HOW-TO: Brainstorm the Perfect Custom Gift

Something I’ve really loved working on for the last few months is custom gifts. I’ve done a couple for other folks to give, but I’ve also made quite a few super different gifts that I got to give myself! When your options aren’t limited to stuff someone’s already manufactured, thinking up gifts is kind of fun. So I wanted to share my process with you. My questions and tips will help, whether you’re making something yourself, commissioning an artist, or just coming up with some new google terms to search.

The secret to giving a good gift is to ask yourself a few questions about your giftee — and then extrapolate. The first thing I think of is always relevant but boring, but a creative pivot will take you from a serviceable gift to a really thoughtful one.

I suggest that you take some loose notes as you think about the answers to these questions. You can definitely do this exercise in your head, or with a partner, but rereading the ideas in different orders is a big help. Just jot down one or two words that answer the questions — but jot down any other words that come up for you in this exercise that fit the person you’re thinking about.

the questions

the basics

  • How old is the person you’re shopping for? Not exact age, but life stage: think toddler, college kid, newlywed, retiree, angsty teen.
  • Where does the person live? Vague geography is fine here: New England? The Pacific Northwest? The Midwest? Southern France?
  • But also like where do they live? An apartment? A shared house? A suburban, single-family home? A condo? A castle? A tiny home?

their interests

  • What do you always end up talking about with your gift recipient?
  • What do they share on social media?
  • Picture the person in your head — what are they doing?
  • Picture ’em again — what are they wearing?
  • Do you have any inside jokes?
  • What’s the first thing you notice when you enter their house or car?
  • When they complain, what do they complain about?

their day-to-day

  • Do they spend time cooking?
  • Travelling?
  • Reading?
  • Eating?
  • Sleeping?
  • Movies?
  • Music?
  • TV?
  • Sports?
  • Working out?
  • Working?
  • Hanging out with their kid?

Okay, so let’s take your notes and extrapolate!

doin’ the math

Okay, so I’m going to pop out of list mode to talk about what that means. When I say extrapolate, I basically mean add some of that stuff up and solve the equation. If you add their geographic location to the kind of place they live to the thing they always complain about, what does that make you think of?

showing you MY answers

More often than not, all of those words you said or wrote down becoming kind of a word jumble and reading that back is where you find the idea. Let me share a couple of examples that I’ve given to people in my life.

my sister!

Baby Sis is a medical resident. That means she works a lot. Like a lot. She also moved in with her boyfriends medium recently. He works for the fire department so he also works a lot. In the months before Christmas, Sis was thinking a lot about how to decorate her house.

So let’s do that math — she wants some stuff to make her new space look like a home. She’s thinking about that a lot, but doesn’t have unlimited time to do so. That adds up to a second round home decor item. When you move into a new place, you think about the big items — furniture, how to fill the giant wall you look at every day — but you don’t always think about a door mat.

Okay, we solved for X and Y is what to put on the door mat. I’m working with the vast world of whatever I want, but you could easily do this part and then toss some search terms into Etsy. My sister and her boyfriend both live there and I want to make a door mat that fits for both of them. What do they have in common? Beer. Crabs. High-pressure jobs where they save people’s lives. We all live in Maryland, so beer and crabs have been done. But stressful hero jobs? There’s something there. So here’s what I ended up with:

Okay, so maybe you don’t have that much information about your giftee. How can you ask someone what they want and still give them a surprise gift?

my best friend’s baby!

One of my best friends from high school and his wife had a baby in August and I’ve been thinking about what to send this kid ever since. Facts I already had: he is a cute baby, his name is Jonah, and he lives in Chicago. He’s a baby so he sleeps a lot. I know when he was born. But I can’t answer most of the questions I asked above about him.

I asked his dad if they have a theme for his room and whether they were trying to fill wall space. He told me that they were going with the whale concept — very cute for a Jonah — and that they were good to go on the wall art.

So I had the general content concept, but what was I gonna put it on? An alternative to wall art that makes sense for a baby in Chicago, which has v cold weather. We’re going with a blanket, y’all! Again, you could hop on Etsy and search for whale blankets.

Instead, I did a mock-up. I tried a textured cartoon whale spouting birth date details like water:

So I like this. But I also looked at it and asked myself some follow-up questions: is this a blanket that will age well? Is this a blanket that could be displayed anywhere in the house? I submit it is not. So I thought about what the whale theme might look like outside the kids bedroom aisle, researched some whales, and landed on this:

So there you have it! Look at this happy customer:

Having trouble getting to a gift idea that’ll make your gift recipient happy as this kiddo in the dinosaur onesie? Email me at and I can help you create the perfect gift! You can also check out some other commission pieces in my portfolio.

Tell me what you think!