Small Business Holiday Cards: Your Design Tip Sheet

Sending custom-designed holiday cards to customers, clients, colleagues and friends is an essential activity.

Holiday cards, stationery

The last thing you need before the busy holiday season and end-of-year business activities is stress over your small business holiday cards. And yet, as the clock winds down on another year, sending seasonal greetings — whether they're boxed holiday cards or custom-designed holiday cards — to customers, clients, colleagues and friends is an essential activity.

"Q4 is a super-busy time of year in the business world, and holiday cards are often an afterthought," says Mitch Dowell, founder and creative director of Branding Experiences, a marketing, design and branding agency in the Baltimore/Washington, DC area. "Allow sufficient time for the creative/design, printing and mailing processes. Don't wait until after Thanksgiving to start developing your card idea. Businesses that wait until the last minute usually surrender to lazier holiday card ideas. This lack of effort is a problem because it just says to the recipient, 'You're nothing but an account number to us, but happy holidays anyway.'"

To help you get started, we made a list (and checked it twice) of tips for better holiday card design:

Tips for All Holiday Cards

Layout: Whether your cards are on paper or made with pixels, make sure you leave enough room for personalization, such as the recipient's name, a short note and your signature. "People still like the warmth and thoughtfulness of a handwritten note, especially in our world of mass-produced goods and social media," says Veronica Kido, president of Kido Communications, a marketing communications firm in Medfield, MA. "It's a personal touch, and it sends the message to your audience that they are important and worth the extra effort." You can even personalize pre-printed cards and digital messages.

Colors: Some hues, such as green, red, blue, silver and gold, are deeply linked to the holidays. But you don't have to feel locked into using them. "I don't think there's any color that is off-limits," says Lara August of Robot, a creative agency in San Antonio, TX. "Adding silver, gold or other metallic or sparkle tends to make designs look more elegant or fancy, but those can be added to any color set. The more off-tradition your card is, the more it will stand out in the mix. Use your branding colors. Go wild."

Photos: "The most important piece of advice for using stock imagery for your business holiday cards is to use images that are inclusive — ones that will appeal to all of your recipients," says Cristin Burton, a designer with "You want to convey warmth, cheer, charity and, depending on geographical location, winter. There are plenty of themes that surround the holiday season that would apply, but selection still requires some careful consideration. Sparkly lights, gifts, fireplaces, big holiday meals, cute animals, candles, family gatherings, pie, winter landscapes, sledding and hot chocolate are all good examples of nonreligious artifacts of the season." Use the image as is, or as a background with your text over it. She also suggests searching for images that typographically convey your message, like a photo of a "happy holidays" sign.

Tips for Paper Holiday Cards

Paper: Choose a paper that complements your design and suits your audience. "If the front or outside of the card is primarily photographic in nature, consider going with a glossy cover on the outside, with matte on the inside for easy writing," Dowell suggests. "Primarily illustrative designs look great on linen or heavy-linen stock and are a good choice to avoid possible smudges." Your industry and the different demographics of your audience can influence your paper choice. "If you have a primarily B2B or corporate audience, glossy stocks may go over better than if you're sending directly to, for example, eco-friendly consumers, where a textured or recycled stock may be better received," he says.

Envelopes: "Envelopes actually make the first impression, not the card," August notes. "Make your holiday card stand out by using a high-quality envelope. Don't use anything thin, flimsy or delicate that could be easily damaged in the crowded holiday mail. And if you really want to increase quality, consider linings." Hand-addressing is always nice, but if you're bulk mailing, use transparent labels to let the envelope show through, or labels that complement the color of the envelope or your brand.

Tips for Digital Holiday Cards

Technology: "Digital cards need to be thought through — not just from a marketing and business perspective, but from an IT and UX perspective," Dowell says. For instance, the greeting should be compatible with and responsive to the most common browsers and responsive to all communication formats (phone, tablet, desktop, etc.). You'll also want to do what you can to minimize the likelihood of your email message being relegated to the junk folder. And if open rates and click-through data are important to you, set up the right analytics beforehand. "The best advice here would be to bring the company IT staff into the mix for some general input and feedback," he says.

Videos: "The video you send to clients is a direct reflection on your business," says Davis Stillson, owner and director of photography at Davis Stillson Associates in Chapel Hill, NC. "If the budget allows, hire a professional to shoot the video. Otherwise, I would really recommend buying a camcorder or a designated-consumer video camera. But the iPhone seems like such a great device and with good lighting it looks pretty darn good." If you want to shoot a video using your iPhone, Stillson offers these tips for getting the best results: Find or create a tidy space with very even lighting, use an external mic (a lavaliere with a wind screen is best), shoot in landscape view, and use a tripod or put the phone on a steady surface.

Follow this advice and your business holiday card will leave everyone feeling festive.