Responsive HTML Email Layouts

Things to be aware of

  • No retina images:

    The majority of email clients don’t support CSS for resizing background images.

    (Some email clients also ignore img tag width and height, which makes it unsafe to include retina size images in the html.)


  • No media query support / responsive styles in Gmail:

    Gmail does not support style tags. = Responsive styles using media query will not work.

    (Inline styles on each HTML element are also required for this reason.)

  • Media query / responsive support is spotty in general:

    Even for email clients that do support style tags, not all support media queries.

    BEWARE: The meta viewport tag causes emails to render as blank in Blackberry.


  • Make layouts flexible / fluid.
  • Design for lowest common denominator first.
  • Use media queries only as an enhancement; do not rely upon them.
  • Use “inline-block” layout to create a more fluid semi-responsive layout instead of media queries. (Inline block elements will line up if there is room, otherwise they will wrap.)


CSS support for email clients:

Media query support:

Scaling CSS for Large Web Sites

This is a PowerPoint presentation for a talk I gave to Fandor as an outside CSS expert at the invitation of their senior product manager. It summarizes recommendations for methodologies and tools useful in writing, organizing and maintaining CSS code. (Fandor afterwards ended up implementing several of my recommendations.)

Scaling CSS for Large Web Sites

Easy Responsive Design: Thumbnail List

Create a list of thumbnail images that re-sizes according to screen width. Uses simple semantic HTML markup together with a bit of CSS3. Media queries can be used as a further enhancement to this technique.

Works with modern browsers including IE8+


<ul class="thumbnail-list">
	<li><img src="" alt=""></li>
	<li><img src="" alt=""></li>
	<li><img src="" alt=""></li>
	<li><img src="" alt=""></li>
	<li><img src="" alt=""></li>
	<li><img src="" alt=""></li>
	<li><img src="" alt=""></li>
	<li><img src="" alt=""></li>


.thumbnail-list {
	/* remove default list styles */
	list-style: none;
	margin: 0;
	padding: 0;
	/* remove spaces between li tags*/
	font-size: 0;

.thumbnail-list li {
	display: inline-block;
	vertical-align: top;
	width: 33.333%;
	padding: 2%;
	-moz-box-sizing: border-box;
	-webkit-box-sizing: border-box;
	box-sizing: border-box;

.thumbnail-list img {
	display: block;
	width: 100%;

How it works

The first step to styling the unordered list (ul) is to remove default list styles. (If you are already including a CSS reset you can skip this part.) The thumbnail list items (li tags) which contain the images are lined up by displaying them as inline-blocks. Change the width to alter how many items line up in a row. Padding is used to space out the images. (This value can also be changed according to your preferences.) Finally, the CSS3 style “box-sizing” is set to “border-box” to prevent the padding from being added to the total width of the list items. (This allows the images to be spaced out evenly.)

Besides the CSS3 “border-box” style, the final key to making the design responsive is to set the image width to 100%. This ensures that the images always shrink and expand to occupy the full available width inside the li tags they are wrapped width. One disadvantage to making the width 100% is that the images can grow larger than the original sizes which may make them look pixelated. If you want to prevent this you can change “width” to “max-width”. This will still shrink images to fit smaller screens but will not expand them beyond their original size. (Setting the images to “display: block” just removes line-spacing so images will be evenly spaced vertically.)

Optional enhancement using Media Queries

Use media queries to change the number of thumbnails displayed in a row depending on screen orientation or width. Here’s an example of how you can customize the display to show more images in a row for the landscape view of mobile devices such as iPhone and Android.

Additional Optional CSS:

/* Landscape */
@media screen and (orientation:landscape) {
	/* show more in a row */
	.thumbnail-list li {
		width: 20%;
		padding: 2%;

See it in action:

NOTE: This layout can actually be achieved without the CSS3 “border-box” style by using margins instead of padding to space apart list items and changing the value of the width + margin to equal the total space you want each item to occupy. For example to display 4 images in a row you would use: “width: 23%; margin: 1%;” which equals 25% in total since the margin gets added to both sides of the li tag.

CAVEAT: If you want to include text inside the li tags remember to set the font-size of the li to your desired value as by default it will inherit “font-size: 0” from the ul styles.

Unobtrusive jQuery Popups

A technique for creating accessible popups using simple semantic HTML and unobtrusive jQuery code.


  • Popup content is still accessible when JavaScript is disabled.
  • Popup content is separate from main HTML document which makes adding new popups and linking from multiple pages simple.
  • Easy to use. Doesn’t rely on special classes, IDs or inline JavaScript events.
  • Popup content is loaded through a jQuery AJAX method so there is no page refresh.

HTML for Popup Links (add to your main HTML documents):

<a href="popups/help.html" target="_blank">View help popup</a>

To trigger display of popups you need only add an ordinary link such as above. This links to a separate html document for each popup. The file names for the popup documents can be whatever you like. The only thing to remember is to place all the popup documents into a separate “popups” directory.

Example HTML for Popup:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<meta charset="utf-8">
<title>Help Popup</title>

<div id="popup-wrapper">
	<p>This is some helpful information.</p>
</div><!-- /#popup-wrapper -->

Within your “popups” directory simply add simple html documents such as above for each popup you wish to display. The only important thing here is that all the content within the body must be wrapped by a div with the id “popup-wrapper”.

Example CSS:

#greyscreen {
	background: #000;
	-ms-filter: "progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.Alpha(Opacity=50)";
	filter: alpha(opacity=50);
	-moz-opacity: .50;
	opacity: .50;
	position: fixed;
	top: 0;
	right: 0;
	bottom: 0;
	left: 0;

#popup {
	background: #FFF;
	border: 3px solid blue;
	padding: 10px;
	width: 300px;
	height: 350px;
	margin-top: -185px;
	margin-left: -160px;
	overflow: auto;
	position: fixed;
	top: 50%;
	left: 50%;

#popup .close {
	cursor: pointer;
	display: inline-block;
	float: right;

These are just basic styles for your popups to get you started. You can modify these to suit your particular site design.

(NOTE: IE6 doesn’t support “position: fixed”.)

jQuery Code:

$(document).ready(function() {
	// Unobtrusive Popups
	var $popup = $('<div id="popup"></div>');
	var $greyscreen = $('<div id="greyscreen"></div>');
	$('a[href*=popups]').click(function() {
		 .load($(this).attr('href') + ' #popup-wrapper', function() {
		 	$('<span class="close">Close</span>').prependTo($popup);
		return false;
	$ {
	$('#popup .close').live('click', function() {

Make sure to link to the jQuery library from within the head of your main HTML document so the above code will work.

How it works

Two separate divs for a greyscreen effect and for the popup are created dynamically. These get appended to your main HTML document then are hidden until needed. The script then looks for all links pointing to files within the “popups” directory and attaches special actions when the links are clicked. When users click these links the popup and greyscreen divs are displayed and the popup content is loaded into the popup div. A close button also gets appended to the popup. (The reason for adding the close button using jQuery is because if JavaScript were turned off it would have no purpose.) Finally, actions are added to both the greyscreen div and the close button so that once clicked upon they will again hide the popup.

See it in action: Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click the “credits” link.