In 2013, Emily McDowell was figuring out what she wanted to do with her life after quitting her job as a creative director at an ad agency. After opening an Etsy shop to sell her irreverent-yet-inspirational illustrated prints, she made a valentine the likes of which the Hallmark-sanctioned holiday had never seen — a perfect example of her uncanny ability to highlight life’s awkward situations while simultaneously soothing their sting. Now her line of cards, totes, towels, and more employs seven people and is sold in 1,300 stores. When we meet on a Monday morning at her light-filled studio in downtown Los Angeles’s Arts District, where paper lanterns hang from the rafters and colorful prints adorn the walls, it’s the calm before this year’s Valentine’s storm. Over coffee, the self-proclaimed chronicler of the human condition talks modern love, the art of inspiration, and the unassuming card that started it all.
Your Awkward Dating card essentially launched your line, right?
It did, absolutely. It was the valentine you give the person that you’re kind of dating but not really dating. I was like, “I’m just gonna print 100 digital cards and maybe I’ll sell five and those people will be psyched.” Then Etsy posted it on their Facebook page and I sold 1,700.
Why do you think that card resonated with so many people?
Because there was nothing like it out there and it’s such a common situation. Greeting cards in general have been, up until very recently, a really aspirational thing. People buy cards for the relationships they want to have; it’s sort of like the best version of myself giving something to the best version of you. There was very little out there that was reflective of certain situations that are real and common and universal.
Do you draw on your own life for inspiration for your cards?
I do, I draw on my own life, and I draw on friends and family.
Has that ever created any awkward situations for you?
No, because it’s not confessional, I don’t share anybody’s secrets. But a lot of our love cards are based on my own relationship, which my boyfriend is fine with and contributes to and has fun with. A lot of the time now, friends will be talking about something and they’ll be like, “You should do a card about this!” But no, it hasn’t ever caused any weird tension. I’m not writing cards about my mom, which is good, I think. What I do is much more universal, like what it means to be alive as a person in the world and the emotional experiences that come out of that.
What about your customers — do you ever hear funny stories from them? Like, “I got this card and…”
I do actually, especially the Valentine’s cards. I’ve had a couple of people write to tell me that they are now engaged to the person they gave the Awkward Dating card to.
Some of your cards open up Valentine’s Day to single people. Is that a personal mission?
That was something that I wanted to do from the very beginning. I don’t understand why Valentine’s Day can’t just be about appreciating each other as people. When you’re a kid, you give a valentine to everyone in the class, and it’s fun. Then when you shift into adulthood it just becomes about the person you’re dating. If I can help make someone’s Valentine’s Day not suck that would’ve otherwise sucked, that’s great.
Your cards have a knack for touching on the weird, really modern-day specific elements of relationships. Are there any love stories in pop culture — books, movies, TV shows — that you feel are in the same vein?
I just finished watching Transparent on Amazon; it’s awesome. It’s not a Zooey Deschanel–quirky kind of thing, but it very much gets at truths about modern relationships and the modern family.
When it comes to your line, how do you strike a balance between inspiration and sass?
That’s something I try really hard to do. I want to be funny and I want to be real and I want to be inspiring in a non-cheesy way, but without being mean or sarcastic. I’m never going to do jokes about how you look shitty because you’re getting older. I’m not all sunshine and rainbows, but at the same time, there are some spiritual principles that I try to live by that make me a happier person, and I to try to spread that where I can.
What is it about Valentine’s Day that kicks your creativity into high gear?
I love relationships; I think relationships are so interesting. And not just romantic ones, but friendships and every permutation of that. It’s way more fun to write Valentine’s cards than it is to write birthday cards. What else can I say about birthdays that’s not been said already? Relationships are so much riper for insights, and mining that territory is so much more fun.
Which of your new cards are you most excited about?
My personal favorite of the six love cards we released for this year is “Presence in My Pants.” I like the unexpected juxtaposition of the formal look and feel with the silly content — and it just makes me laugh.
*NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER. Promotion is open to legal residents of the 50 United States, District of Columbia, Canada (excluding Quebec), France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, age 18 or older. Entries must be received between 12:01 AM ET (05:01 AM GMT) on January 19, 2015 and 11:59:59 PM ET on January 30, 2015 (04:59 AM GMT January 31, 2015). One prize available: Etsy Gift Card valued at ($500 USD for US residents, $500 CAD for Canada residents, £250 GBP for UK residents, €400 EUR for French and German residents). Odds depend on number of eligible entries received. Skill-testing question required for Canadian residents. Go to etsy.me/win to enter and for Official Rules. Sponsor: Etsy, Inc.