Zen and the Art of Email Design

In a world of clutter, simplicity rules the throne. When everything is blinking, what's still will be shown.

After about 30 minutes I started to break down. I was a poet living in Thailand on a muay Thai kickboxing fellowship. I'd spend about 5 hours each day teaching, reading, and writing poetry, and another 5 doing the kind of grueling physical training it takes to be a kickboxer in Thailand. In other words, I felt in the best mental and physical shape of my life. But it was during sitting meditation, under the guidance of Vietnamese Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh, that I had reached my limits.

It was the practice of simply sitting--with good posture and while focusing on the breath--that broke me.

For starters, the sitting made evident that I didn't have control of my mind in the way I thought I did. I could begin editing a book of poems, and not lose focus until I was finished. I could balance three jobs, and maintain the stability of mind to pull through. But I couldn't simply sit in a quiet temple without my mind being filled every second with the fireworks of clutter.

I was in this temple and yet everywhere else--in places of fear and joy, in random moments of memories. On the surface I may have looked still and stoic, but on the inside I was losing it.

Then my body began to break down, which added a whole new layer of frustration to the situation. I could throw 500 knee strikes and spar all-out for two rounds before starting to tire. And yet as my hip flexors and back muscles went from on fire to completely numb, the monk's around me began to hum.

They were just getting started.

After a few years I thought I had deconstructed the many dimensions of that moment, but it was upon joining the team at Flow months ago that I realized I still had work to do.

Flow is a task management and team communication solution, and it's built by people who are at the forefront of the design thinking movement. The lessons of mindfulness and simplicity that I had learned from Thích Nhất Hạnh, and consistently worked to incorporate into my life, are similar to the lessons the team at Flow applies to their product design.

So when we launched our publication, The Modern Team, and needed to figure out what our email should look like, I was scrambling to catch up. Where my colleague, Cyrus Molavi, seemed to intuitively know what would work, I had to research. And where my other colleague, Mark Nichols, knew the ins and outs of writing effective copy, I again had to research.

All of this meant that I had to go back to "beginner's mind" -- a Zen concept that encourages engaging with even familiar subjects without preconceptions and as though they are entirely new. The idea is that in adopting a beginner's mind, the participant can drop judgement (what they think they know) and therefore be more receptive to new ways of thinking.

It wasn't that I had never created an email list; I had been using one for years to keep fans informed of my writing. But Cyrus and Mark understood the importance of simple design, they had practiced it just as those stoic monks had practiced meditation.

When they sent samples they liked, such as what Alex Turnbull was doing at Groove, it caused me to reflect on my own email design. It was clear within a few hours of research that I had been doing it all wrong.

I would have three or four photos in every email, photos that I thought made the email more engaging, but in reality simply made the reader's eyes dash around. And I would point their attention to many things: an article I just had published, an upcoming speaking engagement, and my Twitter account, for example.

My team taught me that the lessons of simplicity I'd been working to apply to other parts of my life could be applied to email design, too.

 "In a world of clutter, simplicity rules the throne."

So we worked collectively to chisel, to carve out the gem from the rock. Where I thought a header and a sidebar photo would do, we agreed that one was enough. Where we had 7 or 8 lines pointing to two different blog posts, we eventually realized that 5 or 6 lines pointing to one would be far better. And where I added a sign-off line, Mark said, "Can we kill that?" And we did because he was right. There was no need.

Here's what we first came up with. This was the first email we sent to our subscribers:

The 7 highlighted points represent parts we changed in a future email. Here are some insights into why we made those changes, followed by what it looked like after we did:

1. We desperately needed a unique logo. The one here fit our idea of growing startups, but ultimately it was a Shutterstock image and it didn't fit the creative direction we all lived by or wanted to pursue.

2. "-- by Flow" felt clunky and thrown on. It ultimately didn't read with the kind of simplicity we were striving for.

3. We thought of having an intro sentence before mentioning the post, but decided such a line was only adding to the clutter.

4. In addition to cutting that line, we realized we must hyperlink "is now live" so that we are immediately pointing the reader to where their focus should be.

5. We cut the "In case you missed" line. It was another example of us bringing our reader's attention to the forest when we really wanted them to see a particular tree.

6. We cut the "Onward, together" for similar reasons. It was an inclusive little phrase, but it was also another obstructive line that our readers would have to wade through.

7. We changed the sign-off from "Cameron" to the more team-oriented "TMT Editors."

We saw some impressive results with the above version. With overall email open rate percentages remaining steady, we more than doubled our click rate.

1. Still, the generic "Hi" began to feel like clutter. So we cut it.

2. The same could be said for the "P.S." line, especially when clicks on that weren't impressive enough to persuade us to keep it.

Here's our latest version, which we sent out yesterday to our patient and loyal subscribers:

Essentially the process was like collectively editing a poem, stripping out the nonsense to get to the bare essentials. The result is that we systematically worked to declutter our email design, all for the sake of allowing our readers to put their focus where it needs to be.

What we eventually landed on, I think, is an email design that reflects many of the values of our core team. Flow helps some of the world's most creative companies streamline their communication by bringing all parts of it into focus. This focus isn't just something we do, it's something we believe in--and certainly something I've been trying to practice on a regular basis since my time studying with Thích Nhất Hạnh.

It only felt right then, since our subscribers were essentially giving us the privilege of entering their inboxes, to implement our belief to the best of our abilities. After all, the email inbox is a place so routinely cluttered that simplicity can rule the throne.


Cameron Conaway is the Content Marketing Manager at Flow, where he edits The Modern Team. His work as a journalist has appeared in Newsweek, Harvard Business Review, and The Guardian. Follow him on Twitter @CameronConaway.

-Photo: Flickr/arquepoetica