In 2016 our range of gift cards at Waterstones had drifted into incoherence. We had the remnants of several design directions and a lot of cards led more by publisher tie-ins than suitability for brief. Gift card manager Melissa Kelly and I felt it was time to redesign the range from scratch. It was time to make something bright, booky, cohesive, and with an option for every kind of customer and recipient.
Designing the range was a unique challenge and I don't know that I have ever relished a project more. I had to develop 12 cards at once (as well as two Christmas gift cards) which all had to serve their own specific purposes while fitting into a range that looked like they came from the same place. I wanted to create artwork that looked great when the card and carrier were together on display, and was composed so the part that featured on the card itself worked in isolation when the card was removed and dropped into a wallet. I wanted to make sure our logo always featured on the cards as well as their carriers, but didn't want it to interfere with the full-bleed artwork.
From liked the start I liked the idea of having a range led by typography. It felt like a way to keep a consistent element while allowing for variety, and to be literary without using hackneyed book-related imagery. I am a great believer in the expressiveness of typography to communicate a lot - I love how much it has come to the fore in book design in recent years, prompted by necessity with the rise of online sales and thumbnail viewing but, like it often does, that limitation prompting an outpouring of creativity.
I started to come up with a range of ways out cards could be led by letters. Perhaps the most obvious was to feature nice typographic treatments of quotes that spoke to the love of books. I believe I thought more of the cards would end up featuring these. But I realised that a quote had some of the same issues that those publisher-asset-led cards had: they narrowed the appeal of the card to a very specific kind of buyer/recipient. And one of the major reasons gift cards are so useful is for people who are not that sure about what the recipient likes, or is like.
It was useful, and I thought important, to have a few such more specific cards in the range. A range of any product aiming for complete universal acceptability will appeal to no one. But a lot had to be much more broad, to communicate a more generalised vibe of fun/special-ness/friendliness/bookishness.
I created an alphabet card for children and a jumble of letters for a sophisticated/formal card/. I liked the idea of a chalkboard-looking card due to (sometimes beautiful) chalkboard messaging being such a feature of Waterstones' aesthetic. I worked out a design which shouted the word 'books' over and over, the word travelling through a score of differently-styled boxes to express the diversity therein.
The quotes themselves presented a challenge. As mentioned I needed artwork that looked whole across the carrier but could be reduced down to just the part on the card. A rough but popular translation of an Erasmus quote was perfect for one card, following this format and summing up the delight of a book token in one go, with a wryly amusing tone: 'When I get a little money I buy books and if any is left I buy food and clothes.". The first part - "When I get a little money I buy books" - is just about the perfect sentiment for a Waterstones gift card.
For the other 'quote' cards I was obliged to write my own copy to fit the format! I re-used a line I had created for a poster (in turn, I think, stolen from one of those shop chalkboards); "Treat Your Shelf To A New Book". I used another poster two, a children's one with a pirate ship and 'Stories Ahoy!' across the sails. I used the 'X Sleep Repeat' format to create a young, fun Andy-Smith-inspired card.
These cards all featured a logo lockup I had designed to be clear on the card without disrupting the resign: a Waterstones 'W' logo within a jaunty lozenge shape, both elements to be recoloured as appropriate to the artwork. Meanwhile we had decided that a subset of the range should instead feature our W centrally on the card and the artwork should be a frame for it.
We had this in mind from the start in the knowledge that at least a couple of the range needed to be very generic and universal. An existing card with a pale photograph of books as a background and a gold W on the card was so popular we felt no need to reinvent it, and I just freshened up the design. I am actually particularly fond of this card because the photo it features now is not stock but a stack of my own books, arranged and photographed on my desk. It tickles me every time I remember that my copies of Warhorses of Letters is just about identifiable in an image thousands of people have been given as a thank you or prize.
In addition to these few 'generic' cards we decided to also use the format for a couple of new cards featuring the work of other illustrators. I mentioned how previously the cards range had ended up with too much that was character specific and alienating to customers who didn't know if their child liked, for example, The worst Witch, or who didn't recognise the characters of Gangsta Granny and who would just see a random and confusing illustration.
This time I wanted to use imagery that was suitable for a Waterstones gift card first and foremost, and placing the logo so the artwork had to be a frame to that was the start. We selected as our first artists to pursue Coralie Bickford -Smith whose gorgeous The Fox and The Star had just been our Book of The Year, and then Children's Laureate Chris Riddell. Fortunately Bickford-Smith as happy with my reworking of her Fox and The Star cover for the purpose (and this card has consistently been our most popular) and even better, Riddell was agreeable to producing brand new artwork to my brief, resulting in a beautiful book-hording dragon.
One of the points I had in my mind from the start with utilising illustrators was that their credit should appear clearly and proudly on the front of the card. Too often illustrators' work is leaned on and used to sell without credit. For reprints/adjustments of the range we have brought in other beautiful illustrations I had the chance to work with one of my personal favourite illustrators, Joe McLaren, whose image of the Discworld's Librarian became one of our 'Illustrator's Special Edition' cards. I also got to feature a piece of Lauren Child's work I had long admired, her cover for the anniversary edition of The Secret Garden.
The range we devised is one I'm immensely proud of, both in terms of each individual design and the balance of cohesion and diversity in the range. In subsequent printings we have adjusted this range to, I believe, even greater effect. The gift card redesign is one of the two or three projects of which I am the most proud at Waterstones.