How one Emily McDowell card led to a whole lot of empathy around the world.
You might be a new mom still figuring out breast pumping at the grocery store, or a sort-of girlfriend who doesn’t really have a definition for your budding relationship. Maybe you’re just really tired after a long day. In any case, there’s an Emily McDowell card just for you.
Emily McDowell is best known for her series of Empathy Cards, which are often described as “what sick people really want to hear when they’re sick.” Her greeting cards contain the right words for all the impossible sentiments everyone wishes they could articulate and could hear during the most difficult or even celebratory times. Everyone has tried to escape cliché when they want another person to know how much they care, but that luxury seemed unattainable for many of us until Emily McDowell cards were available.
Defining Moments with Words
Emily doesn’t want cancer to define her experience, but her story isn’t complete without mentioning that she was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 24 and went through chemo and radiation. She talks about that time through the lens of greeting cards. Standard store-bought greeting cards at that time in her life never gave her a sense of relief or comfort. Words on the cards read generic, removed, idealized. The cards were like a symbol for the difficulty her friends and family had opening up about their emotions toward her illness.
Finding Creative Direction
Emily is a survivor and remains cancer-free. After her treatment, she was doing creative art direction for advertising agencies. She got into the world of copywriting and found herself smitten with the art form, intrigued by the world of words in advertising.
However, her days of creating campaigns for brands like Lexus left her feeling proud but disconnected from her own interests. So she started drawing again. She’d always had an inclination toward drawing and lettering. And with a background in copywriting, she knew how to string words together, to say the least. Then came the inspiration for Emily McDowell cards.
Then It Happened
After some encouragement from friends, Emily tried something fun and new on the side.
Pre–Valentine’s Day 2011, Emily made a card that didn’t exist yet. The one Etsy happened to share on their Facebook page. The one that went viral, making its way across the internet at lightning speed, unfortunately without her watermark. From CollegeHumor to Huffington Post, everyone was taking note of this little card about seeing someone without really having a title; the speech you give when you don’t want to make a big deal out of doing something nice because you really just like the person, I mean, no, it’s nothing, “forget it.” Emily went from having 100 instant sales on Etsy, to having Etsy on her voicemail asking her to make more cards, to eventually selling 1,700 of this single card. This was just the start.
Three months after her blip of glory, Emily fortuitously ended up at a stationery trade show in New York. She was able to partner with an old friend who had just miraculously expanded their booth at the show and, by some divine decree, needed to fill extra room with products. That one show where Emily McDowell cards filled some space led to her cards being picked up by Urban Outfitters, a major break. But how could a few samples turn into a colossal order that needed fulfilling in a very small window of time? How could a hobby with a few simple cards suddenly become a legitimate business that required studio space, staffing, math crunching and big decision making? Well, with a little help from a few friends and internet followers, Emily formed a crew. Together, they collated cards and shipped her first huge sale. Suddenly, Emily was in business.
The Success Story
It’s now 2017 and you can find Emily McDowell cards, mugs, tote bags, temporary tattoos and other products in over 1,600 stores all over the world. Her writing is a household font — recognizable, relatable and a major relief. All the words so many people never had are suddenly beautifully arranged and printed on cards that you can buy just about anywhere.
And there’s even a book. After the huge success of her Empathy Cards line, she partnered with empathy expert Kelsey Crowe, who created Help Each Other Out, which is “a growing collective of people embracing the idea that being there for others is often easier than we think, it can be learned, and that it matters.” Their book concept was another first of its kind. It wasn’t about healing through a religious or spiritual lens; instead, it just came from people relating to other people. A book that would teach people how to navigate empathy through a straightforward approach.
Emily’s story as well as her cards speak to something so many people search for. Genuine connection, the ability to live out creativity, success, honesty. Her business, her mission, her way of putting words out in the world have touched so many people…because it’s all true.