Birthday cards: Everything you need to know, part I

birthday cards

Types of birthday cards

There are three main types of birthday cards to choose from, based mainly on where they are available and how difficult it is to access them.

Standard greeting cards

Standard greeting cards are what you find in the supermarket or department store. They’re probably the first thing you think of when you picture a greeting card. Usually you buy them individually for between $5 and $10, wrapped in plastic and carefully separated into sections based on who the card is for or what the occasion is.

Cards from independent creators

As an alternative to traditional greeting cards, you might opt to purchase cards from an artist, illustrator or designer, either in packs or individually. Some people choose to directly commission an individual or purchase from their studio. More frequently, these cards are purchased from cute little boutiques or art galleries. Most commonly of all, people find these birthday cards online, either on an artist’s website, a design marketplace like Paperlust, or other online location.

Free birthday cards

If you’re on a very tight budget (or a tight time frame!), free birthday cards can be a good way to go. Usually this means creating a DIY birthday card or finding a free birthday card template online that you can print yourself. Whether you design something online or get old school with arts and craft supplies, creating your own birthday cards takes time and effort but is the fast-track to making the card meaningful and personalised.

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When is a birthday card necessary?

It can be tough to know whether or not a birthday card is required in any given situation. In general, a birthday card is required when:

You are going to the birthday party

If you’re going to somebody’s birthday party, it’s good etiquette to show up with a birthday present and a birthday card. It’s also appropriate to substitute a proper birthday card with a smaller gift card that simply says the name of the recipient and ‘happy birthday’, particularly if you are not close to the individual.

You are close to the person celebrating

If the birthday boy or girl is in your immediate family or is a close friend, it’s always a good idea to send them a birthday card. For someone close to you, this applies regardless of whether or not you are going to actually see them on their birthday. Send a card or bring it along next time you see them.

You are seeing someone on their birthday

If you’re going to be seeing someone on their birthday and you know about it in advance, it’s a good idea to have a card to offer them to help make their day special. A gift is nice too, but you could always offer to shout them a coffee or another small gesture along with the card.

You have reason to impress someone

If you’ve got an important client, business connection, or even someone you’re planning to ask out, a birthday card can be a great way to keep in touch and make a good impression. Just make sure you keep it simple and professional to avoid seeming fake or manipulative.
Don’t feel that you have to stick to these occasions, though! If you think a birthday card might be a good idea, go for it. You’re better off giving someone a birthday card that wasn’t technically necessary than failing to give someone a card when it was expected. Besides, everyone loves having their birthday recognised and they’re not going to be offended that you took the time to think of them.

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Choosing a birthday card design

The ideal design of a card really depends on who the recipient is. Birthday cards for friends are always going to be different from birthday cards for clients or for acquaintances. Even within groups, the right choice will be different for every individual: one friend will have very different tastes and preferences from another. This just means that choosing the right birthday card design is an opportunity to show how well you know them.

There are many different types of birthday card designs, and there are four main elements to consider when choosing the right one for the occasion:

Print types

Birthday cards are available in a range of different print types, just like any form of card or invitation. What sorts of print types?

  • Your standard ink-on-paper digital print
  • Foil stamping or raised foil
  • Letterpress or embossing
  • Print on wood
  • White ink
  • Metallic ink

You can also choose to combine some print types, such as letterpress and foil stamping or white ink on wood.

Your choice of print type will usually depend on what’s available, your budget and the design style you are interested in. Premium print types like letterpress and foil stamping tend to go well with more formal design styles, while white ink and print on wood are perfect for more rustic styles.

Paper types

The type of paper a birthday card is printed on has a huge effect on the final feel of the card, literally! A high quality cardstock has some weight to it and feels luxurious to the touch. Birthday cards may have a varnished, shiny appearance, like your average supermarket greeting card, or they may be unvarnished with a grainy paper feel or a linen finish. Unvarnished cards may have smooth edges or rough, torn edges. Any of these options are great, it just depends what you like (and what the recipient likes, of course!) and what design style you are interested in.

Design styles

There are all sorts of design styles to choose from for birthday cards. Some of the most popular include:

  • Vintage, art deco, retro
  • Photographic
  • Watercolour
  • Rustic, country
  • Ethnic, cultural
  • Bold, geometric
  • Modern or classic
  • Floral, botanical
  • Lace, patterned
  • Simple, minimalist
  • Nautical
  • Whimsical, fun
  • Handmade or hand drawn

All of these styles come in variations and different ‘amounts’ of adherence to the style. A nautical card might be a full-on theme across the entire card, or it might simply include some stripes or a boat somewhere in the design. Styles can also be combined. It’s entirely possible to have a rustic floral card or a watercolour patterned design.

Of course, not all card designs fit into these narrow categories. Birthday cards are often based around something the recipient likes. Whether it’s an illustration, a pattern or a photo, everyone loves having their interests recognised. What sorts of interests? Anything! Golf, baking, reading, music, alcohol, footy, gardening, the beach, sewing, cars or motorbikes, a specific type of flower, their favourite country or holiday spot, a TV show or movie…the list could be endless. This is a great opportunity to really personalise the card to their interests.

Another option for personalisation is to create a photo card with a photo of them, the two of you, something they like, or a fun memory you have shared. This is easy to order online (or DIY if you prefer), shows extra effort and will probably mean your card gets pride of place on the fridge or the mantlepiece since it serves as a sort of photo frame as well as a greeting.


Happy birthday cards usually have some sort of tone attached, especially if there is any text in the design or a standard ‘happy birthday’ message printed inside the card. This sort of text can be very sincere and meaningful, or it can be funny and even sarcastic.

Of course, tone isn’t just about wording. An illustration can have just as much tone through a cheeky facial expression or a whimsical drawing style.

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Kids birthday cards

Choosing birthday cards for kids is always a different ball game from choosing cards for adults. When you are choosing a child’s birthday card, remember to take their age into consideration. For little kids think lots of colour, cute drawings or things that will make them smile. If you know their favourite colour or a TV show they’re hooked on, try to get something to match. It’s a good idea to err on the side of caution with age. There’s nothing wrong with getting a cute non-age-specific card for a child (as long as it’s appropriate of course), but a twelve-year-old is likely to be offended by a card they perceive as being made for a small child. If in doubt, send the parent a quick message to check what they’re into. This applies for gift ideas too.

Using a birthday card to amp up the gift

A good card can really help personalise the gift when you’re struggling to find something meaningful. A simple block of chocolate means more if you write in the card “I wanted to get you your favourite chocolate since I know you pretty much keep them in business”. A bouquet of flowers is more meaningful with sweet words in a card that show that you really care and that you didn’t just pick them up on the way coz you forgot. Even something seemingly mundane that you know they’ll like can be the perfect present with a good explanation of why you chose it (“This pepper shaker is exactly like the ones in the hotel in Prague, remember? It’s silly, but it instantly transported me back to the trip and having you by my side for weeks on end”).

This is all great news if you’ve picked out the perfect birthday card but you haven’t got a gift to go with it. The right card really takes the pressure off the gift, since it adds a whole lot of meaning and love and removes that burden from the material things.

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Wording happy birthday cards

Wording happy birthday cards is all about making sure you communicate kind words to the recipient that make them feel loved and happy. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, that can sometimes seem like a lot of pressure. Staring at a blank card and trying to think of something brilliant? Start here.

  • Who are you writing to? It might seem obvious, but start with their name. It doesn’t have to be formal. Call your mate ‘Baz’? Address him as that on his birthday card. It’s weird to suddenly go all formal if that’s not how you normally communicate. Don’t make your friend feel like they’re getting in trouble from their mum.
  • What is your relationship to this person? This sets the tone for the entire birthday card. Do you have a close relationship, or a distant one? Don’t try to force friendly banter if that’s not usually a feature of your relationship, and don’t think you have to try to be formal if you’re usually joking and teasing one another constantly.
  • What do you wish them for the year ahead? This is the best place to start when you’re trying to fill space on a blank birthday card. You probably already wrote “I hope you have a great birthday”, but why not wish them well for the future? Think health, wealth and happiness, but feel free to get creative. You can be specific (“I hope your last semester at uni goes super fast”) or whimsical (“I hope this is the year you finally find a never-ending packet of tim-tams”).
  • Do you have any important memories with this person? You’ve thought ahead, now think back. Do you have any memories you can share? Start with “I’ll never forget the time you…” and then fill in the gaps. This can be serious (“I’ll never forget the time you sat up all night with me the night my mum died”) or silly (“I’ll never forget the time you got drunk and tried to get into the wrong car”).
  • Did you give them a gift? If your card is accompanying a gift, make mention of the gift. This isn’t rude! It helps jog their memory and will help them write a thank you note. Don’t just say “I got you a voucher”, say something like “I hope you’ll have a great time picking out some new music for the next big party at your place.” This is a good way of adding a level of thoughtfulness to your gift. It shows why you chose the gift you did for that particular person.

Want more ideas and examples of birthday card wording and birthday greetings? Come back next time for Everything You Need to Know About Birthday Cards, Part II.

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