How to make a cool holiday card, according to 5 top illustrators

Personalize this holiday tradition with some help from the experts.

How to make a cool holiday card, according to 5 top illustrators

‘Twas the month before Chrismukah, and to your chagrin, nary a card could be found, not even a pen.


With stockpiles dwindling and shipping delayed, there’s only one answer: Things must be handmade.

It isn’t that scary, and you’ve plenty of time; your children will love it (and it’ll save you a dime).

So if you want to send cards before the New Year, we’ve enlisted some experts to get you in gear.

[Image: Hyesu Lee]

Think cookie cutter: Give your drawings a fun shape

“My first idea is incorporating something you want to say in the card in your own hand-lettering and fill it out with fun shapes, lines, and patterns—whatever you want,” says illustrator Heysu Lee. Basically, write out your message in large letters, and treat each one as a canvas to fill in. “You can do this digitally or traditionally,” she adds.

[Image: Hyesu Lee]
“The second idea is filling out a heart shape with items a receiver likes,” Lee adds. Make a heart shape template to give your drawing a base structure, and then fill it in with little drawings of the recipients favorite things—raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens. You get the idea. You could even add stickers or do a collage inside.


And if you want a full-on tutorial, you’re in luck: Lee is hosting a holiday card workshop with Apple on December 11.

[Photo: Naomi Otsu]

Take a cue from Frosty: Just add eyes

Just because something doesn’t scream holiday doesn’t mean you can’t make it festive. “I personally love to anthropomorphize everything, and I think a lot of people (well, the audience I have) seem to love it,” says illustrator Naomi Otsu, who designed this precious pickle ornament, which has already sold out. If you’re someone who doesn’t think “brined” when thinking of the holidays, Otsu suggests “taking something that is holiday related (that doesn’t typically have a face) and adding a tiny face in hopes to make someone smile would be my personal move.” It definitely seems to work for her

Faces can be difficult to draw, so don’t worry about making them realistic. Otsu suggests drawing a face out of festive icons. “If you’re feeling ambitious, you could arrange some holiday related items to create a face, like snowflakes for the eyes, candy cane for the nose, and a curve of gum drops for the mouth.”

[Image: Zipeng Zhu]

Get creative with colors

“Holiday greetings are honestly about the spirit more than anything else,” says designer Zipeng Zhu. His tip for the easiest way to get in the spirit? “COLORS!” While red and green might be standard, Zhu suggests using fun accents “to boost and complement the combo, like a warm pink or fresh mint.”

[Images: Jessica Hische]

Embrace textures

Give your card even more visual interest by playing around with the base material, suggests hand-lettering artist Jessica Hische. “Mixing different kinds of papers can lead to great results—they don’t have to be fancy, even just different textures (smooth to rough) can look great,” she says. “We keep a pile of colored cardstock and a bit of craft paper around, and it’s all you really need. Choose one for the card itself, then other papers for different shapes or a lining.”


Spruce up cash gifts

Giving cash can actually be fun if you get creative with the delivery. “My favorite ‘gift’ I’ve ever given was probably one I gave my brother a while back when he was still in college,” says Hische. “Like most students, he really needed cash, but I wanted to make it more fun—I bought a bunch of business card-sized envelopes and wrote or drew on the outside of the envelope what I thought he should buy for himself, then put the amount of money in the envelope to cover it. That way he could choose to get the ‘gifts’ I suggested, or just use the money to pay rent. There was everything from ‘A cup of fancy coffee — $4’ to ‘A really good sandwich — $15’ to ‘A new nice hoodie — $40’ and I think it totaled around $200 (Christmas Day is also his birthday).”

If you’re a fan of Hische’s work and would rather just have her design your holiday cards, you’re in luck—she launched a series of cards as part of Vistaprint’s “Global Artists Collection.” (Order soon, though, time’s a ticking.)

Seal it with a personalized logo

Early on in the pandemic, Salt Fat Acid Heat illustrator Wendy MacNaughton made a birthday card how-to video as part of her ongoing drawing series. MacNaughton suggests adopting those basics for the holiday season. One such example? A lesson on creating your own logo. Add it to the reverse side of the card, and it will almost be like an old-timey wax seal. Very North Pole official.

And if you’re on a real time crunch? There’s always email. I won’t tell.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.