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How to Wow Every Subscriber with an Email Background Image Easily (+ the Code to Do It!)

Emails can feel a bit predictable with an image here, a block of text there… One way to liven up the subscriber experience? Background images. They’re unexpected and add another dimension to your design, making your emails “pop.” When done well, they make your email feel like a million bucks but are incredibly easy to pull off.

Keep reading for:

What are background images? (And what’s the point?)

Background images are images that are applied to the background of, or behind, an element. Instead of being a main focal point of the email, like a hero image, they are more often subtle and complementary to the other content in the campaign.

The major benefit of using background images is they allow you to place additional HTML content on top of them. Unlike other images, where only the image itself can exist in that space, background images provide layering possibilities, so you can have extra images, text, or calls-to-action (CTAs) existing within that same space.

example of live HTML text and a bulletproof button over an email background image

Using live HTML text on top of a background image, instead of including that text as part of the image, means your message is readable when images are turned off, making this a great technique for creating better, more accessible HTML emails.

Aside from helping to create campaigns that provide a better reading experience, background images also offer a wealth of design possibilities, setting your campaign apart from the competition.

Creative ways brands are using background images

Miro placed a background image containing shapes behind their hero section, drawing attention to the email’s main headline and messaging, which is overlaid using live text.

Miro examples with email background image
Source: Really Good Emails

Uplers used a background image to highlight a discount on their services, with a coupon image placed behind a coupon code.

Uplers example of email background image for coupon code
Source: Really Good Emails

Figma added a subtle repeating background pattern to the body of this email, introducing us to their new whiteboard product. The pattern they feature echoes the background found in the product.

Figma example of email background images
View this email in Litmus Builder

Chipotle placed a jumbo background image behind this impactful jumbo hero and body area, including product photography and a line pattern. Over the top of this image, they have an animated GIF with transparent background, and live text in the body area.

Chipotle Friendsgiving email with subtle email background images
Source: Really Good Emails

Animated GIFs can also be used as background images, like this example from Adobe Stock, promoting festive collections with hero content including live text and a CTA button placed on top of the animated background.

Adobe Stock email with animated GIF email background images
Source: Really Good Emails

Design considerations

When thinking about implementing background imagery, there are some design considerations worth taking into account.

Contrast

To ensure all readers get the value of content overlaid on background imagery, it’s important to be mindful of contrasts. Treat the image in much the same way as you would a flat color, and test the colors in your image against the colors of your content.

If you design using Figma, you can add plugins like Color Blind and Contrast to see whether you are meeting Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). There are also a number of web apps, like WebAim’s Contrast Checker, where you can test the colors in your designs.

Simplicity

Another way to ensure readability is to keep things simple. Busy backgrounds can make it hard to get the value of any live text you place on your image. So it’s often helpful to consider your background image as an enhancement rather than a feature.

Solid color fallback

As not all email clients will honour background imagery, design a solid color fallback. Subscribers using email clients that won’t support your imagery can still have a great experience with a solid color. Be sure to choose a fallback color that matches your design and contrasts well with its foreground elements.

How to code background images in email

Before I walk through the code, let’s see which clients will render background CSS styling and which ones need the help of a VML fallback.

The good news: Support for inline background CSS has improved, with webmail clients now fully supporting this method, meaning the background HTML attribute is no longer required.

The bad news: Unfortunately, Windows 10 Mail just doesn’t like background images. It won’t render inline CSS or the deprecated HTML background attribute. And applying VML will cause rendering issues with an ‘image can’t be displayed’ error message.

If you are concerned about the experience Windows 10 Mail subscribers are getting, consider leaving out the VML. This ensures that fallback background colors give your Microsoft Outlook Suite audience a great email reading experience, without the extra decoration.

Windows 10 Mail example of email background images

Email client support for background images

Email client

Using inline CSS

Using VML

Apple Mail 14

Office 365 (Mac)

Office 365 (Windows)

Outlook 2016 (macOS 10.12.6)

Outlook 2013, 2016, 2019 (Windows 10)

Windows 10 Mail

Gmail App (Android 10)

Gmail App (iOS 13.4.1)

Outlook (Android 7.0)

Outlook (iOS 12.0)

Samsung Mail (Android 7.0)

iPad 11 Air (Gen 4 iOS 14.2)

iPhone 12 (iOS 14.2)

AOL Mail (Edge)

Gmail (Chrome)

Office 365

Outlook.com

Yahoo! Mail

 

Which email clients do your subscribers use?

Take a look at your own email client market share with Litmus Email Analytics. See which email clients you need to optimize your background images for. (Hint: If Windows 10 Mail is low, don’t sweat it.)

Learn more →

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk code!

One of the fun things about bringing background imagery into your emails is that there are a few different ways you can achieve this. You can fill a small section or cover the body of your email, use a single image or a repeat pattern, and you can switch your background imagery depending on whether your reader is on desktop, mobile, Light Mode, Dark Mode, or even when they hover or roll over your image.

Each technique needs a different approach, so let’s take a look at the best ways to code these.

Width-defined or fixed background image

fixed-width background example of email background images

When applying background images, it’s always best to add your code to the cell of the containing table. Applying to any other HTML element such as <table> or <body> is unlikely to get support from some email clients. Here’s what this should look like:

<table class="container" role="presentation" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" border="0" width="600">
<tr>
    <td style="background: url(fixed-background.jpg) #B5CFE3; background-size:cover; background-position:center;">
        <!--add your content here-->
    </td>
</tr>
</table>

Here, the image is made to fit the width and height of the cell by including background-size:cover in the inline CSS styles and then positioned to the center. Adding these styles allows you to use a 2x image—meaning you’ll see crisp rendering on retina displays—and it will be resized to fit neatly within your container, even when the container resizes for rendering on different devices.

However, this also means if your image is too small or not sized proportionately to the container, it may look pixelated or stretched. Especially if it’s photography.

icon of email illustration

Does your background image work?

See how our code for background images work in your own email across the most popular email apps such as Gmail and Outlook.

Learn more →

 

Today, most email clients support inline CSS background styling, so you can add your background image and fallback color using the background shorthand CSS property. In other words, simply apply these to the ‘background’ style. Unfortunately, further background styling doesn’t work too well with shorthand when coding inline, so any positioning or sizing would need to be written as separate styles. For example, using background-position: center; background-size: 80%; instead of background: center/80%;.

Making this work in Outlook with a VML fallback

Outlook and Office 365 for desktop also need a little help to display background images, as they too won’t render CSS background styles. To get our background image to display in these email clients, we need to leverage a technique popularized by Stig Morten Myre for Campaign Monitor, and apply Microsoft’s Vector Markup Language (VML).

Taking the code we have already created, we place the required VML and a containing <div> inside our table cell:

<table class="container" role="presentation" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" border="0" width="600">
<tr>
    <td style="background: url(fixed-background.jpg) #B5CFE3; background-size:cover; background-position:center;">
​​<!--[if gte mso 9]>
<v:rect xmlns_v="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:vml" fill="true" stroke="false" style="width:600px; background-color:#B5CFE3;">
           <v:fill type="frame" src="fixed-background.jpg" />
           <v:textbox style="mso-fit-shape-to-text:true" inset="0,0,0,0">
           <![endif]-->
           <div>
<!--add your content here-->
</div>
<!--[if gte mso 9]>
</v:textbox>
</v:rect>
<![endif]-->

    </td>
</tr>
</table>

For images that need to fill the container without repeating, we need to use ‘frame’ within the vml:fill tag. This way, you can use 2x imagery within this tag. Just ensure you set the width of your container using inline styling on the v:rect tag (in the example above, it’s set to 600px).

If you want padding on your container, something you might find is placing the VML within the container will make the padding collapse. The way we fix this is to wrap the VML around our container, so we need to nest our container within another table like so:

<table class="container" role="presentation" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" border="0" width="600">
<tr>
<td>
​​<!--[if gte mso 9]>
<v:rect xmlns_v="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:vml" fill="true" stroke="false" style="width:600px; background-color:#B5CFE3;">
<v:fill type="frame" src="fixed-background.jpg" />
<v:textbox style="mso-fit-shape-to-text:true" inset="0,0,0,0">
<![endif]-->
<div>
<table role="presentation" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" border="0" width="100%">
    <td style="background: url(fixed-background.jpg) #B5CFE3; background-size:cover; background-position:center;">
<!--add your content here-->
    </td>
</tr>
</table>
</div>
<!--[if gte mso 9]>
</v:textbox>
</v:rect>
<![endif]-->
</td>
</tr>
</table>

Repeating background image

You can also add a background that repeats within the container you place it. A great example is to repeat a pattern throughout the body of your email.

example of repeating email background images

If the image we place in our container cell is smaller than the container, it will automatically repeat both horizontally and vertically. To repeat in just one direction, style with ‘background-repeat’ CSS and add the value repeat-x to repeat horizontally or repeat-y to repeat vertically.

To fill the whole container with a fully repeating pattern, the code is very simple:

<table role="presentation" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" border="0" width="100%">
<tr>
    <td style="background: url(repeat-background.png) #B5CFE3;">
        <!--add your content here-->
    </td>
</tr>
</table>

Making this work in Outlook with a VML fallback

Again, if you would like to see your background render in Outlook clients, you can apply VML. The code is a little different this time, with the VML placed before the container:

<div>
  <!--[if gte mso 9]>
  <v:background xmlns:v="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:vml" fill="t">
    <v:fill type="tile" src="repeat-background.png" color="#ffffff"/>
  </v:background>
  <![endif]-->
  <table cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" border="0" role="presentation" style="width:100%;">
     <tr>
        <td align="center" style="background-image: url(repeat-background.png);">
       </td> 
    </tr>
</table>
</div>

To make the background repeat, populate the v:fill tag with the type ‘tile’. No surprise, there are some rendering issues with Windows 10 Mail, and with repeating backgrounds, the rendering issues can be much more unsightly. So, leaving out the VML might be the safest approach if you have any Windows 10 Mail subscribers.

Advanced techniques

Fixed and repeating background imagery offer a lot of opportunity to level up your email designs, but there’s more:

Contrast image swap

Now that Dark Mode is available in multiple email clients—and honouring subscriber preferences helps you reach a wider audience and build trust—switching your background image is a great way to complement a light or Dark Mode design. And it’s a fun and simple enhancement, too.

email background images with different contrast modes

To implement this, you need to add some embedded CSS to Dark Mode media queries. This will make sure your Dark Mode background image is served within email clients that will support this type of media query:

.darkmode-switch {
            background-image:url(background-dark.png) !important;
            background-color:#111111 !important;
        }

It’s worth adding a dark fallback color. This will help with email clients that won’t load images without the reader taking action and ensures your message can be read when your image hasn’t been loaded.

Now, in your HTML, apply your class to the cell containing your light mode background image. Simple!

<table class="container" role="presentation" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" border="0" width="600">
<tr>
    <td class= "darkmode-switch" style="background: url(background-light.png) #B5CFE3; background-size:cover; background-position:center;">
        <!--add your content here-->
    </td>
</tr>
</table>

💡 Take note: Something that is hard to design for, and even harder to code for, is email clients that invert the colors of your email in a Dark Mode environment, completely overlooking all of the hard work you put into writing Dark Mode media queries.

It is nearly impossible to get these email clients onside. However, you can play around with background images that have a level of transparency, and apply a high contrast background color to your container, such as white for light mode and black for Dark Mode. This will allow the background color to be inverted. I tried this with the next example:

email background image in different Dark Mode scenarios

My chevron background image has an opacity of 30% on the arrows and is fully transparent between them. This means that when offending email clients take control of my Dark Mode rendering, the content is readable.

For more information on coding for Dark Mode and email client support, check out our Ultimate Guide to Dark Mode Email.

Interactive background

How about delighting subscribers with some interactivity? You can spread a little joy with a simple hover or rollover effect, changing the background of your container as the reader moves their cursor over your content.

email background image switch on hover or rollover

You need a little embedded CSS to make this one work. Place this inside your <style> tag:

.background-rollover:hover{ 
        background-image: url(background-rollover-b.png) !important; 
        background-color:#020203 !important;
}

Now all you need to do is apply this class to your table cell, like so:

<table class="container" role="presentation" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" border="0" width="600">
<tr>
    <td class="background-rollover" style="background: url(background-rollover-a.png) #DBE8F0; background-size:cover; background-position:center;">
        <!--add your content here-->
    </td>
</tr>
</table>

Level up your designs

With a wealth of opportunity, using background images to enhance your email designs is a great way to push the envelope and get your emails to stand out in the crowd. To help you put these techniques into practice, we have created a handy resource where you can grab the code featured in this post.

We would love to see how you use background imagery in your emails—share your examples in the comments below.

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Originally published on May 24, 2019, by Jason Rodriguez. Last updated July 21, 2021.

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