Los Angeles–based designer Emily McDowell was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 24, enduring nine months of chemo and radiation before going into remission.
“The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called ‘sir’ by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo,” McDowell writes on her website. “It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.”
The 38-year-old designer has been cancer-free ever since. But the emotional impact of the experience lingered, inspiring her to design a newly launched series of Empathy Cards—emotionally direct greeting cards that say the things she wanted to hear when she was ill.
She hopes that the Empathy Cards provide “better, more authentic ways to communicate about sickness and suffering” between patients and friends and loved ones suffering from cancer, chronic illness, mental illness, or other hardships. They are by turns earnest and world-weary, and good-humored without false cheer.
“Get well soon” cards “don’t make sense when someone might not,” McDowell writes. “Sympathy cards can make people feel like you think they’re already dead. A ‘fuck cancer’ card is a nice sentiment, but when I had cancer, it never really made me feel better. And I never personally connected with jokes about being bald or getting a free boob job, which is what most ‘cancer cards’ focus on.”
McDowell told me in an email that although she based the card ideas on her own experiences, she released some sketches on Instagram for feedback while the cards were in development, adding that she often uses the site “as a kind of focus group while I'm working, to see what ideas resonate with people.”
The card designs follow McDowell’s signature style, which leans toward bright colors, minimal imagery, and homey type that she hand-draws in Photoshop with a digital pen. I asked her if she gave any special consideration to colors or images or other design elements given the subject matter.
“I feel like people with an illness are people first, so I didn't want to treat the aesthetics of these differently from the rest of my collection,” she said. “They did end up skewing a bit more feminine than I intended, though; future additions to the collection will be more gender-balanced.”
With Empathy Cards, McDowell’s goal is “to help people connect with each other through truth and insight,” she writes. “I want the recipients of these cards to feel seen, understood, and loved.”
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