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Singing tacos and the secrets of the greeting card industry

12/18/2014 08:00 EST | Updated 02/17/2015 05:59 EST
Intrigued by a "singing taco" birthday card, reporter Jason Proctor set out to find the secrets of greeting card design. 

It was a crowning moment in Simon Taylor-Kielty's greeting card career.

Forget the hundreds of cards the master artist had inked with images of adorable "Forever Friends" bears engaged in an array of celebratory activities or those featuring the equally loveable Bebunni.

This was Coronation Street.

Taylor-Kielty and his wife, who live in England, are fans of the country's longest-running soap opera. And as they watched the character Steve McDonald arguing with with his wife in the back of the Rovers Return, they noticed a card perched on the mantelpiece behind: Forever Friends.

"One of the first Christmas cards that I created the artwork for," says Taylor-Kielty 

"It was really, really surreal. In fact, we paused it and I took a photograph."

Such are the strange and often heart-warming rewards of a life in greeting cards.

The singing taco

I set out to find out the secret to making a great card after my mother-in-law gave me a birthday card that is either a thing of brilliance or a sign of of how desperate the industry has become to fight what analysts claim is a market in decline.

It was a singing taco, topped with a head of cheese, lettuce and moving eyes that made him look a bit like the Cookie Monster.

You might say that's a long way from the Christmas greeting, which kicked off the commercial card industry in 1843.

That's when Sir Henry Cole commissioned a designer in London to come up with an image he lithographed onto 1,000 cards for family and friends. The cards contained a few scenes of Victorian family life along with the words: 'A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You." A space was left at the bottom for the sender's name.

As a result, Cole was credited with starting the tradition of marking an occasion with a card. To this day, the U.K.'s annual greeting card awards are called The Henries, in his honour.

The North American equivalent, the Louies, are named after Louis Prang, who introduced the Christmas card to America in 1873.

From me to you, with love

A simple thread connects the greeting card industry from the Victorian era to the present day. Something almost primal. From the first time we pick up a piece of paper, fold it and draw a few stick figures along with the words 'I Love You', we're essentially looking for a means to express ourselves to loved ones.

"Greeting cards are bought by people who want to make connections with other people in their lives," says Jim Driscoll, marketing director with Carlton Cards in Toronto.

"We give them the means by having the right words and the right artwork to make it a lot easier for them to connect and say things that would be hard to write themselves."

About 70 per cent of greeting cards are bought by women. In recent years, Driscoll says researchers have started aiming the design of cards at the sender as opposed to the recipient. 

"They'll spend an hour in a store reading all of the cards so they can get the absolute perfect card," he says.

"When somebody receives a card, it's important to the sender that when they open the card they say 'Wow, I know who sent me that card!' Maybe before they even look at who signed it."

Taylor-Kielty, who has worked in the industry for 20 years, draws for The Great British Card Company. He says he's put together a 'Bible' in that time of what works and doesn't work as far as drawing the cute characters that account for about 30 per cent of their cards.

"It looks incredibly straightforward and simple on the surface and then when you get in there and you try and create something that's got to sell, you realize that's it's incredibly difficult," he says.

"I didn't set out to be an illustrator doing teddy bears and furry little rabbits, but it's funny, because greeting cards are all about communicating with people, you do begin to instill in these characters very much part of your own psyche, your own soul, your own emotions."

Card-inal sin: never day 'die'

If the artwork of a card draws a customer's initial interest, the words seal the deal.

Louie award-winner Jerianne Austin says she designs her products by working backwards: she imagines herself receiving the card.

As the name of her Pennsylvania-based card company, gottalottaheart, suggests, Austin likes heartfelt, warm messages. But she doesn't like her words to be too clever: "Love heals, be well"; "You're loved so much and by so many people", "There are no finer people who could have loved their pet more, or better."

She's particularly proud of a card she wrote in honour of her mother: "My mother, my first and truest friend, I will love you longer than the rest of your life, I'll love you the rest of mine."

"I call that the unspoken truth," Austin says.

"That's a very difficult thing to say to your mother while she's alive: 'Oh mum - I just want you to know that when you die, I'll still think of you.' It just doesn't come our right. So I put it in a card."

To find more about the struggles facing the greeting card industry today, listen to the audio on The Current at 9 a.m.

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