How a New Year’s Note
Became Great New Business


A lot of grief has been leveled at the Internet over the past year, and for good reason. Nearly everyone is burnt out on excessive screen time. Much of what we encounter online can be uninspiring (at best!). Still, the power of the Internet can also, at times, be lovely and surprising. It’s a lesson we learned first hand when our holiday card turned into a new business partnership with Clemson University. 

Creating a Card for a Year Like No Other

They say that change is the only constant, but at Ashton, every year comes with one guarantee: there will be an epic holiday card. It has been a staple showcasing the studio’s creativity, wit and design caliber since 1985. Most years it’s not a card at all, but rather a concept-driven keepsake always addressed by hand. We’ve had clients call us to request we keep them on our holiday list when they switch jobs, just so they don’t miss the next year’s card. It’s safe to say it’s taken on a life of its own.

Since my start at Ashton (21 years ago—how did that happen?!), one of my favorite things to watch is when the challenge of creating that year’s card is bestowed on the team’s newest designer. We ask them to dream up something memorable, and most think that’s a fun and reasonable request—until they’re handed “the box,” filled with crazy ideas that came to life in years past. They always get that same look, as if to say ” the hell can I top this?” (I know the look because I had it, too, my first year.) Still, they always do! It never ceases to amaze me.

This year, of course, was the exception. Let’s flash back to last December: with clients and friends working from everywhere but their offices, plus USPS shipping complications looming, our go-to move of sending a physical item seemed impossible. Staring into the same virtual void we had all grown accustomed to in 2020, our team worried about how to create a memorable experience for our clients. 

It was important to us that whatever we made felt intimate. How could we recreate that experience on the internet? 

Step one was focusing on what we could do, which was sharing hope and some humor. We began building an immersive online experience that empowered users to choose alternate realities to the tropes that now plagued our newfound pandemic life. Ultimately dubbed 2020 Revised, our quiz-like application enticed users to envision a more positive future for 2021 (and took some digs at 2020 along the way).

Once complete, the app made us laugh—something we all needed. So we loaded it in an email and clicked send. Like anything posted to the Internet, we crossed our fingers and hoped it would fare well. 

That Moment When the Stars Aligned 

Meanwhile, some 500 miles away in South Carolina, Clemson University was staring down a similar challenge⏤admissions and marketing teams everywhere were struggling to find ways to engage with newly admitted students, especially without on-campus visits. “Clemson especially shines on a campus tour,” explains Christine Green, AVP of University Marketing. “Students and parents tend to fall in love when they get here. They feel connected to the school and, if it’s the right fit, they recognize that this is where they need to be.”

Back in January, Christine was searching for solutions, but nothing felt right⏤until she happened upon Ashton’s holiday card. “It was exactly what we were looking for,” she remembers.

One Google search later and Christine had emailed me. We discussed how we could adapt the concept for Clemson’s incoming freshmen, but they needed it in record time. Our team quickly set about customizing our app to fit Clemson’s audience, tone and brand.

Within a matter of weeks, The Tiger Fortune Teller went live. Students could visit the app and have their “fortunes told” for their freshman year. In reality, the power was in the students’ hands to shape the type of experience they might have on campus. It also gave them a chance to learn more about the details that make Clemson unique, even if they couldn’t visit in person.

The app was a hit, with a large section of admitted students taking and retaking the test to play out as many potential futures as possible. Each resulting fortune was optimistic, and (perhaps most importantly) all messaging encouraged students to remember that they were in charge of their destiny—a feeling that might have been lost by many during the pandemic

“It felt totally original,” says Christine. “We were able to capitalize on the work Ashton had already done. Still, the end result felt custom and upheld our brand values. The entire process was easy, and I think what’s really great about it is that we all loved the end result.”

Creating Deeper Connections

Possibly the most interesting and certainly the most confounding detail is that, to this day, no one can track exactly how our card made it from Baltimore to Clemson (via a mystery person in Milwaukee, no less). What are the chances? But isn’t that what’s best about the internet? You don’t need to go viral, you just have to find your audience—even if that audience is only one person.

What really felt great is that our original goal, to create a memorable experience for our clients, grew exponentially once adapted to help a whole host of young people. It doesn’t matter the medium—print, digital, a sky banner over the beach—if an experience doesn’t make you think, make you interact, make you participate, then how good was it, really? Better to always try to create things that get people to engage with the world around them. 

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that building the fortune teller was just plain fun. After a year of grit, to create something that brought levity to people’s day feels like a privilege. So on that note, a huge thank you goes out to Clemson for collaborating with us. Here’s to teaming up on another fun one someday soon. And a big congratulations to all of Clemson’s admitted students⏤we’re rooting for you!

You can both rewrite history and have your fortune told, but if you’re looking for more information on our design process, check out our case study on The Tiger Fortune Teller

About Ashton Design 

Baltimore-based Ashton Design crafts meaningful brands and experiences for people through the creative and innovative use of environmental, print and digital design. Since 1985, our collaborative approach from concept to implementation has earned us a reputation for unique, timeless design. Most importantly, we care deeply about our clients, who entrust us to translate their visions into reality across a wide range of projects. For more about Ashton Design, visit


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