Since 1974, international design firm Pentagram has designed irreverent holiday booklets to send to friends, clients, and colleagues. These glorified greeting cards have included everything from an illustrated guide to Chinese horoscopes to a quiz that matches your personality to a typeface to a simple recipe book. They’re a great antidote to Hallmark: None feature any tropes of the card genre (unless they’re gently parodying these tropes). You won’t find any bubbly Santas or menorahs or awkward family photos here.
Co.Design has put together a slide show of every holiday booklet Pentagram has ever made.* “Our New Year’s greeting has always been a little booklet, almost never keyed to the holidays, but rather imagined as an amusing diversion at–or an outright distraction from–family gatherings,” Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram since 1990, tells Co.Design in an email. “They are never, ever overtly self-promotional.”
Pentagram was founded in 1972, and the holiday card tradition began two years later. In those early days, partners like cofounder Alan Fletcher, John McConnell, and David Hillman (who now runs his own firm) designed many of the cards. Today, all 19 partners worldwide have had a chance to design a card. The card designer of the year is chosen during one of two annual meetings of the partners from all five international offices, at which one partner proposes an idea and gets a general approval. A few months later, at the fall meeting, a near-final version is presented. “At that point, it’s generally too late to change anything, which is a good thing,” Bierut says. “A few times, there have been ideas that have been too obscure or overly complicated, but generally the partners are very indulgent toward the designer,” Bierut says.
Bierut points to Angus Hyland’s 2010 creation as one of the most elegant booklets, called “See Opposite: Twelve Antigrams.” It’s a wordplay puzzle of sorts: an “antigram” is a rare type of anagram, a word with letters that can be rearranged to mean the word’s opposite, like “united” and “untied.” For each of the 12 antigrams, the subject word or phrase is given at the top of the page. Readers work out the antigram with the help of a verbal clue and a whimsical black-and-white illustration.
The firm’s most popular card was from 2009, when it abandoned the analog world: John Rushworth and Naresh Ramchandani created an online quiz that matched your personality to a specific typeface. “This one sounded innocuous when it was proposed, but was turned by John and Naresh into an amazingly and amusingly elaborate production,” Bierut says.
In 2013, Bierut and his product design partner, Daniel Weil, used a reprint of an old piece by one of Bierut’s favorite writers, the humorist Ian Frazier. “It took the form of a legal brief in a product liability suit brought by Wile E. Coyote against Acme,” Bierut says. “It was fun for Danny to retro-engineer all of those amazing Acme products from the Road Runner cartoons.”
The 2014 card, designed by Marina Willer and Naresh Ramchandani, parodies the bane of many a designer’s existence–corporate jargon–in an illustrated seven-verse rap. And the 2015 card, by Angus Hyland and his team, is an upside down map of the world meant to force viewers to question “assumptions about how our world looks and consider how much one relatively minor change can totally change our perspective,” the card’s description reads.
Click the slide show above to check out more than 40 years of Pentagram holiday booklets.
*Updated December 18, 2015, to include Pentagram’s 2014 and 2015 holiday cards.