They Wish You a Merry Christmas Card

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 23, 2007

KANSAS CITY -- Bill Gray spent a week writing Father's Day jokes. Before that it was Valentine's Day, as he listened to the Beatles and Johnny Cash on his iPod. He wishes he could skip Easter cards.

As a humor writer at Hallmark Cards' Shoebox and other "alternative card" lines, Gray tries to push the edge, sometimes in word choice or sexual situations. He uses television shows and commercials to help divine what's acceptable and what's timely. But the offbeat and humorous card possibilities leap straight from his brain.

"If it's funny, we write it down," said Gray, who works in a small, neat cubicle at Hallmark's sprawling headquarters in Kansas City.

Not far away, Eric Brace's cubicle is crammed with Mr. Potato Heads, a "pesky dog" photo, marbles, paintbrushes and many props used in cards past. Brace, an illustrator who sometimes writes cards, says his pieces go from "really silly to more sweet."

One of his favorites shows his mother, back in the 1950s, standing next to a tinsel-laden Christmas tree. He used Photoshop to superimpose more tinsel, including some on Mom's dress and hair, and then added the punch line: "There's no such thing as too much tinsel."

"I'm able to use so many parts of my life in my job," Brace said. He noted that deadlines and "the fear factor" -- having nothing to show colleagues -- help him crank out designs.

So it goes for those who work at Hallmark Cards or one of the 3,000 other companies, most of them small, that make and sell greeting cards.

Some work as freelancers who sell designs or finished cards to card companies. Others, such as Karen Brown, are on staff at a smaller company. She's the sole art designer for Design Crafters in Fairfax County.

Brown graduated from college in 2005 with a psychology degree and started filling in at her mother's company. "I'm the artsy one in the family," she said, and she's comfortable with a computer. So she taught herself Photoshop and began designing cards. "The creative aspect has been a blast," she said, especially working on the baby announcement cards.

Design Crafters mainly makes custom Christmas cards for corporations. Brown inserts company logos and puts in the greeting, a repetitive task. "It's very hectic," she said. From September through mid-December, "I could easily work 60 to 70 hours a week."

At Hallmark, the Christmas card work takes place year-round.

Altogether, 1,300 people in the "creative community" labor on the company's cards, books, DVDs and other products and services, including e-cards and Web sites. Of those, some 800 craftspeople and 100 writers and editors create cards and card-related products; almost all of them are in Kansas City. (The company has 16,000 employees total.)

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