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12 Secrets of Greeting Card Designers

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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.

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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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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
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The Mountains of Kong: The Majestic West African Range That Never Existed
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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

If you look closely at a 19th century map of Africa, you’ll notice one major way that it differs from contemporary maps, one that has nothing to do with changing political or cartographical styles. More likely than not, it features a mountain range that no longer appears on modern maps, as WIRED explains. Because it never existed in the first place.

A 19th century map of West Africa
From Milner's Descriptive Atlas, 1850

The “Mountains of Kong” appeared on almost every major commercial map of Africa in the 1800s, stretching across the western part of the continent between the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger River. This mythical east-west mountain range is now the subject of an art exhibition at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery.

In "Mountains of Kong," stereoscopic images by artist Jim Naughten—the same format that allowed Victorians with wanderlust to feel like they’d seen the world—reveal his view of the world of wildlife that might have existed inside the imagined mountains. As the gallery describes it, “he imagines a fictitious record made for posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition of the mountain range.” We’ve reproduced the images here, but to get the full effect, you’ll have to go to the gallery in person, where you can view them in 3D with a stereoscope (like the ones you no doubt played with as a kid).

Toucans fight a snake in two almost-identical side-by-side images.
The Toucans © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Naughten created the images by taking two photographs for each, and moving the camera over some 3 inches for the second photo to make a stereoscopic scene. The landscapes were created by shooting images of Scottish and Welsh mountains and dioramas in natural history museums, using Photoshop to change the hues of the images to make them seem more otherworldly. His blue-and-pink-hued images depict fearsome apes, toucans sparring with snakes, jagged peaks, and other scenes that seem both plausible and fantastical at the same time.

The Mountains of Kong appeared in several hundred maps up until the 20th century. The first, in 1798, was created by the prominent geographer James Rennell to accompany a book by Scottish explorer Mungo Park about his first journey to West Africa. In it, Park recounts gazing on a distant range, and “people informed me, that these mountains were situated in a large and powerful kingdom called Kong.” Rennell, in turn, took this brief observation and, based on his own theories about the course of the Niger River, drew a map showing the mountain range that he thought was the source of the river. Even explorers who later spent time in the area believed the mountains existed—with some even claiming that they crossed them.

Two colobuses stand in a tree on a mountaintop.
The Colobus © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The authority of the maps wasn’t questioned, even by those who had been to the actual territory where they were depicted as standing. Writers began to describe them as “lofty,” “barren,” and “snow-covered.” Some said they were rugged granite peaks; others described them as limestone terraces. In almost all cases, they were described as “blue.” Their elevation ranged from 2500 feet to 14,000 feet, depending on the source. Over the course of the 19th century, “there was a general southward ‘drift’ in the location,” as one pair of scholars put it.

Though geographers cast some doubt on the range’s existence as time went on, the Mountains of Kong continued to appear on maps until French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger’s Niger River expedition between 1887 and 1889, after which Binger definitively declared their nonexistence.

By 1891, the Mountains of Kong began dropping off of maps, though the name Kong still appeared as the name of the region. By the early 20th century, the mountains were gone for good, fading into the forgotten annals of cartographic history.

[h/t WIRED]

All images courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

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10 Fun Facts About Play-Doh
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As any Play-Doh aficionado knows, September 16th is National Play-Doh Day! Let's pay tribute to your favorite modeling clay with some fun facts about the childhood play staple that began life as a cleaning product.

1. IT WAS FIRST SOLD AS WALLPAPER CLEANER.

Before kids were playing with Play-Doh, their parents were using it to remove soot and dirt from their wall coverings by simply rolling the wad of goop across the surface.

2. IF IT WEREN'T FOR CAPTAIN KANGAROO, PLAY-DOH MIGHT NEVER HAVE TAKEN OFF.

When it was just a fledgling company with no advertising budget, inventor Joe McVicker talked his way in to visit Bob Keeshan, a.k.a Captain Kangaroo. Although the company couldn’t pay the show outright, McVicker offered them two percent of Play-Doh sales for featuring the product once a week. Keeshan loved the compound and began featuring it three times weekly.

3. MORE THAN 3 BILLION CANS OF PLAY-DOH HAVE BEEN SOLD.

Since 1956, more than 3 billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold. That’s enough to reach the Moon and back a total of three times. (Not bad for a wallpaper cleaner.)

4. IT USED TO COME IN JUST ONE COLOR.

Photo of child's hands playing with Play-Doh clay
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Back when it was still a household product, Play-Doh came in just one dud of a color: off-white. When it hit stores as a toy in the 1950s, red, blue, and yellow were added. These days, Play-Doh comes in nearly every color of the rainbow—more than 50 in total—but a consumer poll revealed that fans' favorite colors are Rose Red, Purple Paradise, Garden Green, and Blue Lagoon.

5. FOR QUITE SOME TIME, DR. TIEN LIU HAD A JOB SKILL NO ONE ELSE IN THE WORLD COULD CLAIM: PLAY-DOH EXPERT.

Dr. Tien Liu helped perfect the Play-Doh formula for the original company, Rainbow Crafts, and stayed on as a Play-Doh Expert when the modeling compound was purchased by Kenner and then Hasbro.

6. YOU CAN SMELL LIKE PLAY-DOH.

Want to smell like Play-Doh? You can! To commemorate the compound’s 50th anniversary, Demeter Fragrance Library worked with Hasbro to make a Play-Doh fragrance, which was developed for “highly-creative people, who seek a whimsical scent reminiscent of their childhood.”

7. HASBRO RECENTLY TRADEMARKED THE SCENT.

Anyone who has ever popped open a fresh can of Play-Doh knows that there’s something extremely distinctive about the smell. It’s so distinctive that, in early 2017, Hasbro filed for federal protection in order to trademark the scent, which the company describes as “a unique scent formed through the combination of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.”

8. IT CAN CREATE A PRETTY ACCURATE FINGERPRINT.

When biometric scanners were a bit more primitive, people discovered that you could make a mold of a person’s finger, then squish Play-Doh in the mold to make a replica of the finger that would actually fool fingerprint scanners. Back in 2005, it was estimated that Play-Doh could actually fool 90 percent of all fingerprint scanners. But technology has advanced a lot since then, so don’t go getting any funny ideas. Today's more sophisticated systems aren’t so easily tricked by the doughy stuff.

9. IT HOLDS A PLACE IN THE NATIONAL TOY HALL OF FAME.

Unsurprisingly, Play-Doh holds a coveted place in the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. It was inducted in 1998. According to the Hall of Fame, “recent estimates say that kids have played with 700 million pounds of Play-Doh."

10. YOU CAN TURN YOUR PLAY-DOH CREATIONS INTO ANIMATED CHARACTERS.

While Play-Doh may be a classic toy, it got a state-of-the-art upgrade in 2016, when Hasbro launched Touch Shape to Life Studio, an app that lets kids turn their Play-Doh creations into animated characters.

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