How to make effective email announcements:

This quasi-tutorial is for those who would like to email announcements to the list and have some aspirations as designers and are interested in and have some familiarity with text-layout in word processing or desktop publishing programs.


Email uses plain ASCII characters without giving you control of typefaces, point sizes, choice of bold or italic characters, tab marks and without much choice for a text layout. Still there are certain techniques and special characters that you can use to lay out an email that looks a bit more distinctive and readable than a block of plain text.

Let's start with the basics.

(1) Most email protocols limit the length of a line to 72 characters and at the 73rd position the email-reader will automatically enter a line-break. You email application may not display the text as your intended reader will see it (the famed WYSYWIG what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach is often not implemented) so you have to take some precautions. You may want to enter line-breaks by hand or ask your email application to display the message as seen by a reader before sending out the message (often there are hidden features that you can find by further exploring the menu items, or -- God-forbid -- by reading your manual.)

(2) There are no text-positioning (tabulating, centering) functions in email, therefore each line of text starts at the #1 position of the line. The only way you can force the text field to contain indents, centered text, is by inserting (blank) spaces at the beginning of the line (the same way some of your very own papers were typed before you could figure out the proper use of tabs in that unforgettable/forgotten past).

(3) Avoid making complex tables with spaces!

(4) Centering text with spaces is very difficult.

(5) Making tables is impossible with spaces only.

The reason for these (3-5) is that the text-display in an email application varies from user to user. Some choose monospace fonts that line up (characters and spaces occupy the same amont of space) while others may use a non-monospace font.

(6) You can use special characters like hyphens, underlines to create separators or labels (see the example below)


The following example is a screen-shot of my email reader: the announcement text has some examples of the use of spacing, special characters (hyphens, colons, squared brackets) and carriage-return (line-break)-generated white space.

Placing the cursor over the image will show you the second (monospace font) version for comparison.

...and now let's look at an example to see the pittfalls of over-enthusiastic design. The message was laid out with an non-monospace font (Geneva) and the example of how things can go wrong is shown with a monospace font (Helvetica). Again, placing the cursor over the image will show you the second version.

making a centered label-like effect with spaces does not work
titles can be more or less centered if surrounded by white space only
you cannot create columns!
trying to imitate right-justified layout causes a line-break [the number of spaces preceeding the bracket was not counted]
creating a complex layout with multiple centered axes is not possible with ASCII

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