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12 Secrets of Greeting Card Designers

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Getty

Although social media has made it easy to share your feelings with the press of a button, the market for old-fashioned analog greeting cards is still chugging along. The industry rakes in an estimated $5 billion annually, led by card giants Hallmark and American Greetings and bolstered by hundreds of smaller start-ups.

At big and small firms alike, card designers are tasked with spending their days finding fresh ways to communicate love, sympathy, or holiday cheer. We spoke to a few of them to find out what it takes to stand out on the retail card racks.

1. THEIR CARDS ARE SURPRISINGLY PERSONAL.

In the card business, writers are constantly angling to capture a “universal specific,” or a common theme that sounds personal despite having appeal across the board. Matt Gowen, a staff writer at Hallmark, says that one of the best ways to arrive at that sincerity is to imagine you’re writing a card for one specific person in your life. “Starting with a real person and a real relationship gives you lots of little details to use,” he says. “Writing an anniversary card, I can think about my own wife.” A colleague of Gowen’s writes her Mother’s Day cards with her own mother in mind. “Her mom just loses it. It’s a lot of fun.”

2. THERE ARE RULES FOR THE TOP THIRD OF THE CARD.

Kate Harper

Most card displays are front-facing, with only the upper third of the card exposed to shoppers. That means card designers need to try and capture your scanning eye with something that makes at least a little bit of sense even when it’s cut off from the rest of the pack. “You need to create a symbol, image, or word that immediately makes a person want to pick up the card from about a three to six-foot distance, [which is] often how far someone is when they scan cards,” says Kate Harper, a freelance card designer. “For example, if it is a love card, adding a heart to the top third is helpful. It immediately communicates to the person passing by what the topic of the card is.”

3. THE REJECTION RATE IS HIGH.

Writers and designers at Hallmark are typically brought on group projects that are sorted according to holidays or themes, with a mandate to create anywhere from 100 to 150 cards for the occasion. Because standards are high, the vast majority of their ideas won’t make it into your hands. “If you write humor, which I do, a 10 percent acceptance rate is considered high,” Gowen says. “Most ideas end up in the trash. You learn to develop a thick skin.”

4. THEY DON’T LIKE TO USE HUMAN FACES.

Hallmark

Ever wonder why cards feature an abundance of adorable animals or decapitated bodies? It’s because photographed human faces may make cards less appealing. “When people buy cards for someone, they have an idea of the person they are sending it to,” Harper says. “Maybe they are older, younger, or a different ethnicity than the person on the card. The buyer is asking unconsciously, ‘Does this look like my friend?’ Unless the images are completely humorous or retro, you rarely see photos of faces on cards.”

5. THEY LIKE TO SPY ON YOU.

Harmlessly, of course. To develop an ear for relatable dialogue, card writers often comb social media or eavesdrop on conversations in public settings to get a feel for what strikes a chord. “Sometimes you’re out doing errands and something will stand out,” Gowen says. Inspiration has struck while waiting for his car to get washed. One colleague, he says, likes to loiter in card shops to see which types of cards shoppers pick up.

6. INDEPENDENT DESIGNERS NEED TO SQUEEZE INTO THE MARKET.

Emily McDowell

Those monolithic, aisle-wide card displays in your local pharmacy? They’re actually owned by the heavy hitters—Hallmark and American Greetings—and serviced by both. Owing to contracts with store chains, it’s not likely you’ll find any small-press, irreverent cards on shelves. “It’s impossible for an indie company like mine to get into a CVS or Walgreen’s,” says Emily McDowell, owner of Emily McDowell Studio. Instead, she markets online and to stores like Urban Outfitter that don’t have exclusive deals with the major brands.

7. RED ENVELOPES ARE IFFY.

Greeting card companies worry a lot about colors. “Bright, upbeat colors stand out,” Harper says. “Browns, grays, and black and white don’t do as well.” That thinking also applies to envelopes, although some designers stay away from red. “It's best to not use red, since the post office has problems reading black ink on red envelopes.”

8. THEY DON’T JUST WORK ON CARDS.

Hallmark

For a company like Hallmark, whose specialty stores carry a steady supply of gifts and novelties in addition to greeting cards, staff writers are expected to have their hand in a little bit of everything. “I’ve written for t-shirts, mugs, posters, songs,” Gowen says. “Anything with words, you name it.”

9. THERE’S A REASON SOME CARDS ARE BLANK—AND NOT FOR THE REASON YOU THINK.

While major companies often insist on having words on both the inside and outside of cards, McDowell says that customers have taken a liking to cards that are completely blank on the inside. “I learned that early on,” she says. “It's partially consumer-driven in that it's more flexible for consumers to write their own personalized message. It's also partially due to the fact that our cards, and all other boutique cards, are sold packed in individual plastic sleeves, together with their envelope, in order to protect the product in the store. Having blank insides eliminates the need for customers to open the packaging and see what's written on the inside.”

10. THEY GET SURPRISED BY THEIR OWN CARDS.

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Writers at Hallmark work on so many different card concepts that it can become difficult to keep track of which fall by the wayside and which make it to stores. “In the writing studio, you’re removed from that process and you can forget what you worked on,” Gowen says. “Then you walk into a card shop to buy a Mother’s Day card and go, ‘Oh, I worked on this.’ It’s kind of a nice surprise.”

11. PRICE IS IRRELEVANT.

When card-shopping, buyers typically get sucked in by an image and then sold on the writing. Whether a card is $1 or $10 doesn’t really matter, according to Harper. “The price is the last consideration in determining the purchase,” she says.

12. IT’S HARDER THAN IT LOOKS.

iStock

Thanks to Pinterest, Etsy, and a host of other creative commerce sites, there’s been a deluge of greeting card designs. What could be easier than a simple design and a little sentiment on paper? “It’s an easy point of entry because cards are cheap to produce,” McDowell says. “But they’re not often made by trained designers. I was in advertising for 10 years.”

Gowen has also seen some of the I-could-do-that spirit. “People come up to me all the time and tell me a funny story that should be on a card. It might be funny, but is it universal? That’s the trick.”

And, he says: “Anyone can write a card. But can you write them five days a week for a decade?”

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Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
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Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

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John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
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Deported 1942 Auschwitz
Murdered

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

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