Welcome to The MVA Studio
Since you’re reading this page we can assume that you have received a single Thank You card from Modern Press or possibly a set of 4 cards directly from us. Thank you for taking the time to visit us either way.
The MVA Studio is a graphic design and marketing agency based in Minneapolis. The MVA was co-founded by myself (Namdev Hardisty) and Kimberlee Whaley in 2003. For most of the last decade, the studio has been a nights-and-weekends gig but in late 2013 we decided to re-launch as a full-time company. We realized that to grow the studio we needed to push our creative capabilities so we invited art director and illustrator J. Zachary Keenan to join as a partner.
We only had 1 project on the docket when Zach joined—a year-end gift for Twin Cities printing house Modern Press. Kelley Frain of Modern Press had asked us to concept and design a gift for their clients that they could product in-house. The project would be a trade—Modern would print a similar scale project for us at the same time that they ran their piece.
A promo piece for a printer is every designer’s dream job. You imagine spot colors, fluorescent inks, die-cuts and unusual folds. You dream of wowing art directors around the country with a virtuoso performance of high-concept and premium production.
Except we didn’t dream of that. We dreamed of creating a piece that would cut through holiday clutter and avoid the recycling bin.
While each member of The MVA has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in either graphic design or photography we don’t use “creative” or “maker” to describe ourselves. We are marketers. We identify a strategic goal and employ whatever means to reach it.
Making a kick-ass piece of print design, while fun, is not a strategic goal.
We wrote in our initial presentation to Modern Press:
“Books, candy, holiday cards, wine, fruit baskets; all of these items are welcome gestures but when the onslaught of gifts arrives at the doors of businesses they start to blur together and lose their uniqueness. Furthermore many of the traditional (and thoughtful) business gifts like champagne, goodie bags, and cards are forgotten in weeks (or days) as they are drank, eaten or recycled.
Our job is to create something that both stands out at this crucial time of year and will not be recycled, eaten or easily forgotten.”
(Now, you might be saying to yourself “But you guys did make a card.” We know, we’ll get there soon enough.)
Drawing on ideas from Seth Godin, Ryan Holiday and Jay Baer’s recent book Youtility, we identified 3 criteria that any concept we created had to meet. Here’s more from our presentation:
1. Useful. Not necessarily practical but something that can be given out any time of year to anyone and they receive value from it whether it solves a problem or entertains them. Not useful for people who buy printing, but useful for people. When someone sees the piece we don’t want their reaction to be “This looks really cool” but “How do I get one?!”.
2. National. We know the world of printers is unstable right now and that the whole reason for a holiday gift is to secure current business and attract new business. We want our gift to be easily distributed outside of the Minnesota market which means it should be compact, mailable with no fuss, and easy to pack a bunch for business trips.
3. Press-worthy. If you want to launch a new product at Amazon (the company not the site) you have to write the press release first. If you can’t state what this product is, who its for, and why its interesting then you find out quickly that there is no “there” there. We don’t need a press release for a holiday gift, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need an interesting story. If we can imagine the blog posts that can be written about this piece then we’ve baked virality directly into the product.
To that end, we came up with 3 ideas that could be produced by The MVA and printed by Modern Press. Concept 2 was a set of blank Thank You cards.
“Could there be a better way to say “thank you for your business” than to give your customers a set of 4 beautifully designed and printed Thank You cards?”
Timing and feasibility certainly played into the selection process but Modern Press ultimately chose the Thank You card set because the idea was so simple and sweet.
It also met our criteria easily:
1. Is it useful? Without a doubt. In fact, its a thoughtful and a genuine gift that solves a a real problem.
2. Can it reach a national audience? Definitely. Its compact, easy to mail and furthermore our customers will help us to spread them nationwide as they mail them.
3. Is it press-worthy? We think so. This is an original idea that (as far as we know) no one has ever done.
We at The MVA liked it so much that we decided that the trade would be to co-brand the cards so that we could use them as well.
Once we settled on the concept we jumped into designing. Zachary produced the illustrated cards and I designed 2 typographic cards. We unified the distinct aesthetics through shared color palettes including a spot orange ink. Each card got a corresponding envelope with a beautiful interior print. We designed a belly-band, mailing label and sourced some cool envelopes to ship them in. We produced everything in record time and sent it off to Modern Press. But we had a made a massive mistake.
What went wrong
We assumed since the concept was chosen that the card sets would be mailed to Modern’s list. We never asked what they were willing to spend on mailing. In the past, their gifts had been mostly handed out face-to-face in the weeks before Christmas but we had specifically wanted to release the cards after New Year’s Day. We had 2 aims: avoid the holiday noise and get people to use the cards by releasing them right as they (or their families) would need them—to say “thank you” for holiday gifts. Modern had never mailed something so substantial before and the costs ended up surprising them.
We scrambled to find a solution that would keep the set intact. We killed the spot color and the interior printing. We tried using a common color on the envelopes so it would be a 1-color job. We traded out the kraft mailers for clear envelopes. We offered to put them together ourselves. Nothing could offset the price of shipping. The last email we got simply said “All of these are great ideas… but it will not fly.”
We were frustrated to suddenly find the project dead but we refused to call it a wash. We tried one more thing over the Thanksgiving break and sent it to Modern Press with this email:
“We took the set and treated them as traditional thank you cards with a message on the inside that expresses appreciation.
We don’t know about the numbers but we think that by knocking the postage down to a First Class stamp that you can keep the printing and finishing at the premium level we initially envisioned. Additionally, you’d only need to print a quarter of what was necessary before. You can use all 4 cards with the same message.
Our copy-writing motivation was as follows:
We want the recipient to—
Know: That Modern will continue to do their best
Do: Keep in touch
We know its disappointing to go from making a real gift to a more traditional Thank You card but the cards are beautiful (and we know the printing will be beautiful) and with the right copy it will be a touching promotion. In 2014 we can figure out how to do the gift and get it into hands without mailing.”
We got an email back immediately that the project was back on.
So, that’s the story of the card that you got. We’re glad that you were so intrigued that you followed the URL.
We have a limited number of 4-card sets with the original blank interiors (so that you can send them to friends and family). Sign up for our mailing list below and we’ll send you one (while we have ’em).
If you’d like to talk to us about how we work or to see a portfolio presentation please call Namdev at 612-308-2279 or email and one of us will get right back to you.
Best of luck in 2014!