September 29, 2014 • Sarah Schwartz
Emily McDowell made the daunting leap into stationery from advertising in 2011. After initially illustrating prints, her first greeting card — which exhibited her snarky wit in magnificent and simple lettering — went viral on Etsy. It was the first piece in McDowell’s line, which launched at National Stationery Show (NSS) in 2013.
The following NSS, both she and Ladyfingers Letterpress made their presences known industry-wide when each won a whopping five LOUIE awards. “I was hoping for an onstage duel at the end, or at least a dance-off,” McDowell deadpanned.
While that never happened, Stationery Trends did interview McDowell about bringing her brand to life, and where she would like to take it.
ST: How long did you consider leaving advertising before actually doing it — and did any events compel you to take that leap?
EM: I began thinking about leaving advertising in 2006. In 2011, a few things spurred me to finally make the change: I began studying spiritual psychology and really thinking about what I was supposed to be doing with my life, and one of my closest friends passed away after a brief illness.
ST: The experience of that first Valentine going viral on Etsy must have been heady! Conversely, how did you overcome any early stumbling blocks?
EM: When I started out, I didn’t know anything that came after “draw a card.” I didn’t have a printer or an envelope supplier or know where to get cello bags. I reached out to a few nearby stationery folks whose work I admired, but whom I didn’t know personally — Carrie (Gifford) from Red Cap, Chelsea (Shukov) from Sugar Paper, Gwen (Mason) from Dear Hancock — and with their help, I figured out my first print runs. I feel very grateful and lucky to be part of a community where so many people are so generous with sharing resources and expertise.
ST: Where do you come up with your card verbiage that is by turns humorous and idiosyncratic, but always very honest?
EM: I’m always listening and paying attention to not just what people say — and what I say! — but the deeper emotion or intention behind what we say. A lot of the time, the best insight is in what we don’t normally say out loud.
ST: What tend to be your biggest inspirations?
EM: Psychology, and why we do what we do. I mine my own relationship a lot, much to my boyfriend’s chagrin. My visual inspirations change all the time, but some general favorites are textiles, folk art, the urban landscape of LA and the natural world.
ST: Do you personally collect anything?
EM: Parking tickets.
ST: What did you learn at your first NSS (’13)?
EM: Everything! Bring a stapler. Always take a business card. Buyers always want more choices, and are often more conservative than their customers. Don’t assume large groups of young, stylish women are design students; they might be buyers from Urban Outfitters. Having a booth in the way back, by the fountain pens, is probably not the best way to go. Stationery people are awesome.
ST: You maintain an Etsy shop and sell merchandise on your own site. What’s behind that decision?
EM: I had an Etsy store before launching my own site, so our Etsy shop is really busy. A huge percentage of the press we’ve gotten online has linked to my Etsy shop, which has definitely contributed to those sales numbers. Etsy has also really supported me: I was a featured seller last January, and they often feature my work in their newsletters. As my business grows, we’re trying to drive customers more toward our own site, where we have more control over their brand experience, but our Etsy shop has been and continues to be an important piece of our online retail strategy.
ST: Can you describe a typical day?
EM: No day is “typical;” I find that it’s impossible to carve out time to actually create work in the middle of a day where I’m dealing with running the business, so my days are either creative or business. On a creative day, I generally work from home. I generally screw around in the morning, finally get my act together around 11, then crank out stuff late into the night.
On a business day, I head to my downtown LA studio about 9:30 a.m. and try to get home for dinner with my partner and stepson, then usually end up working on my laptop in bed until pretty late.
ST: Does actually running a paper line differ from how you first envisioned it?
EM: Yes. The reality of my life right now is very different from the fantasy I had of working from home drawing pictures in my pajamas, taking breaks for yoga and home-cooked meals with family and friends. I’d say that I spend 85 percent of my time on business tasks right now, and 15 percent actually creating work.
ST: What advice would you give to new or young invitation designers or stationery companies looking for success in our field?
EM: Although it’s tempting to ride the coattails of hot trends, if you’re a new brand trying to get noticed, shop owners and buyers don’t want to see more work that looks like what’s already out there. They want something different. If you’re new, buyers need a reason to choose your product over a brand they already carry, and unless it has a clear point of differentiation, that can be a hard sell. You’ll be much more successful if you can create something not already represented in the industry.
ST: What current trends do you find interesting?
EM: Industry trends are a funny thing. Coming from an advertising/design background, if someone else has a good idea, the worst thing you can do is copy it. You get labeled a hack. But in this field, when someone has an idea that becomes popular, it’s considered a trend, and many other designers try to replicate its success. It’s not bad or wrong, just very different from the world I came from. Like, the sudden pineapple trend is really funny to me. Will I lose out on sales because I don’t want to make a pineapple card? Probably. But a store can only carry so many pineapple cards before it starts to get weird.
ST: Where would you like to be in five years?
EM: My goal for Emily McDowell, the brand, is to develop it into a comprehensive lifestyle collection of products: gift, home, tabletop, etc. In the next year, we’ll be launching mugs and tech accessories; the rest of our launches are still up in the air.
My goal for Emily McDowell, the person, is to be taking slightly more frequent vacations. And also doing more teaching and writing. I have some book ideas. I am realizing all of these things seem to be at odds with the vacations thing.
ST: What other stationery designers or companies do you admire and why?
EM: Like many designers, I feel like I wouldn’t be here had Anna and Nathan Bond not done it first. They pretty much wrote the book on building a contemporary stationery brand, and I so admire Anna’s work and their skill as business owners. Leigh Standley of Curly Girl Design is a huge inspiration to me as well: The amazing business she’s built is proof that it’s possible to write and illustrate all your own products while simultaneously running your business, without going insane or turning into a terrible person.
ST: Anything else you’d like to share?
EM: I just want to say thank you. I am honored, touched and humbled by how this community has embraced me and responded to my work, and I am incredibly grateful to be here.
Emily at a Glance
Q. If you could travel through time and space and land anywhere you desire, where and when would it be?
A. 1970, New York City.
Q. How would you define your signature style?
A. I actually think about content before visuals. I hope to be known for smart, relatable, unexpected work that makes people feel like I “get” them. Visually, my brand is about perfectly imperfect hand-lettering, with lots of color. I think our holiday sticker sheets do a pretty good job of representing who I am as a designer and writer.
Q. What is new this season?
A. Gift tags, holiday sticker sheets, notepads, new tote bags and prints and lots of new cards. We also have new and better manufacturing, and lower prices, on our dish towels, totes and art prints.
Q. What one product from your 2014 releases turned out to be really hot and why?
A. People are loving our “Stuff To Do Today” notepad. It’s a to-do list with a wink, and it’s also inspiring without being cheesy, which is something I often try to do with my work.
Q. Which piece do you feel reflects the overall direction of your line?
A. Gosh, that is a good question, and I’m honestly not sure of the answer. Is it weird to say all of it? I’m trying to stay pretty consistent with my aesthetic, because I think it’s important for a young stationery and gift brand to have an ownable look and feel.
Q. Do you have a personal favorite from your new offerings?
A. I’m really partial to the Humble Pie apology card.
Q. What other designers, music and movies inspire you?
A. Illustrator Lisa Congdon. Brock Davis, who also worked in advertising forever and is now a freelance illustrator/creative director/Instagram god/artist-at-large. He just has brilliant ideas. My mom, Ruth B. McDowell, who’s a pioneering art quilter. I fall asleep during 90 percent of movies, which my screenwriter boyfriend finds very irritating. Musically I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m sort of stuck in 1995.
Q. If you couldn’t do this, what would you do instead?
A. Move to Tokyo and open a cat café.