A Designer’s 2 Step Guide to Delightful Gift Giving

A Christmas Story, 1983.

Designers are trained to identify needs and solve problems. To quote Simon, we “[devise a] course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”. And, when it comes to holiday gift giving, there are many crappy situations that could use better solutions.

Here are a few examples:

  1. Framily (friend / family / chosen family) shows up with a perfectly-wrapped gift in hand. You have nothing.
  2. That hastily-chosen bottle of Merlot isn’t met with a level of joy you had imagined.
  3. Your best friend is allergic to everything but 24k gold, is a vegan / amateur Canada’s Next Top Chef, or is a Marie Kuomo groupie.

My solution to #2 and #3 had, for many years, been a cranky refusal to gift-give to anyone but those I live with. That sucked. Aside from severely exacerbating the first problem on the above-mentioned list, I also genuinely adore giving. I love buying things for people; I love wrapping; and I love knowing that — for that one brief, perfect moment — I won at gifts. I also find it deeply problematic that the two people who live with me get a silly number of presents, while all the others (equally adored) get nothing.

(Great image :D. Kudos to the designer, who isn’t me.)

Tackling this problem as a designer, I present to you a two-step process for delightful gift-giving.

STEP 1: Use the Design Process to Increase Your Gift Giving Game

  1. Identify Problem and Opportunity: This is unique for each person you’d like to gift. For example, your friend might be overwhelmed with household chores, or your sibling recently lost their job. You might notice your cousin’s tendency towards over work, or that your neighbour’s slippers have seen a better decade.
  2. Think/Research > Ideate (back and forth a few times): Use a brainstorming process here (ideally with pen and paper). Try to avoid removing ideas too early; instead, go for a brain dump. You’ll have plenty of time to edit later, based on budget, availability, and/or level of intimacy. But, you never know, that perfect scarf you had on your brainstorm for Barbara, might go on sale.
  3. Get Feedback/Observe > Make changes (back and forth a few times): Step 2 (below) should help here. The point is to determine to the best of your ability whether (a) the problem / opportunity actually exists; (b) your solution would be welcome; (c) there might not be a better / alternate way.
  4. Put Out into the World > Observe Consequences: Hopefully you will have another opportunity to gift this person. Learn from your experience whether they liked your approach, or if you should try for something different. Ask them. Observe.
Scrooged, 1988.

STEP 2: Go for These Long-Game Strategies

  1. Start Early; Find a Good Hiding Spot: I never thought I would be one of those people who shops in July for December, but here I am! This year, I’ve had a gift for my partner from a Kickstarter campaign squirrelled away for six months. It was the perfect thing. Starting early also means that you’re more likely to find a deal, or snatch up something before it becomes that season’s must-have item. Starting early will also help if you tend to be under severe holiday-budget constraints. 
     But keep receipts, just in case. 
    Side note on the hiding spot: consider creating a note on your phone, tracking where you’ve hidden various presents. One of my friends didn’t find the gift he had hidden for his wife until March.
  2. Pay Attention: Most people will tell you what they need or like, you just have to listen. If you have a terrible short-term memory (like I do), keep notes on your phone throughout the year. Most folks will mention things they like, either while you’re out and about together, or you might note their lustful complements of things you own (amazing gifts do not have to be new, by the way). Some of us are also notorious for posting things we love on social media. These can be great ideas since they tend to be indulgences, and likely won’t be purchased for themselves.
  3. Create True Meaning: There’s a two-fold trick to meaningful gift giving. First, watch out for mirroring: To Thy Yourself Not Be True. Just because you love everything kittens, does not mean we do. And, even if we do, it doesn’t mean we want to surround ourselves with kitten-themed things. Every year I have to remind myself that my friend is allergic to scented candles and doesn’t drink coffee — I love both these things. Also, do not take a gift as an opportunity to convert your friend to keto, yoga, journaling, or Jesus. That’s you trying to gift yourself someone who more-closely matches your interests. It’s shitty. 
    Second, unless you’re under 18, avoid Pinterest-meaningful. Bad crafts are like cheap Merlot. Do, however, leverage something you’re genuinely good at, whether that’s knitting, beer-making, baking, or carving. Making things comes with a warning, though: some folks seriously under-estimate / appreciate how much time, effort, and resources it takes to create a high-quality item. Don’t waste your awesome on those people.
    Meaningful gifts may take time. They aren’t about money spent, but come from purposeful attention and genuine affection. It doesn’t have to be a pair of fingerless-gloves, knitted from the plucked-eyebrow hairs you’ve collected over the year. Meaningful can be a gift card for their favourite coffee place or second-hand shop.


  • Gift animals: even if your best friend just lost his cat and you really, really think he needs a new night-time cuddle buddy. He will get a cat when he is ready.
  • Keep adding to a collection unless you’re sure that the collection isn’t a copout. I know too many moms who have figurine, slipper, Christmas village collections because their framilies don’t take the time to find out what they really want.
  • Assume booze, chocolate, candles or fancy soaps are treats to them. I love getting good red wine. Also, booze-filled chocolates. These feel like love to me, and they make excellent copout gifts — for me. Find out what your framily members see as treats (it might be meat), then buy or make that.

Good luck with this, and future, gift-giving season! As my present to you, here’s more gift-giving movie fails.

Still Curious?

I teach, design, and research as a feminist scholar, usually located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You can see some of my work, or find out more about me, at http://milenaradzikowska.com. I am on twitter as @candesignlove.

Think this was worthwhile? Clap at me!