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Surprise! Greeting Cards
150+ Concepts, Illustrations, & Designs

Starting in early 2013 and continuing into 2014, these dozens of greeting cards — over 150 all told — were developed for Surprise! by Amazon, an app developed to make gifting during various holidays as easy as a few taps: just choose a gift card amount to send then attach a greeting card that best fits the mood.

Besides being able to sign your actual signature and include a message in various fonts, numerous variables were designed into the cards, fields like age, names, and other content editable by the users. 

Like many digital products for large tech companies, Surprise! got killed after a while, but it did launch and was active for over two years. An unusual extreme in this project was how much it combined various creative skillsets (especially for a tech behemoth which you might expect to atomize jobs) — including the creation in AfterEffects of the iOS app store preview video — but it all started with writing and art direction and grew into a blend of illustration, lettering, and graphic design in its final output.

These cards were meant to evenly fill out the basics of what you’d expect in a greeting card line for a general audience. If you take that too far, however, there’s no personality and you are left with cards that just say “Happy Birthday!” with a picture of a cake. Each card below represents a lot of thinking about the extremes within a given demographic and how best to represent the major points along that continuum with as little as 2 cards per category.

Wedding cards tend to speak in a limited palette. These cards, in addition to touching on the expected flavors (doves creating a calligraphic trail across a lavender color field), created a few options for the uncutesy, irreverent relationship, the toenail card in particular angled towards a male friend of the groom (an overlooked relationship that is almost always present at weddings but generally downplayed in the visual tone of weddings, perhaps for obvious, albeit stereotypical, reasons).

Much like working on the extremes of age demographics between Zumiez and Eddie Bauer, every single person on earth has a birthday. It’s a much broader category than something like Mother’s Day, which is still pretty broad. Some of these birthday cards spoke to young men, some spoke to young women, some spoke to officemates and some spoke to parents and grandparents. If there was one universal to this project, it was an exercise in speaking to as many demographics as possible.

A personal Father’s Day favorite here  is the “socks & sandals” card: a simple illustration on the front shows matching cargo shorts, tube socks, and velcro sandals, the interior message stating “like father, like son.” Perhaps the inspiration came from working with so many people in tech on this project, also one of the most likely groups to use an app like this for their gift-giving.

These Mother’s Day cards ranged from pure copy (the “momming” card) to relying on Etsy-inspired stylized illustrations (the “i’ve got a secret” birds).

Various holidays like Easter, Kwanzaa and Halloween aren’t the most popular holidays, but each still received special attention with at least one very “normal,” expected take in each category (Easter in this example), more a default hangtag of sorts to play up the emphasis on the gift card, as well as one with a lot of distinct personality (Halloween’s monster example here), something that brings the attention more to the card, away from purely the dollar amount.

A get-well-soon card, like all cards (but more so), needs to be extremely sensitive with its tone — a card for your friend who did something dumb and broke their leg has to be far different from someone who may never make it out of the hospital, hence one card that features a soup of cartoon germs telling you “Sorry your immune system sucks” while others take a somber or serious tone, relying on serious copy. Of particular note on the “You are the strongest person…” card: the heavy sans face is from an unreleased type family Josh designed at the beginning of 2013.

Like all greeting card lines, various directions and dynamics in different relationships required radically different approaches: a child giving their parent an anniversary card might need to be playful, it might need to be quite solemn. There are countless factors to take into account — a whole tome about every relationship exists in the brain of the person picking out a card, and they’re trying to encapsulate the general gist of that relationship (and their perception of the relationship they’re celebrating, in the case of anniversary cards) based on a few words, shapes, and colors calling out to them in a fraction of a second.

The main purpose of a greeting card, at least the pre-printed portion, is (probably) to never say anything too specific or profound for the given relationship, to simply oil the wheels of a relationship by saying an event is remembered and that you managed to pick out a sentiment fairly appropriate for that situation. It needs to be fairly default — maybe it just says “Happy Anniversary,” maybe it is a reminder of an ongoing child/parent dynamic of lighthearted sassiness like the “Mom & Dad, you taught me a good marriage looks like…” card.

Greeting card copy has long been a source of sketch comedy fodder — something about it demands subversion like someecards.com has notably popularized. That kind of writing probably comes easier than writing straight greeting cards for a general audience (well, at least if you’re Josh Oakley).

For Josh, it was similar to  designing for a brand like Starbucks or Target vs. brands like Costco or Les Schwab: the former make “good” illustration and design a major part of their brands across every touchpoint, while the latter are speaking to customers looking for an experience devoid of the normal “cruft” of branded shopping. These cards encompass a bit of both: maybe one card within an event/category revels in twee, boutique-inspired illustrations while another calls out to the customer who would never set foot in a high street boutique.

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