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This content was published: February 25, 2019. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

Tips for great looking emails

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Gmail iconAs an online instructor, a lot of email gets sent. In all those emails, the last thing you might think about is how they should be formatted. Email is an important form of communication with your students and one of the only forms of personal communication – next to assignment and discussion feedback. So, what can you do to make your emails a little easier to digest for all students?

1: Subject lines

When writing a subject line, make sure to state the course number and main topic idea. For instance:
EC 201: Week 1 Discussion Instructions or EC 201 Missing Homework for Week 4
In contrast, “See the attached file” would not be an adequate subject line.

2: Lists of items

Using formatted lists is a great way to “chunk” detailed information. When making a list of items, use the list tool function from the message toolbar.

Image of Gmail message toolbar with the ordered list tool circled

Formatting a list this way is required for students who use assistive technologies to properly read the lists you make. Plus, it does all the numbering and indentations for you! Note: If you want to create line breaks (for extra spacing) between bullet points and not mess up your numbering, use Shift + Enter instead of just Enter.

3: Meaningful links

Having “meaningful links” keeps your email clean of long URLs that can distract from the meat of your message. Instead they will enhance your email message. What this entails is adding the title of the document or website to the hyperlink. For example:

Instead of a full URL like “https://www.pcc.edu/instructional-support/accessibility/accessibility-tutorials/,” have the link read as “Designing Online Content.” This can be done by using the insert link function:

Image of Gmail message toolbar with the ordered list tool circled. Sentence Comparison:

Also, people who use assistive technology to read email, will greatly appreciate having links formatting this way. This is because they can search a page for just links (like we scan an email for the link we want). If the compiled list of links reads as “Link: https:// …” then they may not know where it goes, but if the link has a title, it will be read as “Link: Designing Online Content.” They will know exactly where that link goes without having to reread the entire email for context. Cool, huh!

4: Inserting images

Images in Gmail are tricky since you can’t add alternative text like you can in Word or Google Docs. But, if you provide a brief caption directly under the image, then important images will be described for readers. The caption can use a smaller font if you wish.

an image of a graphic that has caption text directly below image in Gmail.

Also, images should not be the primary content of your email, like an infographic. If the image includes text, then that text needs to be expressed in the body of the email. Instead, think of the purpose of images as complementing and/or reinforcing your message.

Does this mean you can’t send your students an infographic? Not at all! Just be sure that all your students will be able to enjoy the content you spent time finding. If it is in a PDF format or has a PDF version, make sure that you can select the text and that the text is selected in order. If not, it might be a good thing to reach out to Online Learning or Disability Services (online or on-campus respectively) if you have an active accommodation request.

5: Using color

Color is one way of adding some visual interest to an email. However, since about 4.5% of the population (and ~ 1 in 12 men) has some form of color blindness, there are a few things you should consider:

  1. Make sure the color you choose has enough color contrast (i.e. dark enough). If you are in doubt, a great free checking tool is Colour Contrast Analyser.
  2. Color shouldn’t be used alone as emphasis or to identify something important like assignments due on a certain day. Instead, use bold and/or italics to emphasize key words or phrases. You can add color, but be sure to bold or italicize too.
  3. It is probably best to limit yourself to about two additional color choices. This way your email won’t turn into a distracting rainbow of colors!

6: Short paragraphs

Have you ever noticed that is a bit harder to read long blocks of text on a screen than it is on paper? Those long blocks of text get even longer if you are reading the email on a mobile device. So in email, don’t be afraid to use paragraph breaks a little more often.

Is there a rule of thumb? Not necessarily. It depends on the length of your sentences. For myself, I generally check after 4 average sentences. Having shorter paragraphs is also another way to chunk information, so that the message can be more easily scanned by the reader.

7: “Faux” section headings

If you know your email is going to be detailed and longer than the norm, creating “faux” section headings is another great way to chunk. Unfortunately, Gmail doesn’t have a tool to format headings (like it does with lists) within the app. To make a heading, you would need to format the old-fashioned way by enlarging the font size. Headings formatted in this manner will not be as useful to users of assistive technology, which is why I call them “faux” headings.

There you have it! Seven great tips on formatting email in Gmail!

About Rondi Schei

As the Course Development Program Manager for Online Learning, Rondi works with faculty to develop engaging instructional materials and design high quality online courses. more »

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There are 2 comment for this article. If you see something that doesn't belong, please click the x and report it.

x by Ron Bekey 2 years ago

Rondi, thanks for the great article about “great looking emails” in D2L!

Just curious why you are recommending a color contrast tool that requires installation. I prefer to use this one, which I also require my students to use:


It doesn’t need to be downloaded and installed like the one you referred to in your post. If a person installs the Colorzilla extension in their browser it is even easier, as you can just click on a color on your page, then paste it into the box. I require AAA contrast in my classes because I don’t think AA is enough (at least not to my eyes).

Thanks again for a great post!

x by Rondi Schei 2 years ago

Hi Ron,

The WebAIM Color Contrast Checker is very good and I appreciate you adding it to the discussion! It doesn’t really matter which tool is used, as long as color contrast is being checked.

For this post I wanted to provide an example of a tool that could be used. I chose to go with one that is light, easy to use, and could work across any computer application. Color Contrast Analyser (CCA) lets you use an eye dropper to select the color of the text and the color of the background whether you’re surfing the web or working on a PowerPoint.

Since the WebAIM tool is web-based, users would need to input the color codes for the text and background from an application not on the web (like PowerPoint or Word). The eyedropper plugin does make getting the color codes a lot easier, but it only works on web pages. These were my main reasons for choosing CCA as my example, but everyone should feel free to use the color contrast tool works best for them!

Thanks! :)

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PCC offers this limited open forum as an extension of the respectful, well-reasoned discourse we expect in our classroom discussions. As such, we welcome all viewpoints, but monitor comments to be sure they stick to the topic and contribute to the conversation. We will remove them if they contain or link to abusive material, personal attacks, profanity, off-topic items, or spam. This is the same behavior we require in our hallways and classrooms. Our online spaces are no different.