current and interesting images where readers might expect less means you can expect more, whether promoting news, resellers, or even corporate discounts. Open, surprise, find interest, click, read — reward!

Keeping It Simple 

By now, I hope you’ve gotten excited about Simple Flat UI and are ready to experiment with it in your emails. Think gorgeous end-product shots that say “I gotta have it” without the old dated newsletter style of headline, image and copy block that can add clutter and be tedious to construct. And cropped image shots that add style with diagonal lines and don’t look mass-produced. And heavy HTML areas that surround these images and grab attention with simplicity. Get started on your Simple Flat UI redesign today, and let me know how it’s made a difference in your programs!

Related Resources:

1) Blog: “7 Tips for Designing Emails to Avoid Deliverability Issues

2) Ebook: “Ultimate Guide to Post-Purchase Messages: 15 Ways to Build Loyalty and Drive Revenue After the Sale

3) Blog: “3 Questions to Drive Your Multiscreen Email Design Decisions


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