Email Design

Three experimental CSS effects to spice up your emails

Three experimental CSS effects to spice up your emails

CSS is the technology that makes the web pretty. It’s also used in email, albeit in a more primitive and fragmented form. A lack of universal support for the more modern features of CSS means that email developers tend to stick to the basics.

And that’s a pity, because some fancy CSS effects could mean the difference between plain-old-email and something that truly stands out. Let’s break with convention and think outside the (in)box.

Fixed positioning

One of the primary roles of CSS is layout. On a web page, an element can be set to a fixed position. While the rest of the page scrolls, that particular element stays put. That can be handy for components of an interface in a web app, for example.

Fixed positioning doesn’t work properly in email, not even in the otherwise ever-reliable Apple Mail. But luckily the email industry is home to some bright sparks who love to push the boundaries of the medium. Email on Acid’s Halloween email features a clever workaround for fixed positioning, originally conceived by Mark Robbins.

Being able to place an element independent of scrolling opens up a host of creative options. Here’s an example we knocked together based on the same principle:

Parallax scrolling

Those who owned a Nintendo in the 90s will perhaps remember this term. Before home technology had the muscle to render true 3D graphics, programmers used a variety of clever tricks to create an illusion of depth.

One of these techniques was parallax scrolling. The concept is simple. Graphics are placed on separate layers. ‘Distant’ objects move slowly, while ‘nearer’ objects move quickly. It lends the feeling of a third dimension to an otherwise two‑dimensional environment.

That brings us to the the perspective attribute in CSS. A web page, or part of it, can be pulled into a third axis. The result is layering of content that exists in different planes, and thus scroll at their own pace. Hello illusion of depth:

3D objects

Let’s continue the theme of three dimensions. CSS isn’t only capable of layering items. It can rotate them in 3D space. That means, with a bit lot of effort, a developer can sculpt and manipulate 3D objects. Check out some examples in this YouTube video.

These are impressive feats for sure. But so too is constructing a replica of the Eiffel Tower using only matches and glue. Complex 3D in CSS is a labour of love, not something you’ll be knocking together for Tuesday’s marketing email. So let’s think about something that could realistically be implemented in an email. How about a greetings card? That’s two rectangles, pivoting around a fold.

By combining this idea with some interactive triggers (also courtesy of some experimental CSS), a subscriber could manipulate a customised greetings card:

Oh, and that laminated sheen on the cover is achieved by sliding a white gradient across the surface. Lovely!

Are these effects really useable?

Full disclosure: pushing the limits of CSS in email is going to present you with compatibility and accessibility problems. Not insurmountable ones, but ones that will take effort to overcome. You’ll need to think about fallback content and graceful degradation. You might even want to give people the option to specifically opt in or out of such mailings.

We reckon the payoff is worth the effort for visually‑driven, energetic brands. And, hey, not only do you spice up your email – you also play a role in evolving the medium of email.