Back in early 2008 I landed an amazing job at an on-line, personalised greeting card company called Remind4u – they later became Funky Pigeon.
Initially, my job was to design photographic greeting cards using Photoshop, Illustrator, Direct Smile & InDesign. So my days were spent searching the internet for nice images, doctoring them in Photoshop & turning the images into greeting card designs. It was a great job & I actually enjoyed going to work!
All of the products sold on the website were personalised designs. The background designs were created using Photoshop or Illustrator – or hand drawn by our illustrators. The designs were then made into personalised products using Direct Smile, which allows you to place typography on top of an image, allowing you to apply various effects & distortions to the typography to blend the words into the background design.
After a lot of testing, the finished product would allow the customer to type in any name, which would then be incorporated into the design. Certain designs were restricted in the number of characters the customer could type, depending upon the design – but this was controlled at the front end of the website.
Creating Personalised Products using Direct Smile
Below, you can see one of my designs… the dog with the newspaper (one of the best selling products I may add!). To create this design, we purchased an image of the dog with the newspaper, which I doctored in Photoshop to remove the print from the newspaper & enlarge the area for typography.
The image was then taken into DirectSmile, where (as you see above) a text box can be placed onto the image. Various effects can then be applied to the text to make it a realistic part of the image. In this case, I simply chose a newspaper style font, applied a perspective grid to limit where the type would appear, then used a gradient blur to mimic the camera focus – it is quite a subtle blur, but it makes all the difference.
A gradient blur works in a similar way to a mask. Where a gradient of white to black is applied to a Direct Smile set, the area of white creates zero blurring, where 100% black is heavily blurred. So you can control the areas of blur in any image.
A mask simply applies opacity – where white is visible & black is transparent. So a mask can control the opacity of an image using various shades of black.
There are other effects available to use in DirectSmile – similar to what you find in Photoshop, like emboss, drop shadow etc. – along with the ability to create masks & blurring masks… so creating a realistic design is very achievable, and just up to your imagination.
Fonts, Clip Fonts & Picture Fonts
DirectSmile gives you three options for creating typography – normal fonts, such as Helvetica (for example), Clip Fonts – often seen as clouds – & Picture (Pic) Fonts.
True Type Fonts can be applied using a block colour or gradient, or used with a background image (called a second image) where the font will render whatever the second image is, but masking the rest of the image.
Clip Fonts are most commonly used as a cloud effect – where an image is repeated along the line of a each letter. The image can be randomized in how it is displayed, so the image is blurred, rotated & resized to convey nature.
Picture Fonts are simply images – each letter being assigned a different image. So you can create a whole alphabet in Photoshop & apply it to your DirectSmile Set – which means the possibilities are endless.
A Few Greeting Card Design Examples
Building the website
When I Joined Remind4u, the website design had been outsourced to a professional company in Bristol. It worked perfectly, but didn’t allow a lot of scope for growth, so the boss decided to employ a full time programmer & re-build the entire website from scratch. The new website allowed us to add other personalised products like calendars & posters.
We were one of the first companies in the UK to use DirectSmile ‘web to print’ or ‘variable data printing’ software, which allows customers to personalise the products on the website & see live previews of their product. This would then be transferred to a print quality version of their chosen product, automatically producing a PDF for digital printing. This functionality made the website development a little different to the usual e-commerce website.
As I had a bit of web design experience, I started taking on more & more responsibilities – like building the HTML newsletters, building the landing pages of the website & designing promotional imagery for the home page. The HTML newsletters were produced using old style tables & inline styling – as you can’t use any fancy CSS or Java in the headers. Creating HTML newsletters is an art within itself, which I learned the hard way!
The landing pages on the website were also created as stand alone HTML pages, which would slot into the area provided by our programmer. I worked with the programmer to ensure my HTML would fit in seamlessly with the back-end.
Above you can see a few home page banner designs which I created. We called this our Sand Box, which was the focal point of the home page. They were obviously changed quite often to promote upcoming events like Christmas, Valentines Day etc.
One of the biggest jobs in any e-commerce website is to load the products. Having over 3500 products, we had to carefully plan our categories & product ranges. It was my job to upload every single product – which involved creating a product thumbnail, uploading a preview DirectSmile Set (for website previews) and uploading a print quality DirectSmile Set.
Each product had a set of attributes – such as Birthday, Christmas, Brother, Sister etc. – which would determine how that product was listed on the website.
All products were produced using DirectSmile variable data printing software, which allows the customer to personalise the design, which is then automatically printed. Variable data printing is commonly used in magazines & promotional gifts – we were the first company in the UK to use it for greeting cards.
Each product range – A5 greeting cards, A3 posters, A4 calendars etc. – had a corresponding InDesign template. These templates were synchronised with DirectSmile, so if a customer ordered a greeting card from the website, their design would be created as a high quality JPEG, then imported into the InDesign template (along with other elements like barcodes etc.) then output as a PDF.
The PDF files were automatically dropped into specific hot folders, depending upon the product, and then imposed for digital printing. It was also my job to create the hotfolders & imposition rules. I would then oversee the print production, making 3 or 4 print runs per day. We had 2 HP Indigo printers, which I was trained up to use in emergencies – gaining certificates to operate HP Indigo 5000 & 5500.
When Remind4u became Funky Pigeon
Around late 2009, our boss decided to completely re-brand the company. The design team were asked to come up with a new identity… which was quite exciting. We had several brainstorming sessions, creating a number of ideas, but eventually the boss chose Funky Pigeon as our new name. I wasn’t sure about his choice at the time, but, in hindsight, it is a good name because people remember it.
We knew that the website needed a complete overhaul, because we wanted to offer more products – and a third party ‘skin’ system, which would allow us to produce personalised products for other companies like Nuts Magazine, Russell Grant & Emma’s Diary.
So we recruited a .NET developer from Sri Lanka, who was a genuine developing guru. He re-built the whole site in around 1 month… but the product uploading & front end web design was my responsibility.
Getting Bought Out
Not long after re-branding the company, we were bought by a traditional calendar printing company in Bristol who saw us as a great way to get into the modern, digital market. Shortly after that we were bought out again by a national chain. There were obviously a lot of changes… from relocating premises to adding new staff. Fortunately, all of the design team kept their jobs.
After the corporate takeover, the atmosphere seemed to change to a high pressure environment… and we had very little input or artistic license in our designs, which took all of the fun out of it for me, and resulted in me looking for another job. But it remains one of the best jobs I have ever had & I took away a lot of valuable experience & knowledge, which has served me well in my career.