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Christmas 2017

It's been a while since posting due to busy-ness, and Waterstones-wise that has two main sources:a Gift Card reprint/range-tweak (I wrote about my involvement in relaunching the Gift Card range and how it was just about my most satisfying project to date here) and planning Christmas.

We haven't actually truly changed our Christmas look in a couple of years. I originally designed this suite for the adult strand for Christmas 2014, and we repeated it in 2015 and then (with a bit of a soft re-design) in 2016.

I was glad that my work was felt to be so durable and effective, but was also heartily sick of the sight of it at least two years ago. I have to admit to throwing a bit of a wobbly to be allowed to change anything for 2016. I'm glad I did. I certainly improved upon the original posters and it was an interesting and valuable exercise in the game of Buckaroo that is a soft re-design. As I've mentioned before, it's also always interesting to have a second pass at earlier work and get the gratifying evidence that you are a better artist now than you were in the past!

Meanwhile, we launched a completely fresh suite for the children's strand in 2015, and it stayed in without change for Christmas 2016. I'm less anti-penguin than I am anti-baubles at this point but two Christmasses is quite enough.

On the bright side, I've been given a chance to really examine what works and what doesn't about this POS. I really do love the design of all the above posters. What I decided though is that they are not quite doing their perfect job for their intended purpose. In fact, what we need in windows (at least in the big back-of-window spaces, the 6040 and 6020 frames) is not posters at all: it's a backdrop.

The above is actually nicked from an article praising the Waterstone's display and I would never say these posters look less than good. But at the same time, the books feel a bit swamped, the imagery and words of the posters break down into confusing shapes when broken up by displays and decorations, the bright, contrasting colours of the posters demand the attention as much, if not more, than the products. There's some value to that. Books are lovely but if you're not holding the things in your hand they become busy and un-arresting little rectangles. Posters are sometimes there to provide the bold focal point a book cannot visually. But I certainly felt the time had come to see if I could do a better job than this of balancing that need for a bold, striking image with a platform for the things we sell.

So previously I've aimed to meet a brief of 'bright, bold posters conveying a message'. This go round, I've argued that the posters should be knocked-back, lacking a strong focal point and wordless. This is where it helps not to have a massive ego as a designer/illustrator: sometimes the most effective way to meet the brief is to make your own work disappear. Sometimes a poster needs to compensate for a display of boring-looking books; the Christmas publishing season is not one of those times. As for the message, we don't have one to impart at Christmas other than what is implicit and obvious: books are lovely, you should buy them as gifts. It's so much cooler not to feel the need to spell it out.

The way to approach this came to me quickly. One of the things I've learned int he last few years is that a good designer trusts her ideas and instincts. Sometimes one needs to go through 400 thoughts to get to the right one, sometimes you know from the off where to head. Usually in that case it's because this 'new' idea is actually an old one you've been developing for some time without realising.

I'm not sure what came first of the two inspirations for imagery but I knew early that I wanted a snowy forest, and birds. I've long loved songbirds as festive iconography. My family - who take Christmas tree decorating seriously - have on several occasions gone for a bird-themed Christmas tree. As for the forest, it's incongruous that I've populated it with British wildlife because it's straight from my memories of passing through snowy Upper-state New York on the Maple Leaf train from Toronto to Penn Station this last February, the most magical journey of my life

An early decision on general direction doesn't shorten the length of the process though (it just means you've got more time to spend on developing that idea). With the 'backdrop' idea in mind my aim was to create a suite of big posters (Adults', Children's and BOGOHP strands) that all look very similar and could sit alongside each other to form a single impression rather than each trying to embody a different idea. The forest setting would remain for every poster and only the small details would change - details that I could then pick out to use in the in-store/front-of-window POS elements where there DID need to be clearly separate strands and a bit of messaging.

I decided the pretty, graphic birds could belong to the Adults' strand and the Children would get something still naturalistic and elegant but more accessibly cute - foxes. I love foxes, and I also love the colour scheme they bring - I am smugly delighted with pale grey-blue, gold, teal, orange palette I've given the suite. It's a bold choice for Christmas, especially compared to the faithful old green and red, and I'm delighted my bosses seem to have the same confidence in the look that I do.

These are not finished versions yet but I'm pretty close. I've been careful to give the 6020 (the narrow banner format) a little more of a 'hero illustration' focus because these get used in-store much more than the big 6040s and need to be able to function as posters not just as backdrops. My hero bird is of course a robin, my hero fox is apparently thinking of having a widdle on a young pine tree.

These huge posters dictate the major colour of the suite: the pale grey-blue palette. And the details are in the hero colours, used sparingly because they are the boldest: teal and, well, dark teal for the Adults and orange for the Children's. There is a need when moving into the smaller print elements for something in between those though, the mid-range colour that both brings everything together and also grabs attention. Had to be gold.

I also felt in necessary to include more booky imagery on the smaller elements. Where stuff is used in windows it all adds up to a theatrical setting. A viewer understands the display wholistically as a 'winter wonderland' vibe. POS elements that get used in isolation need to justify themselves more. A random fox on a table header would have looked like thoughtless stock imagery. I think by giving him (and those amazingly beak-strong robins) books to proffer it makes the care taken over this suite more obvious.

BOGOHP... well, Value Is Red, plus we want to pick up on the colour of some red decorations we already have in stock. I was hesitant, as (partly according to the wise input of my colleague Rob) I was keen to stick to secondary colours and 'jewel tones'. I thought red would be too brash and close to the orange. I rather think it works though, so long as the red is on the pinker side.

Perhaps my favourite part of the suite - mainly because Christmas and Waterstones Children's Book Prize are the only time of year I get to design die-cut stuff - are the mobiles, standees and decorations we'll have printed.

Something that having more time to work on this campaign has allowed me is to be able to mock up up how things will look in windows as I've worked. Above I've covered things like colour scheme as if they were simple decisions but without ever deviating very much from the basic idea I've gone through many variations to arrive at what I think is the best possible treatment.

It's why one starts Christmas planning so early. Because Christmas is the important one. Sure, you can get a poster campaign designed and sent to print in four weeks, but you've got to be aware of what you sacrifice in order to do that. You play it safe and conventional because you've no time to experiment and find out better approaches. You get versions of ideas that could have been even better with a few extra weeks. That's not a criticism or complaint. There are good reasons to turn around a campaign in minimal time. You weigh up how much a project matters, what standard the final product cannot fall below, and then you allocate time accordingly. I've never had a campaign go out not carrying work I'm very pleased with. But all this means I'm particularly delighted when the resource is there to be both as good as I can be and open up some of those usually-discounted avenues.

This design process on this is nearing completion and pending some final sign-offs, but I am delighted so far both with the work I've done and how well the process has gone. It's great to feel trusted, and persuasive! They're vital professional traits in a designer. I don't want to wish the year away any faster than it is already escaping, but I kind of can't wait to see Christmas in shops...


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