hallmark greetings: slouching towards middle america

by Art Chantry (art@artchantry.com)

i once had the opportunity to visit the hallmark card company headquarters in kansas city, missouri. they actually PAID me handsomely to drive over (i lived across the state in st. louis at the time) and show my work and talk about what i do. they they wined me and dined me and gave me the grand tour. it was really cool.

hallmark is a remarkable company. they really take care of their employees. for instance, they will help you actually buy a house! they set up all sorts of ‘in-house’ departments (toy shops) like silkscreen shops, printing shops, paper making shops, sculpting shops, engraving (!) shops, collections, art work, classes, etc. etc. etc. then they encourage you do get outside freelance clients and actually work on them during company time! they really WANT you to be happy. they even took over most of downtown kansas city and set up temperature controlled “habit-trail” type elevated walkways, so you an go to shops and restaurants and movie theaters in the dead of winter or the heat of summer and never really have to leave the corporate campus! wanna break? go see a movie!

AC:they've never really hired freelancers much in their entire existence. they really have NO idea of what the market or the freelance world is like. they started to attempt to break into hiring freelancers about the time i visited because of the braindead quality they were getting from their employees. they even hired an "outside" design art director person" for the first time ever. it was a big mistake and they hired a complete fake who was a class A#1 bullshitter. that person just sucked money out of them and gave them little but drek in return (like a master freelancer can do). so after that they quit the freelance market again. they tried to 'modernize' they got burned because they were so naive. so, your experience really speaks of that problem. they really need new blood, but it's not likely to happen anytime soon. like mark twain said about cats: "once you see a cat jump on a hot stove, you'll never see that cat jump on a hot stove again! but, you'll never see it jump on a cold stove, either."

so, how come after i finished my little presentation, nearly a dozen of the staff artists came up to me and BEGGED me for a job? they SHOVED their portfolios into my face and PLEADED to help them escape. very very strange. and very very scary.

the big problem with the place is that the work you do – day in and day out – is aimed at 35 year old single women. period. there is no other demographic of any size for greeting cards. it’s the most brain dead, smarmy, insipid taste level imaginable. everything you do has to be tested with that demo and if they don’t go for it, it’s gone. ALL of you creativity goes down a huge toilet. you make endless embarrassing crap. you can’t even show your mom!

now, that doesn’t mean they don’t want you to be creative. in fact, they realize the dissatisfaction and how that results in bad work and second rate concepts. that’s why they encourage freelance. that’s why they encourage all those amazing technologies and collections and feature speakers (a regular event). the company is desperate to keep you there, to hold on to your talent. most everybody either falls asleep or ‘zombyfies’ or runs screaming from the city. such is the dilemma of hallmark.

one of the niftiest things i encountered there was the archives. hallmark saved everything! they buy the total rights ot the images as well. so, they have original illustrations and artwork dating back generations of amazing talents. it’s been warehoused until recently, when they hired a conservator to haul it out an preserve it in a safe environment – and then scan it for their private data files. the idea is that they want the staff to go into these files and make new cards with the old images (since they own the rights). they will even publish lines of greeting cards that they know can’t and won’t sell – just to keep the staff interested in their work!

that means having a chance to work with people like norman rockwell, chuck jones, al coker (and most of the mad magazine staff), salvador dali, winston churchill, even jackie o (!) (who did a special line of paintings for hallmark cards. who knew?). when i looked through the files i actually got to hold these originals in my hands! it was the coolest! imagine being perfectly free to design with these images however you wish!

then try to imagine that you also get to have the opportunity to work with every image that hallmark ever made? all those tens of thousands of crazy, silly, namby-pamby, pretty little pictures that adorned millions of birthday cards and xmas greetings? incredible to imagine – but it’s all there, waiting. but the staff is so braindead that they don’t care. they just download a lame stock photo and slap on a standardized stock holiday phrase selected from their endless list of stock phrase. so sad.

for instance, the archivist has been sorting out the artists by name and placing the collections of images into acid-free boxes, with the name on the edge and placed on endless shelves alphabetically. in one section, i noticed one single woman’s name on , maybe a fifty or more boxes. it was like she had

ole row to herself. i wasn’t totally unfamiliar with the name, so i peeked inside.

what i found were thousands of pictures of teddy bears, done in watercolor, gauche, oils, pencil, tempera, whatever. big ones, small ones, color, b&w. teddy bears holding balloons, teddy bears riding bicycles, teddy bears eating ice cream. it turns out that this woman had worked for hallmark for over forty years and did nothing but teddy bears. she was the world’s foremost and greatest illustrator of teddy bears! totally swallowed by hallmark. nobody knew her name. yet, we all lived with her work all of our lives. amazing but true!

so, that’s the sort of stuff laying buried in that mega-plex. the cream of the crop of american illustration. the most important image file in our history. the stuff our dreams were made of (like this little VD card). all belonging to hallmark. all scurried away in little boxes just begging to be resurrected. slouching toward middle america to be reborn…

the last contact i had with hallmark was to try to figure out how to get hired. no go. i wasn’t a “team player”, i guess…


AC:, i’m an extremely anti-corporate person. i think they should be outlawed – period. but, i can’t help but feel kinda sorry for hallmark. they’ve been isolated for so long that they really are little children whenever they step out into the big bad design world. they get chewed up by the hustlers that populate our world. shark food….when i visited them, i was told the only thing keeping them afloat were those awful “singing cards” that had little microchip recording devices in them and sang happy birthday to you. yeesh. nice graphics, eh?… like cal arts/disney and the artcenter/detroit connections, KC art schools and colleges act as training centers for the local major league employers hallmark. i imagine a huge percentage of the debt-ridden starving artists churned out by those schools (heavily funded by hallmark, too, by the way) choose the ‘velevet shackle’ of hallmark. instead of struggle, starvation wages, cheap hustle and growing debt, they get all that ‘good life’. but, when they approached me to ‘save them.’ well, that was pretty childish. i mean, they’re adults who can make choices. they’re not babies. so, stop that whining. ya know? it sort of pissed me off. i would have given my left arm to have what they had – boring or not. after a lifetime of struggle and little to show for it but some sort of “notoriety”, man! they looked like they had it pretty good. the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. they couldn’t really handle the truth….

…you know, i gotta say that $400 to design a poster sounds pretty dang good to me. all those thousands of ‘cool’ posters i’ve done over the years (the stuff you probably know me from), if you average them all together probably paid something like $30 a pop. the only reason i did so many was that it takes a LOT of that kind of work to make rent. when collectors buy and sell them on line, i don’t get any of that money. at least conklin has an after market where he can sell his old posters at fine prices. my posters are all just yanked from the walls for free. i knew the job was dangerous when i took it. i’ve always done poster work because i love it. in reality, i do all kinds of really crap design work to make a living….

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