Creative Christmas cards

Posted on November 24, 2011 by Jon Arnold

An annual holiday tradition in my family is to make our own (hopefully) creative Christmas cards. Here’s the last 17 years of our work that I hope will inspire you to produce your own creative Christmas cards. Enjoy!

(Note: these are presented in chronological order; skip to the end for the good ones :)


Ok, this isn’t mind-blowingly creative, but this was our first pass at actually designing a Christmas card rather than just shooting a nice family photo (not that there’s anything wrong with that — there’s not!)

The lesson: Your Christmas card doesn’t have to be some wild design in order to be meaningful and highly satisfying.


No real improvement over the previous year design-wise, but we did enhance the snowflake pattern with a spray varnish (it basically just made the snowflake edges shiny on the paper).

The lesson: The creative part of creative Christmas cards doesn’t just happen in the camera or on the computer; it can happen with a spray varnish, a unique paper choice, or some interesting folding pattern. (I swear I’ll do a pop-up book Christmas card one of these years.)

Christmas 2002

I feel like this was the year we turned a corner with a pretty unique concept, and this remains one of my favorite Arnold Christmas cards. Perhaps what is most surprising to me is how little Photoshop work was done here (I just had to remove the camera from the reflection). And this was old-school film, folks; I didn’t have a million digital takes to get it right, I just got lucky.

The lesson: Sometimes things turn out way better than you planned simply due to dumb luck. Celebrate it when that happens.

Christmas 2003

That Christmas we were expecting our third daughter, so I went with a “this is the present we’re getting this year” idea. I still like the concept, but this has been my least favorite card. I think I did a crap Photoshop job, and overall it feels contrived. The only thing that gives it a hint of genuine charm is the pointing finger of my then-youngest daughter. Again, more luck.

The lesson: The lesson is either 1) it doesn’t matter how great your idea is if it’s not properly executed, or 2) sometimes your ideas aren’t as great as you think they are.

Christmas 2004

I think this was a step up in our creative Christmas card endeavor, and also the first of a slightly subversive, anti-commercialism tone that would appear in later Christmas cards as well. This was also the year I finally figured out the lighting technique for a pure white background right out of the camera, so I was thrilled to get to use it here.

The lesson: Lighting is everything.

Christmas 2005

This year we wanted to incorporate a little bit of family news into our Christmas card, so we made a board game. The descriptions on the game board corresponded with the events of the year. And yes, we even included game pieces. I had a lot of fun making all of this, but it took too long and was starting to feel like overkill.

The lesson: Don’t get carried away. Keep your ideas manageable so that the whole process stays fun.

Christmas 2006

This was the year our business, our family, and life in general seemed to have gotten hectic and complicated. It was a tough year, but I’ll bet no one outside looking in would have noticed. But isn’t that how we all are?…putting up a certain facade on the outside, but inside we’re a bit of a mess? Seemed like a perfect idea for a Christmas card, though! The “picture” on the front cover was actually cut out, letting the smiling family from the inside show through. Open the card, however, and one sees the real picture. (I love those burning curtains!)

The lesson: Being real trumps being creative.

Christmas 2007

Ok, I’m not going to feign humility here: we nailed this one. And I don’t mean just the actual card, I mean the whole experience of making it. Our girls were old enough to participate and have fun during the photo shoots, and being a huge movie buff, I loved the whole action-movie metaphor of family life. It was a lot of work, but we had a blast making it, which I think gave us all an extra sense of togetherness and ownership in this annual Christmas card tradition.

The lesson: Think of a creative Christmas card idea that hits upon your particular interest, and you’re bound to execute it masterfully (or at least have a lot of fun working on it).

Christmas 2008

I got this idea from one of my daughters’ Where’s Waldo books, of course. Here we are acting out different events and details from the previous year, and the card itself included a poem of what to hunt for in the picture. I knew this would be a bit of a Photoshop challenge but it was fun and satisfying to see it all come together. The photo shoot was one of those fun family activities that I’ll never forget.

The lesson: Feed the kids first for maximum fun and cooperation. See that pizza? That wasn’t just a prop; that was dinner.

Christmas 2009

Time to take another jab at commercialism (the inside caption read “May your only excess be of peace and love”). Our photo shoot, unfortunately, was going nowhere.  Everyone was a tad grumpy and it was showing, so we changed our strategy and made it into a game. With everyone lined up on the other side of the room, we set the camera timer for a couple seconds and then would run to the couch trying to get in place before the shutter fired. Just a few tries at this, and we got our shot. And had fun.

The lesson: Your best photos will come when you’re having fun, something no amount of Photoshopping can fake.

Christmas 2010

I think my favorite card is still the Maximum Turbulence DVD from 2007, but our 2010 card is a close 2nd. We had a lot of fun as a family making it, and I like the anti-commercialism vibe that it took on. Producing this card also turned out to be a notable Photoshop challenge with that plastic packaging effect. I can honestly say that doing this card stretched my Photoshop skills, so that felt good too. (Watch a time lapse video of this card being made.)

The lesson: Don’t overlook the simple things you can do once the card is printed.  While I love the Photoshop work on this card, I was struck at how much rounding the corners and adding a hole to the printed card made it feel like real packaging.


My family and I had been traveling in an RV starting in the summer of 2011, so we knew we wanted to do something travel related. For the first time in a decade, however, I was plumb out of ideas. Fortunately Amy came up with a great concept: a mosaic made from our trip photos, and as a postcard no less.

I did just a little tiny bit of color enhancement in Photoshop to bring out the tree, but all the hard work was done by MacOSaiX, a wonderful free photo mosaic app. When (if?) we return home from our travels, I’m going to make a full size poster of this; it’s mesmerizing to look at all the little photos close up.

The lesson: While I’m super please with the overall design of this, what is most satisfying is how appropriate it was for us this year (the travel photos, the postcard, etc.)  Clever card ideas are great, but they should also have meaning.


The flip-side of this card had the quote “Time is a circus, always packing up and moving away” along with a personal message “Hoping you’ll make the most of every moment this Christmas season.” The traveling circus idea seemed like an appropriate allusion to our RV travels, while the inside life-is-short sentiment is sort of a mantra now. I love old-time-y posters, so I thought the design would come easier than it did. In truth, this was new design territory for me and I’m sure I anachronistically mashed up elements from disparate time periods. No matter though; I like the way it turned out and I’m glad to have another memorable snapshot of my family’s history.

The lesson: Don’t be afraid to spend $25 for the right font if it will make or break the design. (I’m so cheap — I never buy fonts, but in this case I’m glad I did.)


Our family’s epic two-year RV trip came to end this summer, so I wanted to do a Christmas card to commemorate that. Unfortunately, I turn into a real Debbie Downer when I think about how much I miss traveling and how we have no idea what our family’s next step is. But then the metaphor of a blank canvas emerged, which had a more positive ring to it. This might not be our most visually stunning card, but it so accurately captures the state of our family and how lucky we are to have each other.

The lesson: Before spending hours of your precious life pursuing an idea, spend a few minutes on a mockup to make sure the design will even work. While five hands simultaneously working on a painting sounded good, I needed to see it. Here is my 5-minute Photoshop proof-of-concept which suggested to me that I could pull it off.


As the cover states, we are up to our necks in home remodeling so I admittedly cut a couple corners on this card to save time. For example, the family photo was a simple outdoor snapshot that took a whole three minutes, and our signatures were recycled from the previous year’s card. I did, however, spend a fair amount of time designing the house cut-out and making sure that it could actually be put together. Because I spend so much of my life designing for the virtual world, it was quite satisfying to design something physical that could be cut out and finished with my own two hands. I also like the interactive nature of this card — that our recipients, if they so chose, could enjoy the small creative challenge of assembling a paper cut-out house.




The lesson: For years, we’ve used local print shops to print our cards, but costs have increased to a level that I can no longer stomach. I’ve looked at some of the online photo-printing services (which also print cards) but it looks like they insist on branding MY cards with THEIR logo. That’s a deal-breaker…just not my thing. A site called was my answer this year. Good pricing (almost half of what I was paying for local printing), fast service and excellent quality.


2015 was a great year, but it was one of adjusting to a much busier family life and being pulled in our own separate directions. Having each of us on our own magazine cover was a great expression of that, and it spoke to the fleeting nature of life’s highlights. It was also the perfect reason to shoot updated portraits, especially since I sort of phoned it in the previous year with that indiscernible, teeny-tiny family snapshot.



Here’s a closer view of our respective covers:


The lesson: It’s ironic — or perhaps appropriate — that our card based on a decline in family togetherness created a spike in family togetherness. It was truly a family highlight for 2015.


As I tried to think of ideas for our 2016 card, I remember feeling grumpy. Probably because I couldn’t think of any ideas. But I also get grumpy at seeing my girls — and civilization in general — constantly staring into their devices, eschewing interaction with the real humans in the room.

And thus an idea was born.

The card had two unfolds that revealed a text-y message one at a time. The inside, fully unfolded, was a wide panorama of social media “noise” juxtaposed with a simple family moment free from technology. The caption read “Hoping you’ll put down the device and be truly social this holiday season.”




The lesson: If you can’t derive any good ideas from being positive, try being a grumpy Gus. Worked for me!

So there you have it — our last 17 years of trying to do creative Christmas cards. I hope this gives you some inspiration for some creative Christmas cards and family traditions of your own.

  • brand

    Some amazing work in here and truly does look like y’all are having fun doing it! Been trying some creative cards the last few years with real young kids – looking forward to some more compliance as the get older perhaps!! But this is definitely inspiring stuff – thanks for sharing these, keeping watch for 2011 Christmas card! p.s. – how do I get on y’alls mailing list! Haha… no, seriously. :)

    • Jon Arnold

      Thanks Brandon. I’m really trying to relax as it relates to involving my kids, because I can get pretty uptight and suck all the fun out of the experience if I’m not careful, simply because my kids aren’t very professional. ;) Good luck with your cards, and glad you found mine inspiring. (Sorry, we keep a cap on our mailing list simply as a cost-control measure :)

      • Amy U

        Love your Christmas cards! I strive to put something a little bit creative out from year to year, but yours take it to a whole new level! I’m dying to know how you “figured out the lighting technique for a pure white background right out of the camera” as you did in 2004. In all my searching/reading, it seems like you need a full studio set up.

        • Jon Arnold

          Thanks Amy. I have two strobe lights of my own, but I had to borrow another set of lights to pull off that white background trick. The “trick” is to light your subject as normal, but then over-expose the background (like a white sheet) with another set of lights. You can see I was so enamored with this effect that I did it again in 2005! :)

  • brand

    Trying this again: This is really amazing work! Been following you over at the other site for a couple of years – LOVE getting to see what is next for y’all – cant wait for 2011′s card! Great to see y’all having so much fun – been trying the creative route the past few years with real young ones and it has been interesting – cant wait until they are a bit more compliant! Thanks so much for sharing and how do we get on y’alls mailing list? Haha… No, seriously. :)

  • Jillian Black

    LOVE your cards! Can you share this years?

    • Jon Arnold

      Thanks Jillian…I’ll post this year’s in the next day or so. Warning: it’s not nearly as complex as previous years — this was the least amount of time I’ve spent on a card in a while — but I really like the way it turned out. Stay tuned :)

  • Anonymous

    I love all your ideas! I may “steal” a few! Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Jon Arnold

      that’s exactly why they’re here. :) Steal away…

  • Anonymous

    amazing, you just inspired me… to steal your ideas! (and maybe come up with 1 of my own!)

    • Jon Arnold

      Great! :)

  • Barb Pryor

    Thanks for the time travel. I think we started getting the cards in 2003. I can’t decide which is my absolute favorite, but I remember the “shock and awe” when we opened the “DVD” and case. Having said that, the sweet faces on the Christmas ad card definitely hit the top of the sweetness scale. All in all, the Arnold Christmas Card is one of our holiday traditions!

    • Jon Arnold

      Thanks Barb. I don’t think I’ll be able to top the DVD one…that was my favorite.

  • Heather Kozuch

    I just started a card service with my photography business. which i am very excited about. I love adding one of my landscapes to a person card. it shows that I care and also shows off my work. Can not wait to do Christmas cards this year..

    • Jon Arnold

      yeah i think cards like that mean more when it’s one’s own work!

  • debbie shipley

    Oh how I wish my parents did this…or I did it as a parent….what fun I had just seeing the progression and the ideas!

  • Sally M

    2011 card: I can make the collage, but have not been able to get the tree part like you have. Any suggestions? Did you “draw” the tree yourself and what did you use beside color bar to green? I have photoshop 7

    • Jon Arnold

      Sally, I used a free Mac app called “MacOSaiX” that does all the work. Attached is the target image I created and used. Your target image needs to be pretty simple. Good luck!

  • Tina Betzold Fisher

    I absolutely LOVE your card ideas! I’ve been trying to do the same and come up with something creative for our family for the past 5 years. The Happy Family and DVD are my favorites!! Way to go! I think I’m going to try one of these two this year just for the awesomeness!!

  • Anna Bell

    great ideas !!!

  • Kelly

    You are my Adobe hero… Amazing work and talent!

  • Maureen Thistle

    WOW!!! Youa re so creative and REAL! I love them all but Christmas 2006 is my fave! My jaw (literally) dropped when I saw the kitchen!

    • Jon Arnold

      Thanks. Sadly, that was the actual state of our kitchen…that wasn’t staged!

  • sally

    I have had fun with the Xmas mosaic but have not been able to get the coloring that I like. I am using a PC mosaic program and have photoshop. What is the tiny photo enhancement you used? Did you use 250, 500 or 1000 tiles? It is very addictive trying to get it just right with so many options!

    • Jon Arnold

      I think I have less than 500 images in the final photo, but it’s drawing from a collection of photos of several thousand. Good luck! :)

      • sally

        What photo enhancement did you use?

        • Jon Arnold

          I’m not sure what you mean by “photo enhancement”. (?) I just let the mosaic program do it’s thing based on the photos I gave it to work with.

          • sally

            In your note, you said you used ” a tiny bit of photo enhancement in photoshop to bring out the tree.

          • Jon Arnold

            Oh right…I just saturated the blues and greens a little to make the shape of the tree pop out a bit more from the blue background. This was a minor adjustment and had no profound impact on the final photo.

  • Cris

    I LOVE your 2002 Xmas photo ball! How did you make the photo look like it belongs inside the ball? I’ve been searching for a way to do that but have been unsuccessful in finding instructions. You’re very creative and I enjoyed seeing the progression of your yearly cards. Thank you.

    • Jon Arnold

      Thanks Cris. For that 2002 card, there’s really no trick to it…that is my family’s actual reflection in the ornament with our christmas tree in the background. All I had to do was remove the camera from the reflection (the camera was on a tripod, placed between my wife and me)

      • bhull3

        Hi Jon,

        Great photos! Great ideas! In the 2002 image, was your light source positioned camera left, slightly out in front of you? What was it?

        Thanks for your postings. They are a great inspiration!

        • Jon Arnold

          Yep, that’s exactly right. In fact, you can even see the shape of the umbrella in the far left in the reflection.

  • M J

    I love your page! You and your family are very creative :)