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Waterstones' Christmas

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Christmas is of course the most important time of the retail year and it’s when we produce our biggest, most fretted-over suites of POS.


Years ago I sat chilling in a tent venue Glastonbury Festival and looking at a central artistic light fitting which made a boho, modern asymmetrical kind of candelabra out of an arrangement of lanterns and eccentric retro knick knacks. That image ended up inspiring the first Christmas POS campaign I designed for Waterstones.

I had been given the headline in this case, 'Give books this Christmas' and found it a little dull. I felt that the worst thing I could do with such an obvious message was to double down on the obviousness with actual book imagery. I reserved book imagery for the BOGOHP suite.

The little touches I used on the main poser to tie to books, then, were the paper textures, the 'W' logo cut from one snowflake, and (too small to be seen here but very visible at the 40x60inch size at which these posters are produced) I patterned the snowflakes with the handwritten manuscript of A Christmas Carol. We reproduced those as die-cut mobiles too.

Christmas (Adults' Suite) 2014-2015


We sent out the same campaign without change the next Christmas, and I was pleased at the vote of confidence - but the next year I insisted on at least a soft redesign.

It was an interestingly challenging brief because while I wanted to produce something fresh and edit out aspects of the existing suite, what I produced still needed to match the existing versions as shops would be using elements interchangeably.

Christmas (Adults' Suite) 2016

I love updating an existing project for reuse: you get to start with something that's already been worked to an advanced stage and spend all your time refining. I was very pleased with the adjustments I made to composition and styling.

I'm pleased with how I used several stylistically strikingly different elements within the posters without losing an overall cohesion.

Here's an example of the new (left) and old (right) suites used together in a window in Trafalgar Square branch:

Christmas (Adults' Suite) 2014 alongside 2016 soft redesign

Where the posters were used artfully they looked very handsome indeed:

Christmas (Adults' Suite) 2016 in use


While this (or these) creative was going out for the Adults' suite, my Children's Christmas suite employed an entirely separate creative.

Christmas (Children's Suite) 2014-2016

I tied these suites together with some reference points like a similar styling, a matching red and the same snow texture. But they are obviously otherwise completely separate.

That reflected the general approach to POS at the time. I've talked here about how this was something I began to question and push to revise, feeling that we overwhelmed windows and, most importantly, books with multiple design directions.

Even so, I remain very fond of my Penguins. The standees were frankly adorable and very popular. As with the Adults' suite, sometimes it all worked absolutely beautifully in windows.

But there were plenty of windows that looked over-packed, confused and messy, and to me it was a problem with a design solution.


Up till 2017 the traditional approach for a seasonal campaign was to design two discrete Adults' and Children's creative directions. In addition to these two directions, we would either produce variations for each for BOGOHP messaging, or design a third entirely separate BOGOHP suite. That was a lot of different creatives going on in windows. At a time like, say, February you might have all three/four of those directions from a Spring campaign and a poster from a Valentines campaign and a Waterstones Children's Book Prize shortlist poster.

I'd curbed this in Summer and Autumn 2017 to something much more singular in creative direction and I felt it was all the more important for Christmas. Christmas is the time when our windows have the most stock in them, and it is at its most varied and exciting. This is a time in the year where posters need to take a firm supporting role, serving as a backdrop for towering, overflowing displays rather than trying to compete with high-contrast, wordy, brightness.

In fact, I proposed taking the messaging off the generic posters entirely. Of course there are plenty of posters that need words - out value offers like BOGOHP. But as for the 'generic' posters I argued they were of more value without a message than with one for Christmas windows. After all, what had our previous Christmas posters said? 'Give book this Christmas'. When a message is so obvious and implicit, sometimes it's stronger not to even say it.

As for the imagery we should use I thought of the holiday I had started the year with. In February 2017 I flew to Toronto and after a week took the train to New York. The solo train journey was to accomodate an unexpected change of plans with a friend but it turned out to be one of the most memorable and magical experiences of the trip and the year. The train from Toronto to New York runs once a day and takes twelve hours to cross upper-state New York. It;s mostly light woodland, often running alongside the Eerie canal, and in mid-February the whole way was deep in snow, a winter wonderland endless passing the window. That was what I wanted to put on my posters.

I had to make it a British landscape of course, peopled by bullfinches instead of red cardinals.

So much for the main posters: a relatively naturalistic illustration style of snowy woodlands detailed with birds and animals.

But I had also had some thoughts about how we approached the smaller elements, the A3 and A4 'headers' we produced to both go into windows amongst the books and to stand aloft table displays. We had always made these simply smaller versions of the big posters, as can be seen in the suites above.

But with reimagining the big posters as dialled back, even wordless backdrops came the realisation that the headers should not match but rather contrast. Where the posters stood behind books and ought to provide a background, headers stood on their own in shop interiors or amongst books and ought to grab attention boldly.

So I pulled out the illustrated elements and colours that were small details on the big posters and inverted them to be the dominant scheme on the headers.

I narrowed down to 'Season's Readings' as a headline satisfied that it tied to the imagery while referencing bookishness.

Christmas 2017

Christmas 2017 was a resounding success. It worked in all the major ways I had hoped for. But for a long time I was mostly just disappointed about how my best-laid plans (and my care in presenting and negotiating them with the other people involved in the process, like my bosses) were interfered with very last minute to the entire suite's detriment.

Someone high up had taken a last minute dislike to including foxes, which left me reworking posters not just to remove the specific animal but also the orange notes of the palette that had depended on them.

Spending all my time ahead of the deadline reworking to accommodate that left no time for refining other points which niggled at me. As can be seen above there was something of a mismatch of typographic approaches.

Finally there was a decision which I more or less agreed with at the time but later felt hadn't worked. While everyone liked my idea that posters should be dialled back and the 'generic' poster should be wordless, a concern was raised that these would look lack-lustre and uncommercial in some of our 'mass-market' shops.

So in addition we produced large posters that copied the A3 creatives. I.e. they were brightly coloured, boldly illustrated, and featured the 'Season's Greetings' message (seen above - the Adult's suite with the robins, the Childrens with the deer).

I saw the need for something for those mass-market shops but in retrospect what I'd just designed was exactly what I'd been trying to do way with.

I like every single element of the campaign that went out last year, but a few vital components being disrupted at too late a stage to regroup meant that I felt the overall cohesiveness and effect was somewhat lost.

Used poorly in windows they created a very jumbled look which did nothing to make the books look good:

Christmas 2017 in use

Despite my preoccupation with the frustrations and shortcomings, the suite was actually a great success and widely liked, and outside of some clumsy implementations as above it tended to look good in windows.

Christmas 2017 in use


I mentioned I love redeveloping a suite I've already completed and what with my frustrations about this one I seized the opportunity to do a soft redesign / refinement for 2018.

In 2017 changes had come from above decisions too late in the process to restructure completely effectively around them. With time in hand this time, I was able to build around these requirements to generate a truly cohesive and, I think, lovely campaign.

Christmas 2018
Christmas 2019

I also had the advantage of having seen a version of the suite go out, so was able to improve and fix anything that hadn't worked in use.

I mentioned that the solution we came up for in 2017 to the 'mass-market shops' challenge wasn't wholly satisfactory. In 2018 I came up with something much better. I stuck to the soft landscape snowy-wood illustration pattern this time. Windows would look so much better for having a cohesive look across all posters. But where one would stay wordless and with an illustration more like wallpaper than a feature poster, the other would include a headline and more prominent illustrative details.

To fix the above-described issue of the mass-market posters being too busy and not quite fitting the overall design choices, I created instead the poster second from the left: a poster which matched the tone and layout of the standard wordless poster, but pushed towards the more traditional poster look and featured a headline.

I was asked to make some big posters to go inside shops too, promoting our Gift Card offer and our Click and Collect service.

I revisited the use of type too. In 2017 I had used different typefaces for the ‘Season’s Readings’ message for Adults’ and Children’s respectively - a vestige of that 'separate Adults' and Children's suites' approach hanging on.

In 2018 I threw both of those out and hand-drew a new single lockup of the message, which I pulled around to suit the different shape requirements pf the ;mass-market' poster and the various headers. I handrew messages like 'Git Cards' and 'Great Gifts' (for our RP offer) to match that type styling too. I decided to pick a fairly jaunty look that would be balanced out by the naturalistic, grown-up aesthetic of the forest and birds. I also replaced the heavy printed-look font we had used on the BOHOHP posters (which was HVD Bodedo) with a slender, quirky serif that much better tied to the hand-drawn type of the other posters (this font was designed previously for Waterstones, and called Waterstones Handcut).

I also introduce a decorative device of concentric circles of gold dots to frame the type lockup on the poster that could then be carried across most of the other elements. I felt like the naturalistic/storybook illustration of the posters and the graphic treatment of the smaller elements needed just a touch more to feel all part of the same suite, and the gold circles were the link.

I had used red throughout the suite in 2017 but this year I removed it from anything generic and kept it for BOGOHP and other Value messages exclusively to make sure the latter stood out. I replaced the robin red-breasts of 2017 with finches and fieldfares outside of BOGOHP.

I replaced the deer of 2017 Children's elements with owls, feeling that we should tighten the theme of the campaign to feature only birds, and also that owls could be rendered more cutely than deer.

Christmas 2019 in use


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