This year, we launched the Email First Awards and announced our inaugural winners during Litmus Live Week. In this blog post, we interview Sam Beddoes, Senior Designer at Action Rocket, and take a peek behind their Visual Visionary Award winning entry.
So, how do you come up with ideas for innovative visual design?
Sam: First I check to see what creative assets a client may have sent over. If they have sent something over with a bit of a brief, that’s great! This sets the boundaries and limits of what we can create which makes things easier for us (we know what we can/can’t do). And for the client, they have a feeling of what to expect.
If we don’t have any assets at all, we might have the very fun opportunity to create assets from scratch, specifically for use in email (I did a talk on this for Litmus at their conference back in 2017). This can result in us undertaking custom photoshoots, video creation, and animation production.
Both circumstances end up the same way: us sitting down as a small team with a pen and paper and coming up with different concepts to present to the client before we even crack open Photoshop.
Is your client, the BBC, usually open to creative suggestions? How do you convince clients and stakeholders to approve non-traditional designs?
Sam: The BBC are a fantastic client to work with as they always meet us halfway. They come to us with a clear idea of what they want, and almost always have some incredibly detailed and diverse assets to help us make something really great.
We then take this, and try to push the boundaries as much as possible—which the BBC have always been extremely receptive to. As a side-note: I totally get that, as a client, you might feel like you’re being super helpful by telling a designer to “take the lead” or give them “free reign” over a project. But you’ll get far better results if you take the opportunity to outlay some of your own ideas and boundaries for a design.
What was it like getting your award-winning design executed?
Sam: I’m very fortunate to work with Katie Inwood, who manages the majority of my projects and is the first port of call for clients when they want to commission a project. When a brief comes in, Katie can easily spot any gaps that need filling in by the client, as well as exactly what assets we need to get hold of. We work together as a team, and Katie has a lot of influence over the final design. She’ll also manage all the client communication, project management and costs. Phew! Honestly, it’s a whole ton of work that goes on in the background which I never take for granted.
The benefit that I gain from this is that it allows me to focus solely on the design. This is great as it allows me to experiment with new ways of working, which can be time consuming, but always rewarding.
From a technical perspective, the design was put together with basic animation in Photoshop at the concept stage, and then we used After Effects to add life to the animation (this is what makes it fluid and bouncy, rather than the stilted, robotic animations that Photoshop makes).
Did you face any challenges? How did you overcome them?
Sam: This project came to us during our busiest period leading up to Christmas, and at the time, I think we were already working on several other projects for the BBC.
I mentioned earlier how limitations often help a design to flourish, and this project was no exception. Time was the biggest limiting factor on this project, so this shaped the design to be what we refer to as a “poster design” (this is an email which is primarily led by a giant graphic, minimal text and singular CTA). So, we overcame the challenge of time by simplifying the layout—which in the end, created a very visual and focused design.
In the award submission, it was mentioned that this design was so well-received, it was also used in the outdoor advertising campaign. Was that decided after seeing email results?
Sam: No, the planning of the full media campaign takes place in advance of any launches. It’s great when the different marketing components work hand in hand, and come together with successful results.
Let’s learn a little bit about you now. How did you get into design in general and email in particular?
Sam: I had been aware of Action Rocket for a while on Twitter, and one day, I spotted the founder, Elliot Ross, at the very first Litmus conference in London. I really liked the look of the stuff they were putting out—high quality, professional and very fun. I dropped him an email, we had a coffee and a chat, then a few weeks later, I was lucky enough to join the team! I’ve always been interested in design and nerdy internet stuff, and wanted to join somewhere that was just as excited about it as I am. I had a few previous email related roles, so I was very pleased that I could build on this somewhere as interesting as Action Rocket.
How do you keep learning about design and growing your skills?
Sam: We’re fortunate enough at Action Rocket to have an annual budget that we can spend on training. I know you can watch anything on YouTube for free, but when you really need to get into learning something new, I find it useful to go away for a few days on a training course. If you’re based in London, I can totally recommend Media Training Ltd.
I’m very nerdy when it comes to training courses, and screen-record each section of the training using Quicktime, as well as taking screenshots and notes which I export out into a PDF. This sounds like overkill and makes things very hectic, but there’s just no way I’d remember everything. Learning After Effects for the first time was like sitting in front of the controls for a Boeing 747 aircraft. Being able to refer back to any section of the training is so, so useful.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Sam: We share a lot of stuff around internally via Slack. It also really helps us as designers when our code team shares cool new things they have discovered, and then we can work together to see how to incorporate this into a design. And then, of course, there is Really Good Emails, which I love to use to spot new trends, layouts and admire crazy designs with very specific use cases.
What are your favorite design and coding tools?
Sam: My “holy trinity” of design/code tools are Photoshop, Dreamweaver and After Effects. I frequently use Illustrator, but only to pinch assets out of PDFs.
If you could only have access to one design tool for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Sam: Photoshop for sure. I know there’s the newer Sketch/XD crowd, which are nice, but they just don’t even come close to the versatility of Photoshop—which lets you edit bitmaps and vectors and animate them all in one program.
And lastly, what’s your favorite design trend right now?
Sam: While I won’t say “favourite”, I am intrigued by Dark Mode layouts. I admit I have been slow on the uptake. As email designers, we already have a lot (and you know I mean a lot) on our plates when it comes to design considerations and platform limitations. Having something else thrown on top feels a little cruel, but it does keep things interesting and moving along, which I like.
Designing emails for Dark Mode doesn’t have to be hard
Check out The Ultimate Guide to Dark Mode Email for a breakdown on which email clients offer Dark Mode, how their Dark Mode settings impact your email designs, and what you can do to improve your emails for subscribers who read in Dark Mode.
And, for the first time ever, see how many of your subscribers actually read your emails in select Dark Mode clients with Litmus Email Analytics. Learn more about Dark Mode detection and start your free Litmus trial now.
Magan Le was a Content Marketing Manager at Litmus