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. As of November 2018, with this year’s suite just arriving in our shops’ windows and interiors, I find it interesting to look back at how I developed several suites over the past few years.
Traditionally for a Waterstones campaign we produce printed elements (posters, table headers etc) divided into four suites: Adults’, Children’s and ‘Buy One Get One Half Price’ variations of each. It's an approach I have adjusted this approach a lot in my time as designer, as we shall see below (and I talk about here in more depth) but in 2014 when I created my first Christmas suite this was still very much the model.
The group on the left is a sampling of what I designed for the Adults’ suite that year. Out of several possible directions the favourite was this slightly abstracted Christmas decoration shapes that connected on the whole only tangentially to book imagery. The colours opted for were very traditional and bright.
We sent out the same campaign the next Christmas, and I was pleased at the vote of confidence - but the next year I insisted on at least a soft redesign. The grouping on the right above is a sampling of the redeveloped campaign.
It was an interestingly challenging brief because while I wanted to produce something fresh and edit out aspects of the existing suite I had come to dislike, anything new needed to match the existing versions .
In addition to applying my by-then greater experience and the extra time to refining composition and colour, I looked at making the Adults and Adult’s BOGOHP suites more visually distinct and less cluttered. I used lantern shapes to bring in some fresh imagery and allow me to add a lightening slow to posters. I had noticed with the previous version of the campaign it was sometimes dissolving into visual messiness in situ. In windows, the poster were backdrops to, and often greatly obscured by, the displays of books and products. and in that context they were providing more of a distraction from the displays than a supportivebacdrop. That was something I was able to really bring to bear once I had a chance to do a full redesign, in 2017.
In the meantime, the old and the new versions sat well together and the injection of newer design did a lot to lift windows out of staleness.
While this (or these) creative was going out for the Adults' suite, my Children's Christmas suite employed an entirely seperate creative.
I remain very fond of my Penguins, and actually we are still using variations on this creative for one of our seasonal Gift Cards. The standees were frankly adorable and very popular. Like 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.
However, seeing them in use a couple of times made it clear to me that there might be a better way to approach the Christmas POS suite altogether by breaking away from the standard model of suites and layouts we had been following.
I proposed taking the messaging off the generic posters entirely, and using simple, almost wallpaper imagery that could be used behind the highest-stacked display and would still add a touch of atmosphere and colour where it did peep through rather than adding to the bright, busy confusion. I reasoned our previous Christmas messaging ('Give books') was redundant, that we made a stronger statement by not shouting a message: customers already know and love books and our brand.
I pitched a winter forest scene and theme. Earlier in the year I had taken the train from Toronto to NYC through Upper- and Mid-State New York and the imagery of endless snowy forests of bare beech trees was imprinted on my brain as completely magical.
I applied a relatively naturalistic style to the posters which formed the contextualising forest scenes on the posters. I figured that though there was nothing overtly bookish in the imagery, leaning into a classic picture book illustration style would make the posters feel at home in bookshop windows. For the smaller elements (A3 table headers and so on) I pulled away into more stylised and boldly-coloured variations on the themes.
Having the smaller elements contrast and complement rather than match the posters was new. I reasoned we should create instead a contrast. Where the posters benefitted from being pale and gentle as they served as backdrops, headers and the like were either standing isolated on tables or were amid the displays in windows.
Christmas 2017 was a resounding success. It worked in all the major ways I had hoped for. But it did not go without a hitch and 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.
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.
One of the decisions made fairly late-on was that mass-market shops (those in shopping centres or some high streets) could not get away with a wordless poster and needed something more traditional to compete with neighbouring shops' bright and shouty Christmas displays. To that end I scaled up the images of the A3s to create alternat posters.
At the time it seemed logical. However, in use these stumbled into the same problems as the penguins and baubles had before them, the veryone we had been trying to avert: They were bright and busy in exactly the same way the book displays were, and when displays were piled high in front of them they distracted from, rather than framed, the products.
Editing or redeveloping something that has potential to be really good, but is being undermined by a few details or decisions, is just about my favourite thing in the world. Actual creation comes with high rewards but the tyranny of the blank page. So I was delighted that I had the chance to take another pass at this for 2018.
In 207 decisions 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 a the existing material and design thought into a new suite.
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. 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 dialled back the visual differences between the Adult’s and Children’s suites. In 2017 Children’s employed a bright green and a deer motif. In 2018 I pulled the green closer to the Adults’ teal and used baby barn owls to complement the bird theme of the Adults' suite.
In 2017 I had used different lockups of the ‘Season’s Readings’ message for Adults’ and Children’s respectively. I threw both of those out and hand-drew a new single lockup of the message (as well as redrawing other message lockups like ‘Great Gifts’ to match the styling). 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 created a decorative device of concentric circles of gold dots to frame that 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.
Meanwhile I made different guidelines for the BOGOHP suite/s. I had used red throughout the suite in 2017 but this year removed it from anything generic and kept it for BOGOHP and other Value messages exclusively to make sure the latter stood out. Robins replace the finches and fieldfares of the generic suite, and instead of the gold-dot-roundel device behind any message, I have a pale-sun-like solid circle of cream.
There are of course a dozen things I would like to adjust given another four weeks, or even two days, to fiddle further. But ultimately this is the the most successful suite in terms of overall design, and the execution of individual elements, I believe I have put out. I have seen a few instances of it in windows and interiors so far and it is living up to my expectations in forming a beautiful, classy, brand-appropriate atmosphere that enhances the books and products it is there to support.