October 10, 2017
I have two very clear memories from when I was little and I wonder if they will resonate with you. The first is of a girl that I was at school with when I was maybe seven or eight, and she was called Elizabeth Fry and had beautiful long ginger hair. I thought it was just amazing that her parents had found a car that happened to have the word FRY as the last three letters of the registration plate, I mean what were the odds?
One January she returned to school with a full set of colouring pencils, at least 500 of all the colours (okay, my adult brain realises it was probably no more than 30 pencils) and each one was embossed in gold with her full name. ELIZABETH FRY. Right there, in glittery gold on a rainbow of fun. I was in total awe of how this was even possible. It's pencils, but with your name on! And I admit I was so jealous. I'd have given my right arm to be sat at my school desk, swinging my long, red locks, choosing one of twenty types of pink to colour in my unicorn, with a pencil that was clearly just mine.
Elizabeth's parents were obviously pioneers of personalisation and way ahead of trend.
The other memory I have was of a t-shirt that I had when I was a little younger. Sky blue, with a cartoon dog on the front, complete with a collar and a little tag that identified him as 'Patch'. Over the dog, in a bold slab serif font, was my first name, NICOLA (this was before Betsy was adopted as a nickname obviously) and it related to nothing at all on the t-shirt and I'm sure for a while I thought the dog was called Nicola too, before I found the tag that is. But it was definitely a Seventies thing to have a t-shirt with your name on it. I've watched old episodes of the Red Hand Gang, it wasn't just me. I loved that t-shirt in the way that only a five year old can love a t-shirt and somewhere in a box in the loft, I still have it.
For a really, really long time, this is what personalisation meant. It was a case of just adding a name, and not necessarily in any kind of meaningful way. (Although I totally get the school pencils thing from a practical *NameAbsolutelyEverythingThatMoves* perspective.)
Fast forward a couple of decades and the IT revolution has put technology, skills and most importantly, machinery into the hands of people who simply couldn't afford it or access it before. And when you put that machinery into the hands of creative artists and designers, whoa, look out world.
I want to briefly tell you about a friend and amazing designer and business owner, Kyleigh Orlebar, owner of Kyleigh's Papercuts. She trained as a graphic designer and honed her skills for some twenty years before she even launched her own business. That training included such highlights as hand drawing each and every letter that she needed on projects, learning the swoop and shape of every letter of fonts such as Gill Sans, or carefully placing individual letters from a letraset, judging the space between every placement in a methodical and meticulous way. Until macs came along. With every shiny new Apple release, another process was made easier and quicker and jobs that used to take weeks could now be completed in hours.
Take Kyleigh’s best seller - the Personalised Family Tree. Family trees are designed around the family names themselves (not simply typed onto a branch on a template) and with up to 7 names per tree and endless combinations of characters making up names, it’s understandable no two trees are ever the same. There is no quick way to approach the tree design or clever computer trickery (no “GENERATE DESIGN” button!). Kyleigh maintains she starts each one with a blank sheet of paper (that’s a blank sheet in Adobe Illustrator of course). It is her decades of design training which has allowed her skills to be honed in such a way for her Family Tree Papercuts to be a viable commercial personalised product. A product which is available machine cut, cut by Kyleigh’s fair hand and trusty scalpels or indeed available as a Do It Yourself template if you fancy getting all whizzy with sharp things! Imagine how long it would have taken in the pre-tech world?
Now I’m not saying that there isn’t still a market out there in the personalised world that is just about putting a name on something and ticking the job done box. Honestly, sometimes that’s all you want and all you need. But in the grander gestures of what we want our gifts to say about us and our relationship with the receiver, personalised means so much more than adding a name. Spoiler alert – sometimes it means not “personalising” anything at all – but more on that later.
And you know this is where Notonthehighstreet.com came in. The founders, Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish, recognised really quickly that there was an army of artisans and crafters out there, regularly pitching up at markets with their wares, able to pretty much customise anything they made for individual customers. The only snag was you'd have to go back next week to collect your purchase.
In a move that took the giftware industry by storm, Holly and Sophie put their faith and their bank accounts into building a platform that could host multiple artisans (5000 at last count) and service millions of customers, but that crucially allowed you the space and functionality to capture vast amounts of personalisation in one visit. And then your item was posted to you, no need to make a return visit to a market that maybe you had only been passing during a visit to seldom seen Auntie Doris.
It seems like a blindingly obvious thing to have done with hindsight, but it was completely groundbreaking at the time. And even now, some eleven years later, people are still trying to catch up. As a seller on a variety of marketplaces including notonthehighstreet I'm amazed that no-one has yet been able to come close to it, let alone better it. The beauty is in the tech.
There is literally no limit to the amount of variations that we can now offer on our products (unlike on Etsy, as much as we love it, where we can only offer two variables) and the world has become your oyster.
Take our 'Story of Us' print for example. I created this design as a wedding anniversary gift for my partner so I really went to town on it in a way I probably wouldn't have if I'd started with a commercial perspective. I built the circular design with 17 'chapter headings' that served as bullet points of our life together so far. That summer we spent living in East London, working and playing hard; our days at Keele University and the bars and hang outs we frequented; the time when just four of us booked out an entire restaurant and ate with the chef who became a good friend; our wedding song; our much loved pooch; the arrival of the small miracle in our lives when we became three. Then I added three illustrated landmarks to break up the text. And it all looked a little flat in one colour so I chose some text to highlight in a different colour. It was perfect and it made him cry.
I realised I could offer everything I had designed in this print, on one product page on my storefront. We have a huge colour chip selector so you can have one colour for the majority of the text and another colour for just highlighted words. We have a page of illustrations that you can choose from to add detail to your story. And of course there are 17 'chapters' for you to fill with your own text to create a story that is totally yours and extremely personal. You can have it unframed or you can choose from three different types of frames to complete the gift. Oh, you can see a video of it being made, here.
It was an instant best seller. How could it not be really? Here was a personalised print that you could choose every single element of. Make the colour match the décor of your home, or your favourite team’s colours if you must! You can bring out all the important highlights, whatever those happen to be for you. It reflected your very own story, in your own words. (Because you know that feeling when sometimes something fits about 90% of your story and you jump on it, like a song maybe, and you just conveniently ignore the bits that don't fit, and the slightly teenage phrasing? Yes, this isn't that.)
This level of creating someone’s story, in their colours and words, is a world away from just adding names to that poster of the kiss in Paris by Robert Doisneau (especially as we’ve never even been to Paris together anyway).
Prints were the first and most obvious area that exploded with all the personalisation options. In part, because your raw materials are a blank sheet of paper, a really good art printer, and your imagination. It allowed people to be insanely creative whilst holding very little in the way of stock. Inevitably there is a huge range in the quality of personalised prints that are out there and I’ll admit, we’ve had a fight on our hands to keep our share of this booming market. You can read all about what makes a Betsy Benn personalised print something special in this blog post here.
It wasn’t long until personalisation started appearing on all manner of unusual products and in unusual ways. Jewellery went from being simply engraved, to containing hidden messages, sometimes in code. Christmas stockings were not only embroidered with a name but also made out of a much loved and long-since outgrown item of the child’s clothing. We really are in a brilliant time in retail you know. We can have that one to one relationship between maker and customer, create something beautiful together, make the perfect gift for your perfect friend and we can do all that and connect from literally anywhere in the world. Of course, this couldn’t have happened before the internet and before the platforms existed to connect us. So YAY for the tech!
And with each bit of new tech that comes down in price, and more affordable to the artisans, boy do you see an explosion in beautiful personalised gifts! A prime example from the last 3-4 years had been with laser cutters. (“Wait, what? You cut things with a laser? Are you a Bond villain?”)
Laser engraving and cutting machines have gotten so good and so small lately that there are ‘desktop’ versions – I kid you not. And with any massive development in the tech, inevitably the price comes down, making it affordable for the artists and then we really get to play and have fun! I’ve seen laser cut wooden bow ties, jewellery, notebooks, leather belts, hair bands, wedding dresses, flip flops that leave messages in the sand as you walk across the beach, innovative lighting shades and about a gazillion different types of greetings cards. I asked the lovely Bryan at Trotec (where our lasers are from) what the oddest thing he’d ever engraved was. He said, he’d engraved the banana he’d brought in one day for a snack. It looked amazing, but the aroma was something else!
Of course, we love our laser. We’ve played with greetings cards, toyed around with keyrings and made some notable notebooks and passport covers over on our sister site, Luna Studio Designs. Where we found our niche though was in personalised Christmas ornaments and customised coastlines.
Ah, Christmas. How much I love you – yes, I am a self-confessed Christmas nut. So you put a laser cutter in my creative paws and Christmas gets a full treatment! Our range of personalised Christmas tree decorations and ornaments always start from that feeling of being slightly uninspired by the range offered on the high street. I used to make an annual pilgrimage to the Christmas departments of Liberty and Selfridges amongst others and once upon a time I’d be coming home with handfuls of beautiful Christmas ornaments. But, not so much lately. I pined for something unusual, meaningful and of course beautiful. So we set about designing our own using all sorts of wood as a base. One of our favourites is cedar wood, because that herby smell is just heaven and the pattination is, quite frankly, gorgeous. Though we’ve also used bamboo (technically a grass as you know), walnut, eucalyptus, poplar, sapele and pine – because the synergy of making a Christmas tree ornament out an actual Christmas tree was too splendid to pass by. We team the beautiful natural woods with some metallic elements as well, in bronze and silver, giving that extra special Christmas sparkle to our Moon and Constellation inspired ornaments.
Of course, because we can, we make most of them personalised or adaptable. This is where the messaging becomes really important and lifts a tree decoration from being just another thing with a name on it. Nowhere is that more true than our Baby’s First Christmas ornament. I thought for a long time how we could word something like a letter from Father Christmas to a newborn. Something that would stand the test of time and would be a relevant memory to that child as they grew older. This is what it says;
The Man in the Moon sent me the wonderful news of your arrival. Welcome to your very first Christmas! When you get big enough to write, do send me a letter. I love letters. Grow well little one. I’ll check on you from time to time.
Santa xx (or you could choose Father Christmas depending on how you refer to the big guy in the red suit)
We’re really pretty happy with it. It talks to the main characteristics of the legend that is Father Christmas – that you can communicate with him by sending him a letter, that he checks up on you to see you’re being good and that he brings gifts – his first being a beautiful Christmas tree ornament, of course. You can see the full range of our awesome laser cut and engraved Christmas ornaments here, both personalised and not.
Ah yes, remember when I mentioned that sometimes creating the most meaningful gift might mean not “personalising” anything at all – well sometimes we don’t personalise things. I know, I know, let’s pick ourselves up and I’ll expand.
Quite often really, the beauty of a gift is the story behind it. A feeling, a shared history, a moment, a dream, a wish, encapsulated in one perfect present, maybe with a bow on top. This was the starting point we came from when we developed our coastline art prints and wall hangings. If you think about the important moments in your life you might decide that there is a great song that represents that year, or that moment, or there’s possibly a movie or a book that summed up that time in your lives and even now connects you all in a feeling, years later. But you might not have a movie or a song or a book. The one thing that I guarantee you have though, is a place. Whatever happens in our lives, it has a location, a geographical pinpoint. And when I looked at the significant events in our lives, you know what – a lot of them happen by the coast! Maybe it’s the islander mentality in us, but we all seem to like to hop to a decent stretch of beach for inspirational moments, and sometimes for our whole lives.
So with our laser cutter and our gorgeous woods and a luscious colour range of acrylics, we set about creating an abstract expression of a coastline that you could choose. Technically, we are not personalising it, the seas created the bays and inlets after all. But it’s personal and meaningful to you because of what happened there and what the place has come to represent. It speaks to the history between you and the moments you have shared. To find and give something that embodies your relationship like that, we think is the best kind of gift there is.
And it was all made possible by putting the machines in the hands of the artists. Who knew?
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April 15, 2020
We thought for a long time about whether to have a break, how that would look, what kind of business we would come back to if we did and what our impact is on the other businesses we work with and our customers.