Design, meet automation.

By Michael Barrett, Director of Technology

We developed a way to evolve the designs of thousands of outdated HTML files without wasting time or talent. The key was automating the busywork.

September 14, 2020

Great design raises the bar, but does it scale?

Our Fortune 500 partner needed a new email design system that elevated branding and performance. So we created an easy-to-use modular system with reusable components. They loved the contemporary look and feel of the new emails. Our system was such a success, it’s now being used across other channels as well, including website content, digital ads, and social media. But this win revealed a new problem: inconsistency.

Older assets weren’t stacking up to the new design standards.

Thousands of existing emails were out of date—some behind by many iterations of brand identity changes. And we wanted to fix that. Unfortunately, the Email Service Providers that so many of us rely on to deploy our campaigns aren’t able to function like proper content management systems, meaning, to redesign old email campaigns, they need to be recoded from the ground up.

Time was the issue.

Recoding 3,500 emails was a heavy lift slated to take at least six months—and that’s only if there was a completely unburdened team working on it daily. Everyone on both teams was already busy tackling day-to-day development tasks. We needed to evolve the outdated, off-brand emails. But we had to do it in a smarter way than coding thousands of emails by hand, over and over again. No one had time for that.

We can’t say we didn’t see it coming.

As soon as we realized what needed to happen, we took a step back and wondered how to protect the valuable time of the creatives and developers on both sides. So when our partner asked if we had a bunch of extra developers lying around who could recode the outdated files, we answered: No, but we’ve already developed a prototype that can do it for us.

Innovation was the answer.

Our engineering and creative teams partnered to craft a real **chef’s kiss** solution: a system of small, custom HTML-generating programs that can automatically convert multiple outdated emails into ones that meet our new design standards. Assets are extracted from the old files, replaced by new ones if necessary, and then arranged by the program into new design templates. Everything is fresh, sleek, and on-brand. And we don’t have to rewrite stacks and stacks of HTML by hand, which is time-consuming, tedious, and leaves the door open for error.

... a real \chef’s kiss** solution: a system of small, custom HTML-generating programs that can automatically convert multiple outdated emails into ones that meet our new design standards.

Large batches of files were converted in seconds.

This solution was possible because the raw material we had to work with, the source HTML, was well crafted and well organized, which made it easy for us to dissect. And luckily, emails share a relatively small number of common design templates. This meant we were able to organize the old email files into groups that shared a similar look and then create design templates and algorithms tailored to each group. The algorithms extracted the content from old email files in batches—images, headlines, body copy—and placed it into the new templates.

Design and automation can be friends after all.

We revamped thousands of email HTML files in a fraction of the expected time. But perhaps most importantly, these newly processed emails can be reconverted again and again to keep up with future design system updates. And all of this activity had another benefit: The forced audit of assets gave us an opportunity to replace each little out-of-date element and make the whole system even more efficient.

Inventing your own tools can be intimidating, but some problems demand that we do so. When we push past the fear triggered by large piles of work, we can arrive at game-changing innovations—ones that leave the busywork to the robots and allow more time for real people to focus on what only they can do best.