Did you ever hear the one about the guy who sent hundreds of dollars worth of Omaha Steaks to his new client's home, only to have them rot on her porch while she was skiing in Vermont? What about the interactive studio who sent their greetings digitally in the name of sustainability, spamming their contacts with a Flashy, animated 5.5MB gif that crashed all their computers? How about the creative director who sends autographed copies of his Innovation book to clients, year after year? Yes, the annual angst of gift-giving throws everyone in such a tizzy that even the most thoughtful people end up lunging for the Harry & David catalog. But for designers, creative gift giving should be an important part of your practice. A really good gift is your chance to prove your greatness as a designer by creating something thoughtful, meaningful and personal for the people who deserve it most.
Unlike the other 99% of your relationship transactions, thank yous cannot be appropriately transmitted over the internet. There are probably a few exceptions to this rule, but if you send me a generic e-greeting wishing me the warmest of holidays, I will coldly forget you faster than I can hit 'delete.' Should you decide to send something larger than an envelope, however, you also need to send fair warning: Do not just mail things blindly to the address on someone's website! Surprises are not welcome when they require signatures and a potential trip to the nearest FedEx facility. Better yet, give them a choice. Last year the San Francisco firm Volume cleverly gave its friends and clients a beautiful letterpressed postcard where they could choose their own gift, or opt-out completely. One-third mailed the cards back, selecting a range of options from donations to a non-profit Volume works with, to a cheeky customized color palette. "The only flaw might have been that the card was too nice and people didn't want to send it back," says Volume principal Eric Heiman. "We heard that from a few recipients."
When permission is granted to send a gift, save all the packaging detritus that arrives in your office throughout the year and reuse it with pride: Take the time to make something by hand and share that storyand the experiencewith your clients. Inspired by Paul Newman's dressings, Lettucea multidisciplinary firm based in L.A. produced an extremely brand-appropriate package for the 2008 holidays: homemade limoncello and herbed sea salt. Using ingredients plucked from their backyard lemon tree and herb plants, the designers steeped the limoncello for 12 weeks, mixed the salts, and bottled it all by hand. Simple labels explained the process, and endeared them to their recipients. "We heard from a couple of folks some who had never had limoncello before (and some who were shocked it can be homemade)," says principal Michael Chung. "The best responses were for the sea salts because some would share back what they ate with it. We're both foodies so anybody talking about their dining experiences with a little love from us in there made for some warm fuzzies."
Incorporating a handmade element into to your gift will make it a keeper, but if you really want to create impact, avoid the midwinter holidays completely. British Columbia-based illustrator Marian Bantjes has famously picked Valentine's Day as her time for reaching out, giving just enough time after the mistletoe-festooned cards stop arriving for her customized cards to get their own season to shine. The process of both creation and productionsometimes painful to witness when you think about how much time she spent with pen to paperis well-documented on her site: 2007, 2008, 2009. But having her own holiday long after the late December fatigue might have its own benefits: After hand-drawing 150 cards in 2007, she reported having a 100% response rate from clients and friends who each emailed or called to say "thank you," "I love you, too," or even, "Can I hire you for this project?"
Claiming your own most wonderful time of the year is wonderful and all, but why wait for any holiday? Each year, Alexander Isley, Inc. in Connecticut, produces a customized iconic object, from a stapler to a martini shaker, along with a booklet that talks about why it's a good example of overlooked everyday design. While most go out in December, they don't limit their giving to the fourth fiscal quarter, says Isley. "We usually produce a few extras to have in our stash, as we've found it's kind of nice to follow up a meeting with a potential client with a little gift to show her or him we're thinking of them." Copy on one of their favorites, a baseball, reads appropriately: "Here's a little something for you, apropos of absolutely nothing at all. It's not World Series time, National Horsehide Products Week, or anything like that. We wanted to give you this because we just like baseballs."
But you don't need a custom baseball, self-imposed carpal tunnel, backyard limoncello or a multiple-choice postcard to spread the love effectively. A few weeks after I interviewed a famousand incredibly modestarchitect, I received what was possibly the greatest gift ever in my mailbox. A two-page handwritten note on 8.5 x 11 paper. No fancy follow-up, no holiday wishes, no chintzy pretense, no self-promotion. Just a quick thanks in architect scrawl, written moments after he'd read the piece. I'll never forget the unexpected giddiness of tearing open that envelope: It was the first gift I'd received where the focus shifted from "remember me?" to an honest, heartfelt, handmade, "thank you."
Alissa Walker likes large pieces of jewelry, gift certificates to expensive hotels, and Omaha Steaks.