High above Crown Center, Hallmark Cards senior artist Ken Sheldon sits at a long wooden table and dips a brush into a pot of paint the color of crushed raspberries.
As he swirls the wet brush onto white paper, the pink petals of a voluptuous peony start to bloom.
“I like this color,” Sheldon says. “It’s both powerful and beautiful at the same time. Moms are those things in our lives.”
Days before Mother’s Day 2017, Sheldon and other Hallmark artists are hard at work on paintings, drawings and hand-lettered designs that will become Mother’s Day cards in 2018. Each card takes about a year to make and requires collaboration among artists, designers, writers, editors, production specialists and marketing experts.
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Kansas City-based Hallmark, the nation’s top greetings brand, produces around 1,000 unique cards for Mother’s Day, which is one of the company’s three biggest card-giving holidays, after Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
Before the creative process begins, a team of trend-spotters predicts what will be hot next year and then compiles that information in a book.
“They’re out front looking for cultural trends and what’s going on in fashion, politics — anything that’s shaping consumer behavior,” says Jessica Brace, studio art director.
The book of trends — or “bible” as Brace likes to call it — is handed to writers and artists, who use it as a creative springboard.
Sheldon, for example, interpreted the “crafted beauty” trend as lush arrangements of watercolor flowers that are imperfectly perfect. He modernizes his bouquets with touches of copper, deep purple and geometric details that look “hand-done,” not computer-generated.
The artist’s paintings are handed to designers, who use them to digitally create floral-themed cards, gift bags, wrapping paper and prints for tea towels and glassware.
“Traditional themes sell really well on Mother’s Day,” says senior designer Leigh Beck. “Everybody likes flowers and beautiful spring color palettes.”
It’s no wonder that Sheldon’s fuchsia peony is the centerpiece of a popular Mother’s Day card that reads “Everything beautiful starts with love.”
Sheldon says seeing his artwork on a finished product “is like watching a child graduate from college.”
“It’s really dazzling.”
The right words
The synergy between words and images can make or break a card, says editorial director Cheryl Gaines.
Hallmark writers also work a year in advance and use trends to ignite inspiration.
“There are more single moms than there used to be,” Gaines says, “so we might want a card targeted to single moms.”
Hallmark writers are also working on Mother’s Day cards for women to give to other women, or for people who want to recognize mom-like figures in their lives. They write for stepmothers, people with two moms, mothers who speak Spanish — even single dads.
“The relationships we have are changing and becoming more diverse,” explains Hallmark spokeswoman Jaclyn Voran. “Our mission is to help people express what’s in their hearts.”
But there is an underlying theme, Gaines adds: “Moms want to feel appreciated, loved, respected and valued.”
Hallmark employs roughly 30 writers who spend most of their work days at their desks arranging words into short messages with deep meaning. Every word counts: “You’re loved, Mom” has a different feel than “You’re very loved, Mom.”
Writers and artists show their best work to Gaines and Hallmark art director Angela Grondahl, who read the card ideas and look over illustrations, designs and sketches. They might tweak a word or add notes for the creators before putting the best words and images side by side.
When a perfect match is made, it’s clear to everyone.
“It’s like you’ve just solved a puzzle,” Gaines says. “It’s wonderful.”
It’s not uncommon for Hallmark employees to get emotional when a card comes together.
“It happens all the time, especially when the editors read the cards aloud,” Beck says. “We’ve all found ourselves tearing up.”
Beck also gets emotional when her two young daughters, who are just learning to read, run to the Hallmark section of the grocery store to try to find her the prettiest, most perfect card.
The company’s 2017 Mother’s Day lineup includes a white card with raised cutouts that resemble two pairs of stylish pink shoes, one big and one small. The words read “Grew up loved … Thanks to you, Mom.”
Another eye-catching design is bright blue and yellow, with butterflies that sparkle and shine with blue glitter and gold foil. Its message: “Women like you make the world better for all women.”
Not every offering is overtly feminine. Another shows a faded watercolor image of a couple walking in the near distance. The couple’s feet are in step, their arms intertwined. There’s no glitter, gems or gold — just a sheer black ribbon.
“Happy Mother’s Day to the woman I feel so lucky to be walking through life with,” the card reads. “The friend who laughs and dreams with me, the partner who stays beside me, even when the path isn’t easy.”
Before a card is approved for production, the editorial and art directors must answer these questions: Who would send this card, and who would receive it? Can we afford to produce it? Will it sell?
Around one in three Mother’s Day cards are approved for production. That’s a pretty high success rate considering that only one out of every eight or 10 humor cards makes the final cut.
Going to press
Most cards are made six months in advance at Hallmark’s greetings production plant in Lawrence, which also produces envelopes in a rainbow of colors.
When production manager Beth Gorman receives an order from the corporate office, she creates a “production ready file” — a sort of blueprint that makes it possible for the plant to print and decorate the cards.
The cards are printed on sheets of paper that measure 27 by 40 inches, then cut down to size and, depending on the design, blinged out with foil, glitter, laser cut-outs and other decorative processes. The work is done by machines and by hand, so some employees end their shifts looking a little … sparkly.
“The operators that run that equipment are highly skilled,” Gorman says. “We call them craftsmen.”
The Lawrence plant operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Spend a few hours inside and you might lose your grip on time.
“Three in the morning looks like three in the afternoon,” Gorman says. “And for us, Christmas is in the summer.”
Each card spends between five and 30 days at the plant before it’s packaged with a matching envelope (the color is carefully chosen by designers) and sent to a distribution center in Liberty. Hallmark also has a Leavenworth plant that produces gift wrap and stickers.
The distribution center processes orders and ships them to stores. Most stores start displaying Mother’s Day cards a day or two after Easter.
This year, Hallmark’s visual merchandise team switched up its display by adding bright pink “card identifiers” — those tabs that say things like “Mom — Funny,” “Sister,” “Someone Special” or “From Both.”
The pink tabs help the Mother’s Day section stand out from the Graduation section, which has blue tabs.
Soon, Father’s Day cards will make their way into stores, replacing pastel florals with fishing rods, barbecue grills, trucks, beer and superheroes. Hallmark makes a Batman card that reads “Heroes don’t always have a secret identity — sometimes they just go by ‘Dad.’ ”
This year, the company is debuting Father’s Day cards that come with detachable virtual reality pop-up viewers and a link to a 360-degree video. Attach a smartphone to the viewer, follow the link and suddenly you feel like you’re surfing, skydiving or racing a car.
“We’ve got a real focus on innovation in our card department right now,” says product manager Kristen Cremer. “We want to draw the consumer in and shock them with what a greeting card will do.”
Father’s Day is the fourth most popular card holiday, right after Mother’s Day. But it’s catching up.
“Dads are generally more engaged in the family now than ever before,” Cremer says. “They want to be acknowledged for what they’re doing, and appreciated.”
A card is one way to do that. For many Hallmark employees, it’s so much more than a piece of folded paper.
When Sheldon was a kid, his mom, who went to art school, was always putting pencils and paintbrushes in his hands. He thinks about her when he’s at work painting peonies, lilacs, roses and honeysuckle that will blossom on next year’s Mother’s Day cards.
“Every Mother’s Day or birthday, I tell her, ‘Thanks for another one,’ ” he says. “She did it — she poured herself out and in, and now I get to kind of live this dream.