Navigating the Politics of Holiday Design Themes

In early November, a man released a video on his Facebook page lambasting Starbucks for their new holiday cup designs. The complaint was that Starbucks, in redesigning their cups for their featured holiday drinks, was taking “Christmas” out of its design and placating the “politically correct.” Over the next several days, Starbucks experienced quite a surge in popularity with many people shouting over whether or not this was the case and whether or not Starbucks was a true American company.

Oh brother.

With the “War on Christmas” raging on (according to some people,) companies–even moreso, creative teams–have to be delicate about their holiday designs, themes, and messages. It’s typically not feasible to let the holidays pass without at least putting up a “Happy Holidays” message, but…when? Putting it up on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day is essentially the equivalent of saying, “Merry Christmas,” but putting it up on another day can feel arbitrary. Worse yet, what kind of themes do you use?

The first rule of thumb when navigating difficult politics surrounding holiday themes is to figure out who your company’s target audience is, and more importantly, what your company stands for. If your company is religiously affiliated in some way, this battle could be a no-brainer for you, especially if there is a particular holiday celebrated by your company’s religious affiliation.

For the rest of us, we must first ask the question, “Do we care?” If the answer is that no, we don’t really care about whether or not this design gets us in trouble, we don’t care if the “Merry Christmas” folks are upset by our “Happy Holidays,” or we don’t care that the “Happy Holidays” folks feel snubbed by our “Merry Christmas,” then don’t worry about it. But if your company’s reputation is a concern, and that reputation could be helped or hurt based on a holiday message (see: Starbucks,) then it’s time to do some design-dancing. If your target demographic would be hurt by one message or the other, then the answer is pretty simple: use the message that won’t hurt them. If your company cares a lot about social justice, equality, and recognition of minorities, then it’s fair to say that you may need to find a way to acknowledge a variety of them.

There are a variety of holidays that happen in December, and if your company is interested in bringing attention to all of them, you can find a good list here. However, the three major holidays are Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, in that order. An option is to create quick holiday themes for all of them, highlighting the rich culture that accompanies each:

ᐧᐧᐧ Happy ᐧᐧᐧ





Another option, of course, is to put together a simple “Happy Holidays” message and be deliberate about when you schedule it, meaning, don’t schedule it on any one of the major December holidays. You can schedule it at the beginning of the month, or even right in the middle of the month, in between holidays.

The biggest thing to remember is that no matter what message you decide to go with, make sure that it is clear, and that it uses the appropriate iconography. If your “Happy Holidays” really includes a lot of Christmas design, you might just be better off using a “Merry Christmas” message. Similarly, if your Kwanzaa or Hanukkah designs don’t use symbols and icons that are particular to that holiday (and not just that culture,) or if your Christmas design is just red, white, and green, with no other Christmas symbolism, the designs may not be received well. It may instead feel like you’re dodging the importance of the holiday or worse, that you don’t really know that much about the holiday. Stick with symbolism appropriate for the holiday you’re calling attention to, and if you go with “Happy Holidays,” try to focus on more seasonal symbolism like winter, or pictures and symbols that indicate giving or helping.

No matter which holiday message you decide upon, really commit to it. Take the time to do your research: learn more about the holiday, and try to find some symbolism that perhaps isn’t commonly used in holiday designs. Check Pinterest for more inspiration and unique themes or images to use in the graphic pieces. Then once you have an idea, really focus on the sincerity of the message–people pick up quickly on insincerity or, as I like to call it, “half-assery” these days. Even though it’s a holiday message, and even though everyone is doing it, that’s no reason for you to give up on standing out with impeccable design. Avoid being cheesy at all costs, unless it’s completely intentional (we wrote some more on how to work with cheese and design earlier this year.)

Above all, be aware of your work and its impact, and have fun with it! Design has been used to tell stories and start and end wars for centuries, so your role is important, even if it’s only a holiday message.


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