A Designer's Guide to Gift Giving

The best gift I’ve ever given was a 1940s Parker 51 fountain pen. It was a birthday present to my best friend Taylor, a PhD student with a professorial look — round tortoise shell spectacles, elbow-patched blazer, a leather briefcase and loafers. The pen not only rounds out his look, but it's one of his favorite gifts of all time.

I haven’t always been a great “gifter.” For years I’d struggled to give great gifts because I was paralyzed by indecision, constraints, or lack of inspiration — until I discovered five principles to guide me. Follow all five principles and you’ll give the perfect gift. But there’s just one absolutely essential principle that you have to follow to give a great gift, and it turns out it’s also the easiest.

1Fulfill an Unknown Need

If I had asked Taylor whether he needed a vintage fountain pen, he probably would have said no. If he had said yes and I got it for him anyway, the gift would have felt transactional, like giving cash. The key here was that his need for the Parker 51 was unknown to him.

Identifying an unknown need requires curiosity and empathy — just like design research. What do they value? Why? Look for patterns in the stuff they buy or own — what are they not getting for themselves? What will their experience be like once they have this gift? Can you imagine and feel how enriched their life will be once they have it?

Giving a gift that fulfills an unknown need is tremendously impactful. But if this sounds intimidating, believe me, I couldn’t agree more. This is the most difficult principle to fulfill, but entirely worth the effort. If you’re finding this one impossible, fear not, they get easier.


2Give a High-Quality, Functional Gift

The Parker 51 isn’t any old pen; it was “The World’s Most Wanted Pen” of the 1940s! This American-made pen is functionally superior to many pens in its class. It’s not only high quality, it performs an important function — it enables Taylor to enjoy writing by hand again.

Giving a high-quality gift that performs an important function is also incredibly powerful. I’ve successfully gifted high quality soaps, socks, and toothbrushes, so it doesn’t have to be a rare vintage pen to fulfill this principle.

3Give a Beautiful, Unique Gift

If you’ve never seen a Parker 51, I highly recommend googling it. The black barrel with silver bejeweled cap is arguably one of the most elegant and timeless designs ever. But its beauty isn’t merely its physical aesthetic: the more you write with a fountain pen, the more the nib that regulates the flow of ink conforms to your specific writing angle and pressure. The effect is that your pen becomes truly personalized.

Beautiful and unique gifts like works of art can be tricky if you and the person receiving the gift don’t appreciate the same aesthetics. Be sure to acknowledge their preferences before imposing yours, or do some research to see whether other people objectively agree. In any case, take risks. It’s better than being overly conservative.

4Give a Gift That Does Good

It’s easy to see how mass consumerism can cast a negative light on the act of gift giving. But the Parker 51 embodies the desire to cultivate long-lasting relationships with our earthly possessions — to love and care for one pen keeps Taylor from discarding hundreds of disposable ones.

If all else fails, give a gift that is socially responsible, sustainable, or creates social impact. At minimum, both you and your giftee should feel good about making that kind of contribution.

5Tell a Meaningful Story

“This pen,” I told him, “will always be your best writing instrument. It will only get better with age. And may it also serve as a symbol of our friendship.”

At least, I was aiming for something to that effect.

The point is, without my story, this Parker 51 serves no purpose beyond its function and beauty. With my story, the gift elevates our friendship, and the pen itself.

A gift without a story is like a punch line without a joke. It’s absolutely essential that you say something about your gift. Provide context. Tell your “giftee” why you got it for them, how you found it, how it made you feel when you saw it. And tell them before they open it so there is anticipation. If you only fulfill one of these 5 principles, let it be this one.

The Parker 51 is the last pen Taylor will ever need. It’s a beautiful, functional, meaningful, and sustainable gift.

This holiday season, I urge you to try and give your best gift ever.

Steve Selzer
Steve Selzer
Steve Selzer

Steve is a former Creative Director based in San Francisco, Ca.

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