In 2016 our range of gift cards at Waterstones had drifted into incoherence. We had the remnants of several branding approaches and a lot of cards led more by publisher tie-ins than suitability for brief. 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. I had to develop 12 cards at once which all had to serve their own specific purposes while also fitting into a range that looked like they came from the same place.
The format also presented challenges. The gift cards are sold and given on a wider carboard 'carrier'. Some previous cards had looked lackustre because they crammed artwork onto the card and left the wider space rather empty, or because they placed artwork across the two which worked when they were together but cropped oddly to the card on its own.
From 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 offered a few directions but fortunately the retail manager also liked my typography idea.
I started to come up with a range of ways out cards could be led by letters.
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 chalkboard messaging being such a feature of Waterstones' aesthetic.
I also worked out a design which shouted the word 'books' over and over, the word travelling through a score of differently-styled boxes to reflect the diversity of books.
Perhaps the most obvious way to feature nice typography was to feature some nice quotes that spoke to a love of books. That approach had a couple of challenges to it. One was that of making the card very niche in its appeal, the very problem we'd faced with some of those publisher-asset-led cards. I.e. these designs are only ging to appeal to a specific kind of person, and the purpose of gift cards is often to get for someone whose tastes one doesn't know well enough to get them a particular book oneself.
Some more nche cards is fine; a range of any product aiming will end up appealing to no one if it aims for complete universal acceptability. But other cards had to be much more broad, to communicate a more generalised vibe of fun/special-ness/friendliness/bookishness.
Another challenge was in the format of the quotes. Again, the design had to work both across the whole card and carrier composition as also on the card when isolated. I found a good nominee in a rough but popular translation of an Erasmus quote, '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" - which is the part that will fit across the card itself works perfectly well without the second half of the line (in fact it's 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, "Treat Your Shelf To A New Book".
My final 'message' card used the '[Verb] Sleep Repeat' format to create a young, fun Andy-Smith-inspired card - "Read Sleep Repeat". Again, "Read" was the part that sat on the card and thus worked perfectly in isolation as well as with the full artwork.
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 need a couple of 'generic' cards (the two bottom right), and we decided to also use this 'W' 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 the particular character or book featured, or who didn't recognise the characters of, say, Gangsta Granny and who would just see a random and confusing illustration.
This time where we used illustrators' work 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, and then Children's Laureate Chris Riddell. Fortunately Bickford-Smith was happy to sign off my reworking of her Fox and The Star cover for the purpose (and this card has gone on to 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.
The intention was always to keep the range tightly curated and updated. In 2017 we changed out a couple of designs and introduce two more beautiful illustrator cards.
I pitched to use a piece of Lauren Child's work I had long admired, her cover for the anniversary edition of The Secret Garden. But my favourite card features Joe McLaren's illustration of the Librarian from Terry Pratchett's Discworld.
I also designed a third 'generic' card (i.e. based around the central 'W' logo and using imagery designed to appeal to a very broad audience and use). I illustrated a branch of Waterstones with people entering, and in the windows above browsing the shop. In the top windows we see a family reading in a flat.
2019 to now
In the next round of changes we swapped out the 'generics' for new designs and introduced a new illustrator card, this by new Children's Laureate Cressida Cowell. The big change was to the logo lockups. In 2019 we started a push towards using a capitalised version of the Watertones logo and so the whole range needed to be slightly rejigged to accomodate that. We changed the 'generics' to feature this full 'Waterstones' logo instead of the 'W' logo.
We also moved to card instead of plastic gift cards to be greener. This move didn't affect the design side very much, but I'm glad that the designs are now appearing on more recyclable materials rather than includng single-use plastics.
I've also designed Christmas gift cards to supplement the range at Peak. Here are some across the years (one with a Tony Ross illustration, the rest by myself).
The range (or ranges) we've devised is something I'm immensely proud of.