E-mail: The Next Frontier for Web Standards

Today is the 7th annual celebration of Blue Beanie Day, a yearly effort to support web standards. These days it is hard to imagine a world before strong web standards were the norm – building websites was infinitely more tedious, messy, and inefficient.

Luckily, we now live in a world where browser support for web standards is largely the reality. For the most part, the experience of building a universally accessible website today is decidedly less maddening than it was during the Browser Wars.

Web Standards Support (and the Lack Thereof) for E-mail

On this 7th annual Blue Beanie Day – more than 15 years after the start of the web standards revolution – the state of HTML-based e-mail design is dismal. Image slicing and table-based layouts are still the norm, despite the universal understanding that such practices are bad. Inline styling is standard practice to prevent design instructions from being stripped away in many places. Support for media query functionality which is fundamental for most new websites today isn’t even close to reliable. And if that weren’t bad enough, e-mail designers still can’t use webfonts and expect all their audience to be able to enjoy the results.

The Vicious Circle of Non-Standard E-mail Design

The unfortunate reality of the situation is a cyclical conundrum: If everyone keeps bending over backwards to compose e-mails that will work with non-compliant e-mail clients, we will be stuck doing so forever. Naturally, every designer wants their e-mails to be seen as intended in as many places as possible, but the makers of e-mail clients don’t have much incentive to become standards compliant unless their product fails to be usable otherwise.

In essence, the support for web standards in e-mail clients is still stuck somewhere in the late 1990s. This is not OK. Something needs to change.

Embracing Web Standards in E-mail

Earlier this month, we launched the inaugural edition of Webtype News, our e-mail newsletter about new webfonts, site updates, examples of webfonts in use, etc. When it was time to discuss the format and composition of the e-mail, we came up against the same questions that most e-mail designers do: How much time should we spend working on hacks for non-compliant e-mail clients? How much can we rely on media queries? When people’s e-mail clients don’t support modern web standards, what are the implications of encouraging them to read the e-mail as a separate stand-alone web page?

Eventually, after much deliberation, we decided that the best way to encourage support for web standards in the realm of e-mail was to embrace the standards ourselves. Inspired partly by Jeffrey Zeldman’s exclamation of To Hell With Bad Browsers from 2001, we decided it was about time to say “to hell with bad e-mail clients” too. We composed our new e-mail using modern web standards, including media queries, proper cascading stylization, and — most importantly for us — webfonts.

This approach to e-mail design is admittedly progressive, but at the end of the day we thought it would be much more rewarding to see what is possible when you compose e-mail around web standards instead of code hacks and design compromises. Some e-mail clients do in fact support a majority of web design standards, giving us hope for what is possible. (Sign up for the newsletter if you want to see what we do in the future.)

We don’t expect that every e-mail designer in the world will be able to take the same approach that we’ve taken right away, but we’d like to encourage more people to at least consider how they might start experimenting with e-mail design in ways that will encourage a broader adoption in e-mail clients. Such a change is long overdue.

Nick Sherman

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