If you’ve ever sat down and tried to create a cool, bespoke email design you might have realized that it’s much more difficult than you had anticipated. Apple’s Mail stationery is a bit clichéd and everyone with a Mac has access to it. At the other end of the spectrum, building an HTML page that looks slick from scratch can be an uphill battle unless you’re already a designer. And a professional agency will charge you a lot to do it for you. But a well-designed mailout can make the difference between people bothering to read your stuff and deleting it, so this is actually a pretty important business.
Enter Mail Designer Pro, an application that takes care of pretty much all these problems and even a few you may not have thought of. Downloaded from the App Store, it will cost you a shade under £70 / $100 and is aimed at small to medium businesses, though there’s a much cheaper version just called Mail Designer which lacks the responsive features of the Pro version, if you’re mainly emailing in desktop format and you’re not concerned with the mobile side of things.
You get a set of designs to choose from or you can of course start from scratch, though modifying a template is a pretty good way to learn how it all works. The app is extremely Mac-like and has a great feel to it, with tools and features exactly where you’d expect them to be, and a very slick overall feel. What it does is give you a layout-oriented view of an HTML5 page which forms the basis of your email. HTML5 has been great news for anyone working with web technology because it allows you to achieve fairly advanced things without being a coder. Indeed, Mail Designer Pro doesn’t require any coding experience at all, just the odd pasting of a URL. And all modern email clients whether desktop or mobile can deal with it, so your designs will show up as you intend.
A nice canvas complete with guides, rulers and handy tools.
Your layout is flexible of course and there are rulers and guides that pop up to help you and snapping to keep everything aligned. Dimensions are shown (though all this stuff can be toggled off if you prefer) and mails are designed in “layout blocks” with tons of preset blocks available to drag and drop into the canvas. From there you can add your text and there’s a popup window for any text where you can set font, size, color, justification, line spacing and add hyperlinks. Just like with a webpage, text that’s added as body text can only use a specific range of web fonts, though there are enough on offer for most tastes.
Layout blocks and snapping make creating coherent content a breeze.
As well as text and layout blocks, you can use the content palette to add a variety of shapes, preset graphics, text objects (which provides a way to use a much wider array of fonts in a message by treating text as a graphic), masks for creating picture frames and the like around images, background textures and of course a photo browser to add images. There’s a nice popup menu for images that lets you control the amount of compression that’s applied, so you can manually balance file size against image quality, even if the automatic setting seems to do an excellent job as it is.
Choose from a range of preset graphics and customize the text.
One of the biggest features is Mobile View, where the app creates a mobile optimized version of your email at the same time as you are designing it for the desktop. Mobile is increasingly important, and “responsiveness” is the new buzzword for web marketing. If someone receives an email on their iPhone that’s been designed for a desktop mail client they will have to zoom in to read it properly, which means they’re more likely not to bother. If the mail arrives in mobile format, they are much more likely to engage with it.
Click on the Mobile button and you get a mobile view of the email complete with a graphic of the mobile device, which can be switched to show all iPhones, iPads and some Android devices. You can also custom add new devices with your own screen sizes to this preview section. For mobile, the layout is automatically optimized for the shape of the device, and you can hide elements from the desktop layout manually to customize the mobile layout. This is very useful, since a 1.5 page desktop email might translate to 6 or 7 pages of content on a much smaller phone screen, so you can strip it back to what’s absolutely crucial.
A smartphone-optimized version of your message.
Switch between virtual mobile devices to view the mobile layout.
Mail Designer Pro is also designed to help you collaborate on and test emails. There’s a Log window that shows exactly who has made what changes to a mail, and you can “lend” a raw message to someone else for them to edit, and both people can leave text notes with instructions or thoughts, with arrows linking to sections of the message. You can also send email to yourself without needing to use a real, external send address as the app is able to act as a sort of mini mail server. So you can send a test mail to yourself as often as you like to see how your designs are working. You can also export messages as HTML or PDF files, for use with other email services. MailChimp and Campaign Monitor are directly supported too, with placeholders for personalized information like real names or email addresses to be added before sending.
Keep track of who has changed what, and leave design notes.
Mail Designer Pro is a really excellent application for designing slick, great-looking custom emails and newsletters with a minimum of fuss. It perhaps doesn’t have the sheer depth of programmability that you would get by designing your own page completely from scratch, but then you’d almost certainly have to be a coder to do that properly in the first place. For the vast majority of people who want to create unique emails for marketing or promotional purposes and have a bit of a sense of what looks good, Mail Designer Pro is really the way to go.
The non “pro” version has recently had an update and is on sale for a limited time, and fairly inexpensive even after that and it does have many of the layout features of Pro. It doesn’t have any of the mobile features however, which are one of Pro’s most compelling aspects. You can compare them directly here and there’s a downloadable trial of Pro for you to check out for yourself.
Price: £69.99 / $99.99
Pros: Very easy to pick up. Great design and workflow. Create amazing, unique emails without coding. Create responsive mobile versions automatically. Collaborate and test mails simply.
Cons: A few more templates might be nice. The newly released entry level version actually does a few things more elegantly, even if it lacks the mobile features.
Hollin Jones was classically trained as a piano player but found the lure of blues and jazz too much to resist. Graduating from bands to composition then production, he relishes the chance to play anything with keys. Formerly a lecturer in videographics and music production, Hollin has been a freelance writer on music technology and Apple topics for well over a decade, along the way publishing several books on audio software. He has been lead writer at a number of prominent music and technology publications. As well as consultancy, full-time journalism, video production and professional photography, he occasionally plays Hammond, Rhodes and other keys for people who ask nicely. Hollin is Contributing Editor at Ask.Audio.