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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”