I recently spoke to the Brighton Illustrator’s Group about the greeting card industry. Talented designer, Ilona Drew from I Drew This, invited me along to join her and James Emerson from cutting edge card publishers, 1973, as we dissected how to create best selling greeting cards.
If you are going to design cars for a living, you’d better be sure to drive them first. It’s the same with cards, so it’s worth buying and sending cards as well as considering the following question before you begin:
What is a greeting card?
Despite all of our new, widely adopted forms of communications, like social media and emails, there is still a strong demand for greeting cards. Enough to see a constant influx of talented new publishers flowing into the industry, one in six retailers stocking cards and UK consumers spending more on cards than tea and coffee combined each year.
How is it that a thick piece of paper folded in half can still be so important to so many? I’ve often thought of cards as bridges between people. In choosing or designing our cards we are celebrating these bridges and choosing personal expressions that give them form.
Relationships and strong connections between people are as important today as they were when Henry Cole commissioned the first ever greeting cards. In an age where it is so easy to dash off a text, Facebook message or tweet, it is the cards people receive on special occasions (and the people that send them) that recipients are most likely to remember because they take more time, effort and consideration. Those who want to be closer to their customers would do well to remember this.
Studies have also shown us that our brains elicit greater feelings of happiness towards greeting cards received than digital messages. Greeting cards are portable, they can be hung up in one’s home or gathered like a group of friends on your mantelpiece. They are tactile and sensory. Perhaps it’s because they are made from a natural, sustainable product like paper that we enjoy the feeling of them in our hands. There’s also something special about the journey they make through the post and their arrival through our letter boxes that still seems quite magical.
How to start thinking like a card designer
At Blue Eyed Sun we always like to design with a person in mind that we’d like to send each card to. It’s a good place to start. If you are a designer looking to license your work its worth having a publisher in mind too. You’ll still want to cultivate your own style that would sit together with that publisher’s ranges.
Most retailers display ‘stories’ of products in their shops, so you need to think in terms of ranges or of designs that work well together. You also want to make it easy for retailers to buy from you, so make sure that they can reach a carriage paid order (or minimum order) without difficulty by offering plenty of choice. Create enough designs to put together a £100 - £150 order worth of cards (assuming a retailer will only order two thirds or less of what you offer them).
Consider the text you are using on your cards. Is the font right for the message or sentiment you are conveying? If it isn’t, it probably won’t sell as well. Similarly, colour choices can affect the sales of a card. For example, certain yellows are best avoided on get well soon cards as they can look sickly, which gets in the way of what the card is trying to do (help one to feel better). It’s also worth taking time over the phrases used for the captions you cover. “To my lovely husband” is slightly too feminine for a husband card, whereas “to my wonderful husband” tends to perform better.
Make sure you think about the costs of production when designing cards. It’s always lovely to use the best board you can find, but not always practical for making a profit. Unusual sizes of envelopes and cards also push the cost price up. A balance between quality and saleability is needed.
Lastly, it’s always worth having the next range in mind, as it takes the pressure off having to come up with new ideas to a deadline, so keep thinking about new ranges throughout the year.
What makes a good seller?
In my opinion good selling cards are usually best designed to work as a card. Sorry if this sounds like I’m stating the proverbial obvious, but it surprising the number of new publishers and designers who forget this. Even if there is no text, the sentiment of the design is key. You have to be able to send it, so ask yourself, “who would I send this to.” Try it out on every design and see how it feels. If you can’t think of someone to send it to then it probably won’t sell. As my wife used to own a shop herself, she always asks herself, “would this sell in my shop?” Another useful question that you can test your designs with.
It was interesting hearing from 1973 on this subject as they are well regarded for pushing the boundaries of experimentation with greeting cards. In a similar example, their Sony Music license, using lyrics from famous songs, mostly didn’t work because the cards were difficult to send. Interestingly their best seller in that range was their Wild Thing card which had the lyric ‘I love You’ at the bottom - a sentiment that is always strong on cards because there is a reason to send it.
Humour is also a great way of connecting and there is certainly room for more design in this niche of the card market. Good new humour companies often perform well, although our British humour doesn’t always travel abroad. If a card sparks joy when you hold it in your hand, humour or no, then it is likely to sell well. Hold your finished cards in your hand and see how they feel. Give them to others and watch their reactions.
If you are designing a card you want to sell well abroad I recommend keeping the card size to 120mm x 170mm (or similar) and having the flexibility to change the text to other languages. Design in portrait style rather than landscape as there are more pockets in shops that can cater to this. Square formats still sell abroad, so it doesn’t all have to be rectangular. I recommend starting from the off the shelf sizes of envelopes and working backwards to the card sizings using specialist printers. This will save on production costs and help with cash flow.
How to approach the market
The card market is a constantly on the lookout for new product that is different and will sell well. This doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. Your range just needs to be different from what’s currently out there.
You have to decide if you are going to self publish or license your work to a publisher. If you opt for the latter, don’t just blanket approach publishers. Do your research and target those that your work would sit well with or who are strong in the niche your cards fit into. Sharon Little at the GCA is very knowledgable on card publishers and can point you in the right direction if you get stuck on who to approach.
Make collections or stories (ie. card ranges) and have enough designs in them. Try to minimise repetition of artwork in your ranges. Make sure that there is enough variety within them. Open birthdays are the most popular general occasion and blank cards that can be sent at any time also sell well. If you can, try and cover the key card sending occasions like weddings, new babies, anniversaries and key relations like husbands and wives.
If you are considering self publishing or would like to find out more about the card industry and getting started I recommend you contact Trudi or 01702 480180 or email firstname.lastname@example.org about the Ladder Club Seminars for new publishers in the Autumn and try and attend. They are excellent and will save you loads of time, money and stress.
Click here to read more Ladder Club posts
See the slides from my Brighton Illustrators Group talk
Six ways to track greeting card trends