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June 20, 2023 - Articles

Email Peeps 17: Paul Airy

“Paul

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how did you get to where you are today?

I love making things. I love making beautiful things. I love making functional things. I love making things that make a difference. And, in my twelve years working as an Email Designer and Developer, I’ve had the privilege to do all three!

But, if it weren’t for the people I make those things for – my recipients – it wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling – or as interesting! My early exposure to email analytics made me realise that what I make for my recipients – their emails – has a direct impact on their email experience.

As such, I felt a genuine and profound responsibility to deliver great email experiences to them in their inboxes, and I have done so ever since. They’re not email addresses in databases of hundreds, thousands or even millions of records – they’re people.

Twelve years ago, emails were largely ‘all image’ emails, with text, links and buttons embedded into those images. This led to a poor email experience, not to mention poor deliverability. Given the responsibility I felt towards my recipients, I wasn’t satisfied with this level of email experience – they deserved better!

So, I experimented with ways of working with text, to take it out of imagery and put it into HTML. That experimentation resulted in me writing my ebook, ‘A Type of Email: A handbook for working with HTML typography in email’, to help me (to record my results), and my fellow email developers, to help them take text out of imagery too!

This sense of responsibility to deliver great email experiences to my recipients and help my fellow email marketers, designers and developers do the same has since led me to create Type E:, write articles and speak at conferences, both on-stage and online!

Through this, I’ve become known within the email community, which I count it a privilege to belong to. I’ve got to know some amazing people and done some amazing things (like co-founding ‘Email for All’), some of which I never thought I’d do!

All this is how I got to where I am today, for which I’m extremely thankful and grateful.

What is your favorite email coding hack?

I love email coding hacks that require minimum implementation and that have maximum impact. My favourite is the styling of typographic elements like <h1>s, <h2>s, <h3>s, and <p>s with margin:0; (which I dubbed the ‘Magic Margin’).

<p style=”margin:0;”>

At one time, there was a reluctance to use typographic elements, such as <h1>s, <h2>s, <h3>s, and <p>s, as email clients rendered the space around them dramatically differently. So, most of the time, email developers placed text within <td> elements.

This hack enables us to reset and control the space around typographic elements, including paragraph spacing, using margin-top or margin-bottom (e.g. margin:1em 0 0 0;). Using typographic elements is one of the first things you need to do when implementing accessibility into your emails.

How did you get involved with email accessibility and why is it important?

After addressing the issue of all image emails and writing, ‘A Type of Email: A handbook for working with HTML typography in email’, I asked myself, what next? How can I make the email experience even better for my recipients?

As I looked into it, I realised that accessibility in email, and conformance to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in particular, was being talked about, but nothing more. I wanted to change that. I wanted to do something about it, and help others do the same.

So, I worked out ways in which I could implement accessibility into emails and presented my findings at The Email Design Conference (now known as Litmus Live), in London, in 2015, in my talk, ‘A Type of Accessibility’. Accessibility has been integral to my work ever since.

Why is accessibility in email important? Well, accessibility is about enabling as many recipients to access your emails as possible. If you decide it’s unimportant and don’t implement it, you’re denying them access to your emails. That makes no moral or commercial sense.

What’s in your Email Toolbox?

Hardware:

  • MacBook Pro Mid 2015
  • Lacie 2TB Mobile Drive
  • iPhone Xs
  • Samsung Galaxy A70
  • Acer Aspire 3
  • Sketchbook (The ‘old-school’ paper variety)
Paul's Office

Software:

  • Figma
  • Parcel.io
  • Various email clients, webmail clients and apps!
  • Affinity Photo
  • Affinity Designer
  • Affinity Publisher
  • Grammarly
  • Evernote

What are your favorite email design and coding resources?

I’m not one for following trends, so I don’t have any favourite email design resources per se. I do sign up for (a lot of) emails and have a ‘collection of comms’ in my inbox. These give me a real-time view of the way brands are currently designing and coding their emails, and when they’re deploying them too!

I have a few ‘go-to’ resources for coding, which I dip into as and when I need to. The one I use the most is the WebAIM Contrast Checker for ensuring colour contrast conforms to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

I also use ‘The Ultimate Guide to CSS’ from Campaign Monitor and Can I email from Rémi Parmentier, now and again. When I want to research something in more depth, I refer to blog posts like those published by Litmus, Email on Acid and Envato Tuts+.

How do you stay creative and where do you find inspiration?

Staying creative starts by recognising when I’m in a rut and when I need to review my creative process. I used to start in the code. Now I start in a sketchbook, which I use for scribbling out my initial ideas and designs before evolving them on the ‘Mac’.

I’ve found that Figma is great for doing that. It gives me the headspace I need to evolve my ideas and designs until they’re mature enough to commit to code. It also allows me time to think of new ideas or designs along the way or see what I’ve created from a different perspective.

When I was working on the new designs for Type E:, they started off being purely typographic. After taking some time to think, reflect and critique them, I felt that each issue of Type E: needed a visual element to give it a unique identity.

This was when I had the idea of featuring a simple hero illustration on each issue. I wanted the hero illustrations to be distinctive, have a common style, be quick to create and reflect the relevant issue’s specific subject matter.

I sketched out some ideas and evolved them in Affinity Designer. At first, they were static, and I wanted them to be dynamic. I’ve always liked the work of Roy Lichtenstein and how he used lines to simulate movement. That inspired and influenced the illustration style I created.

Indeed, art is one source of inspiration for me. I love Piet Mondrian’s compositions for their simplicity and use of the grid. I admire Pablo Picasso’s Guernica for his use of art to create awareness. And I’m in awe of Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals for how they move you when you stand beside them.

Type and typography have always inspired me too. I love letterforms and find them a thing of beauty. I even have favourite characters, like the ampersand! My love of type is the reason why I decided to style some issues of Type E: with a ‘Featured Font’ to make my fellow email designers aware of what’s out there.

I get really inspired when I identify a way of improving the email experience for my recipients. This usually happens in everyday life. It can happen when listening to a person describe their experience. It can happen when observing a person in their experience. It can happen when in a conversation about a person’s experience.

It did just that one day when I was in a conversation with someone, discussing how their son was living with dyslexia and how he used coloured overlays to help him with his reading. This inspired me to create a digital version to help people read their emails, and the idea for the Accessibility Switcher™ was conceived!

Ultimately, as a Christian, I believe ideas come from God, so I regularly pray to Him for them, and they do, though not always immediately! They can come as a single thought or a series of thoughts, which I quickly have to sketch out or note down in case I forget them!

How do you manage work-life balance?

As I said at the start, I love making things and writing, designing, illustrating and coding the likes of Type E: However, there are times when I need to take a complete break from it, and give my family and myself some quality time.

Quality time with my family happens in the evenings, at weekends and on holiday (vacation). As I work from home, I find it helpful to leave the house and visit places where everyone enjoys spending time together. For my family, this often includes coffee shops and bookshops!

‘Me time’ is also important, and having something I can immerse myself in to help me unwind really helps. I recently invested in a turntable and have started collecting vinyl records! Listening to twenty minutes of uninterrupted music without skipping a track, and allowing it to fill the room, is very therapeutic!

Often, it’s in these times of rest that ideas start to come, and it can be tempting to get drawn back into work. To avoid this becoming a distraction, I quickly draw a sketch or make a note and put it aside, so I can continue to rest.

Whatever I do, whether working or resting, I’ve learned, and continue to learn, what it means to be fully present and fully engaged in the moment.

Much love,
Andy

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @emaillove

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