New year, new web design and development techniques and strategies. Same. Boring. Email.
No longer, friends!
Recently, we sat down with Vitaly Friedman—Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Smashing Magazine—for a Shopify Partner Session webinar, where we discussed some downright dirty CSS tricks that you can use to enhance your design projects.
Most interestingly, Vitaly outlined two mind-blowing techniques for enhancing your HTML emails by making them responsive—without using media queries! To give you some time to wrap your head around them, we’ve rounded up the techniques below.
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The Fab Four
You’re probably already using some scrappy CSS tricks to
force add responsivity-esque functionality to your HTML emails. You're also probably doing it using media queries. Do any of these sound familiar?
Enabling content stacking
Enable content stacking by turning table cells, traditionally used to build HTML emails, into block-style elements.
Allowing column switching
Allow column switching by using table-header groups and table-footer groups to define the order of content in the email.
Ordering and reordering content
Order and reorder content by defining up to five elements and specifying what content comes first, which content should always be displayed at the bottom, etc.
All of these are fine and dandy, and are definitely a welcome addition to the monotony of regular old HTML email design. But, what if you want to take this “responsiveness” to the next level by ensuring everything is constrained proportionately in the mobile version of your email? And remember, we don’t want to use media queries (like in the above examples).
The simplest way
Well, first you’ll need to open your mind to the idea that what you’re about to read may not make total sense (at a glance).
And second, you’ll need to take out your trusty CSS toolkit and use the following four elements:
Let’s start at the beginning. Your current CSS might already look a little something like this:
However, there are two things you should know about the above values (and this is where things get a little weird):
widthvalue is greater than the
min-widthis greater than the
It’s called the Fab Four Technique. This dirty little trick was originally created (and mastered) by Rémi Parmentier, a French web developer “with an affinity for emails,” but explained thoroughly by Vitaly himself in his presentation.
Put into practice, you can use this
min-width-wins logic when building a two-column email layout. You can also take advantage of using percentages in
width elements to take out some of the guess work when building your responsive HTML email.
Your CSS should look something like this:
Min-width: 50%; will essentially propagate a two-column desktop version of the email.
Max-width: 100%; will essentially create a one-column mobile version of the email.
Width: calc((480px - 100%) * 480); will determine whether
min-width wins. We subtract 100 per cent from 480px because it’s the width of the parent, and multiply by 480px because that is the breaking point of the layout. The goal of this calculation is to create a value higher than our
max-width, or lower than our
min-width, so that either of these properties is used instead of
Here’s a case where
And another where
As you can see, we’ve applied two entirely different behaviors to our HTML emails, due to the breakpoint established by our
calc value. So, depending on how the end-user’s email client is scaled in their browser, or whether they’re viewing the email on their phone, the email will always scale responsively.
If you’re like me and need a visual representation of how this works, you can reference Rémi's CodePen below:
Never forget to clean HTML code and double check your content before publishing an article!
Or you can have a look at Rémi’s demo in your browser.
The fully-functional checkout experience
Now that you’ve worked your brain a little with the Fab Four Technique, lets move on to something a teensy bit more complicated.
You’ve probably heard of the checkbox hack before. Put simply, it involves using a checkbox input and
label to control a secondary element (like a
div). These elements will respond differently depending on whether or not a box is checked, like the tabs in the example below.
The basic HTML and CSS looks a little something like this:
A List Apart wrote about it in 2014, Smashing Magazine addressed the technique in 2012, even Chris Coyier added his spin to it back in 2011. The checkbox hack has been around for so long, it’s no wonder Mark Robbins, a web developer and visionary for interactive email, decided to shake things up a bit with his checkbox-hack-on-steroids technique called punch card coding.
TL;DR Mark realized that when he had finished coding an email (using the checkbox hack) and marked all the radio buttons as display, what he was left with was a grid that looked very much like a punch card. Styled, it took on a completely different form.
I mean, how else would you create an interactive ThWack-a-Vole game in an email?
You can even use punch card coding to create a fully-functional checkout experience, right in a customer’s inbox.
According to Mark and Vitaly, this feat requires four checkboxes, 117 radio buttons, a bunch of image overlays, and includes:
- A multi-page layout
- The ability to add/remove products and edit quantity, color, and size
- Live value calculations
- The ability to select payment and delivery
- Form validation
If you’re looking for a quick and simple way to add live value calculations to your email, try the following CSS (paired with the checkbox hack, of course):
Truly amazing stuff. If you want to learn more about punch card coding and how you can use it to create rockin’ emails, have a look at Mark’s presentation on CodePen (click the lower right-hand corner to change slides):
Hungry for more ways to create responsive emails? Vitaly offers the following references:
- Responsive Email Resources—a collection of prefabricated tools that you can use as the basis of your responsive email designs. This website includes text editors, frameworks, templates, and more.
- Responsive Email Patterns—a collection of premade patterns that you can use to enhance your responsive email designs. This website includes modules, grid boxes, navigation, and more.
What are your favorite dirty tricks for email? Let us know in the comments below.
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