Create a Novel Pop-Up Holiday Card

In today’s tutorial I’ll show you how to produce a memorable holiday card. Pop-up cards are normally cards that, once opened, have an element of surprise making them both memorable and fun to the reader. This tutorial takes you step-by-step through the entire process of transforming initial concept drawings through to a fully functional piece of cardboard engineering. Let’s get to it!

Tutorial Assets

You’ll find some files in the “source” folder, as well as outlined font versions of the InDesign artwork and the print-ready .PDF. You’ll also need the following free stock images to complete this tutorial.
images and the InDesign print-ready artwork in the source folder too.


In this digital age of ecards and Flash-based cards, it’s refreshing to see something a little different. If a memorable design lands on your client’s desk it’s more likely to get you repeat business rather than winding up in the email trashcan! With that in mind, I’ll briefly explain my design process.
First I gathered together my stock images and quickly layered them up in Photoshop. At this stage I wasn’t too concerned about detail, just how the core elements worked as a whole. I then sketched out two design options and after some deliberation, decided to go for the more complex design shown bottom-right.

The next stage was to figure out the folding mechanism. For this design to be feasible It would need to be printed in two parts: The folded A6 outer with a cut step and the actual pop-out graphic separate, which would be glued to the font of the step. If this was a live job I would have emailed these concepts over to my chosen printer, in case he had any suggestions for the mechanics and also costings. Another point would be sourcing a standard square envelope, because when folded the pop-out protruded.

Here’s an almost complete design which I printed out and mocked up. You’ll notice I’ve moved the main greeting to the front as most of it was obscured on the mock-up. It’s worth bearing in mind that 2D designs can look completely different when actually printed.

Step 1

Create an A5 InDesign document to the size of the flat outer card (the folded size will be A6) and copy these settings, remembering to add the 3mm bleed required by your printer.

Step 2

Go to View > Grids & Guides and activate Show Guides, Snap to Guides and Smart Guides, then View > Extras > Show frame Edges. Now place a central folding guide at 105mm.

Step 3

Drag the guides origin point to meet the edge of your artboard (not the bleed) and central guide.

Step 4

Now place two more guides 20mm away from the centre guide as shown.

Step 5

At this point I decided to alter the left and right margins to correspond to the two vertical cuts. To do this, choose Layout > Margins and Columns, uncheck the chain icon and modify as shown.

Step 6

Snap the origin point back to its default position (top-left corner of the artboard). Ensure the top-left Reference Point Locater is active, then grab the Rectangle Tool (R) and snap a frame to the bleed area. Go to your Swatches tab and use the top-right fly-out menu to select New Color Swatch. Ensure the Color Type is set to Process and the Color Mode is CMYK. Now enter 0% Cyan, 100% Magenta, 0% Yellow and 0% Black. Now apply a magenta 0.5 stroke to your box with the Fill set to None.

Step 7

Add another 0.5mm stroked frame to the artboard with the X and Y co-ordinates set to 0 and the width: 148mm / height: 210mm. Select the Line Tool (/) and snap in the remaining fold and cut guides, again with a 0.5 magenta stroke. I’ve disabled the visibility of the guides in the screenshot for clarity.

Step 8

In this step we’ll export a .PDF to use as a Photoshop guide. Press Cmd/Ctrl + E, copy these settings and click the Export button.

Step 9

Open your .PDF via Photoshop. Name it “Layered_illo”, apply the following settings in the Import window and hit OK.

Step 10

Rename the default layer “Guides”, then place a layer beneath it called “Solid green”, set your Foreground color to # 80912b, then hit Alt/Opt delete/backspace to fill the layer content with green.
Tip: As this project is destined for commercial print, certain on-screen colors will not reproduce the same. These colors are referred to as out-of-gamut. Your monitor creates colors by mixing red, green, and blue light (RGB), whereas your printer creates color by using light-absorbing inks of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK), these pigments are much more limited in their ability to reproduce color. To remedy this, work in RGB Mode (to have access to all filters etc.) and press Cmd/Ctrl + Y to Proof Colors – this will avoid any nasty surprises when the job is printed.

Step 11

Open “paint.jpg” from the “source” folder. Hold Shift and drag across its layer thumbnail into your working file to create a new layer and label it “Paint texture”. Press Cmd/Ctrl + I to Invert to negative. Now change the Blend Mode to Soft Light to lessen the effect.

Step 12

Open “IMG_4680.JPG” from these textures. Rotate 90 degrees counter-clockwise and Invert to negative. Place above the previous layer and re-size to cover your canvas. Now set the Blend Mode to Soft Light, reduce the Opacity to 47% and name it “Distress 1”.

Step 13

Open “IMG_4702-w640.jpg”, repeat the rotation and add as a new layer above the previous one. Re-size, change the Blend Mode to Soft Light, but leave the Opacity at 100%. Name this layer “Distress 2”.

Step 14

Place the “card.jpg” image from the “source” folder below your “Guides” and name it “Paper”. Enlarge to cover the canvas and change the Blend Mode to Screen.

Step 15

Choose Hue/Saturation from the Create new fill or adjustment drop-down menu at the foot of the Layers tab. Now click the double-circle icon, so the adjustment affects all underlying layers and change the Hue value to +34.
Target the adjustment mask, set the Gradient Tool (G) to Linear in the Options bar, then Shift-drag a black to transparent gradient as indicated by the direction and length of the arrow. This will limit the adjustment to the top quarter.

Step 16

Shift-click all your layer thumbnails apart from the “Guides”, then select New Group from Layers from the top-right fly-out menu in the Layers tab. Name the folder “GRAPHICS 1” Organizing your layers into folders is important, as you’ll discover towards the end of this tutorial.

Step 17

Open the mountain range image. Grab the Quick Selection Tool (W) and select the sky, then use the add and subtract options to refine your selection as required.

Step 18

Press Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + I to Inverse your selection, then click the Refine Edge button in the Options bar. In the following window choose On Black (B) from the View Mode menu, this gives the best preview for unwanted pixels. Copy the remaining settings and click OK.

Step 19

You’ll now see a new masked layer appear and the visibility of the original layer disabled. Zoom in and check you’re happy with the results of the Refine Edge command. At this point you can modify the mask by painting with either white (to reveal), or black (to hide) using a small brush (B) set to around 50 hardness if required.
When you’re happy, drag the mask thumbnail into the trash icon at the foot of the Layers tab and click Apply in the following window.

Step 20

Drag the new layer thumbnail below the “Guides”, flip horizontal and position/re-size as shown. Add a mask, then use the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) to create a selection and fill with black to hide the lower half, then label it “Mountains”.

Step 21

Add a Levels Adjustment Layer, but this time deactivate the double-circle icon to clip the adjustment to just the the “Mountains” and apply these settings.

Step 22

Grab the Gradient Tool (G), then click the gradient thumbnail in the Options bar to access the Gradient Editor. Create the gradient as shown, then click the New button to save it.

Step 23

Clip a Gradient Fill Adjustment Layer to the “Mountains”, then click the Gradient swatch to load your preset, use these settings and click OK. Now change the Blend Mode to Hue and reduce the layer Opacity to 60%.

Step 24

Open the “elements.pdf” from the “source” folder via Illustrator. Select the stripped triangle shape and copy to the Clipboard. Switch back to your Photoshop file and Paste. In the next window choose the Smart Object option and click OK. Transform/position over the left horizon line, then change the Blend Mode to Soft Light. Label this layer “Stripes 1”, then duplicate, flip horizontal, reposition to the right and rename it “Stripes 2”.

Step 25

Select the Custom Shape Tool, then use the fly-out menu in the Options bar to load the “festive_shapes.csh” from the “source” folder. Set your Foreground color to white, ensure Shape Layers are active in the Options bar, then add some small snowflakes over the sky on independent layers and label them accordingly.

Step 26

Continue to add further snowflakes, but leave some areas clear for the clouds that we’ll be adding later.

Step 27

Now to add some hand-drawn elements. Open “doodles.jpg” from the “source” folder and use the Lasso Tool (L) to roughly select the first star and copy to the Clipboard.

Step 28

Paste the selection as a new layer below the “Guides”, position in the sky and label it “Doodle 1”. Invert, then change the Blend Mode to Screen to render the black areas invisible. Repeat this technique for the second star and name it “Doodle 2”

Step 29

Copy the first cloud shape from the “elements.pdf” and paste as a Smart Object below the “Template”. Repeat this for the second cloud, Transform/position as shown and label them accordingly. Now add all your floating layers except for the “Guides” into another folder called “GRAPHICS 2”.

Step 30

Add the grass texture as a new layer below the “Guides”, enlarge/position to overlap the vertical cuts of the step and name it “Grass”. Snap a vertical central guide, then select the Ellipse Tool (U). Ensure Paths are highlighted in the Options bar, then hold Shift and snap a large circular path to the center guide. My path is indicated red in the screenshot for clarity.
Tip: To reposition or re-size your path, simply activate it with the Path Selection Tool (A).

Step 31

Cmd/Ctrl-click the path thumbnail to create a selection. With the “Grass” layer targeted, click the Add mask icon at the foot of the Layers tab. Now fill a rectangular selection with black on the mask as well to create the base of the cut-out.

Step 32

Now clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment to the “Grass” layer and change the Hue slider to +16.

Step 33

Open the deer image. This time we’ll use a slightly different method to isolate it. Set the Magic Wand Tool (W) to Tolerance of 33, check Anti-alias and uncheck Contiguous in the Options bar. Now click on the background to create a selection.

Step 34

Access the Refine Edge dialogue box, but this time choose Overlay (V) from View Mode to see the selection edge better. Copy the following settings, then click OK.

Step 35

When you’re happy with the mask, delete it and click Apply in the following window as before.

Step 36

Place as a new layer below the “Guides” and re-size/position over the grass. Go to Layer > Matting > Defringe and enter 2px to eliminate any white picked up from the initial selection and name the layer “Deer”. Now clip a Levels adjustment and set the Input blackpoint to 28, the midpoint to 0.88 and the whitepoint to 196 to increase the contrast. Next, clip and save a new Gradient preset as shown. Finally, set the Blend Mode of of this adjustment to Overlay and reduce the Opacity to 52%.

Step 37

Use the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) to draw a rough shadow below the deer. Target the “Grass” layer and copy. Now target the “Grass” Adjustment Layer and paste the selection as a new layer above it. Name this layer “Deer shadow”. I’ve disabled the visibility of the “Grass” layer in the screenshot for clarity.

Step 38

To darken the shadow, Clip a Levels adjustment and set the Output whitepoint to 102.

Step 39

Add a mask to the “Deer shadow”, then drag a large black to transparent Radial Gradient to blend the right-hand side. Next, Cmd/Ctrl-click the “Grass” layer mask to load the white as a selection. Inverse the selection, then use a black hard-edged Brush (B) to remove the bottom overlap.

Step 40

Now we’ll add some more graphic details which you’ll find in the “source” folder. Place “scribble.jpg” in Multiply Mode below the “Deer”, then paste the lined circle (also in Multiply Mode) and the white flower shape as Smart Objects and position as shown.

Step 41

Add the final star drawing below the “Deer” in Multiply Mode so the white areas become invisible and label it “Doodle 3”. Place a new layer below it and label it “Doodle 3 fill”, then use a small hard-edged brush to infill the star shape with # bd2709 and # 67e660. Now select the Move Tool (V) and use the arrows on your keyboard to offset the layer content slightly.

Step 42

Set your Foreground color to # 6ddc4e and add the tree from the “festive_shapes.csh” as a Shape Layer below the “Deer”. Name this layer “Tree”.

Step 43

Now add the final cloud behind the deer’s antlers as a Smart Object and name this layer “Cloud 3”.

Step 44

Grab the Elliptical Marquee Tool (M) and Shift-drag a small circular selection behind the deer’s hind legs. Choose Pattern from the Adjustment Layer drop-down menu, then click the arrow next to the pattern preview. Now load the “geometric_patterns.pat” from the “source” folder via the small arrow to the right. Choose “pattern 4”, set the Scale to 13% and click OK. Use the same technique to add another slightly larger Pattern Fill behind the deer’s font leg, but use “pattern 18” at 25%.

Step 45

Use the Magic Wand (W) to extract the first leaf and place above “Pattern Fill 2”. Label this layer “Leaf 1”, Transform, then clip a Color Balance adjustment to boost the reds and yellows.

Step 46

Use the same method to add the second leaf and name it “Leaf 2”, then clip a similar Color Balance Adjustment Layer.

Step 47

Extract and add the ornament below the “Guides”. Re-size and position so it hangs from the deer’s antler and name it “Decoration”. Cmd/Ctrl-click the “Deer” layer thumbnail to create a layer-based selection, then use a small hard-edged Eraser (E) to remove the left string. Inverse the selection and erase any string above the antler. Finally, clip a Levels adjustment and set the Input blackpoint to 22, and the whitepoint to 219 to boost the contrast.

Step 48

Set your Foreground color to # bd2709, then add an elliptical Shape Layer to the right of the deer’s head and name it “Red circle”. Now paste the logo over it as a Smart Object, then place all your floating layers into a final folder called “GRAPHICS 3”.

Step 49

Before proceeding to the next step, toggle the visibility of your folders to check they look like this, then Save.

Step 50

Now we’ll make two flattened .TIFF files to place into InDesign. First switch off the visibility of the “Guides” layer and the “GRAPHICS 3” folder. Choose Flatten Image from the top-right fly-out menu in the Layers tab and click OK in the following window. Hit Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + S to Save As and name the file “background.tif”.

Step 51

Re-open your layered file. Disable the visibility of the “Guides” layer and the “GRAPHICS 2” folder. Flatten again and Save As “cut_out.tif”.

Step 52

We now need to create a vector path which your printer will use to punch out the pop-out graphic. Print tolerances do not allow cutting formes to align precisely to the edge of an image, so we’ll leave a small border of background, rather than just plain white paper.
Re-open your layered file once more and switch off the visibility of the “GRAPHICS 2” folder. Target “GRAPHICS 2” folder and press Cmd/Ctrl + E to Merge Group. Cmd/Ctrl-click the merged thumbnail to generate a layer-based selection, then choose Select > Modify > Expand, enter 12px and hit OK.

Step 53

Use the Lasso Tool (L), set to Add to eliminate any inner holes in the selection. Now set the Marquee Tool (M) to Subtract and cut the selection back to the bottom fold guide.

Step 54

Switch to your Paths tab, then choose Make Work Path from the top-right fly-out menu. In the following window accept the default setting of 1.0px and click OK. Now double-click the path thumbnail to save it.

Step 55

Finally, go to File > Export > Paths to Illustrator and name it “”. You can now close your layered file without saving it.

Step 56

Revisit your InDesign artwork and name the default layer “Cutter”. Delete the two outer magenta frames, then change all your horizontal magenta rules to dashed lines to represent folds (solid lines represent cuts), which I’ve exaggerated in the screenshot for clarity.
Add a new lower layer and name it “Artwork”. Grab the Rectangle Tool (M) and snap a frame to the outer bleed. Create a new red color swatch (C:18/M:97/Y:100/K:9), color the frame with a Fill of new red and a Stroke of None. This page represents the flat outer of the card.

Step 57

Grab the Type Tool (T) and snap a frame to the bottom inner guides and enter your main message in white – I’ve used a commercial font called ITC Lubalin Graph BT, bit feel free to use your own choice. Press Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + C to centre the text. Hit Escape to activate the Selection Tool (V), then press Cmd/Ctrl + B to access the Text Frame Options window. From here set the Align Vertical Justification to Bottom and click OK.
It’s vital when using large font sizes to adjust the spaces between individual characters. This is called kerning and should not be confused with tracking which adjusts the spacing between whole words. To kern, click between the characters you wish to adjust with the Type Tool, press Opt/Alt and tap the left or right arrow keys. Depending on which way you tap, you will see that the space between the letters is increased or decreased by 20 em in the Character Palette (an em is defined as a measure for 12-point type; a pica). In InDesign’s preferences, you can set the default em spacing to something lower which will increase or decrease the spacing in smaller increments if you wish, or manually type in the kerning field. You’ll see that I’ve tightened up the spacing between some characters by eye for a pleasing result.

Step 58

Complete the card outer by adding any relevant environmental messages / logos relating to inks and paper stock used – your printer should be able to advise you on this. Remember, the top half of your artwork will eventually be the reverse of the card, so rotate any graphics 180 degrees.

Step 59

Here’s how your finished card outer artwork should look, along with a printed mock-up.

Step 60

Drag page 1 over the Create new page icon in the Pages tab, then delete all the white text and the red box on this page. Press Cmd/Ctrl + D, then navigate to your “background.tif”. Now snap the placed image to the bleed guides. Next, add your holiday message as a centered block as shown, but remember to leave a space at the bottom for any hand-written signatures. This page will be the card inner.

Step 61

Type this small appearing over a pale background should be colored up with InDesign’s default black and set to Overprint Fill in the Attributes panel (Window > Output > Attributes) to avoid any ink registration issues.<

Step 62

Now we need to color up the exported Photoshop path. Open your “” via Illustrator and apply a 100% magenta 0.5pt stroke, Save, then check Legacy Artboard in the following window and click OK.

Step 63

Duplicate page 2 to create a third and final page, then replace the main image with your “cut_out.tif” file. Unlock and delete the guides as well as the magenta fold / cut marks on this page only. Target the “Cutter” layer and press Cmd/Ctrl + D, then place the modified “” file. Snap this into position over the cut-out as shown.

Step 64

That’s the artwork completed. In the final steps, I walk you through the process of producing the .PDF artwork files for your printer. First we’ll tackle the cutter. Switch off the visibility of your “Artwork” layer, then press Cmd/Ctrl + E to Export. Label it “cutter.pdf” and make sure you only select pages 2-3 in the Range field, then copy the remaining settings.

Step 65

Viewed through Acrobat your “cutter.pdf” should look like this.

Step 66

Finally, we’ll create the the four-color artwork. Switch off the visibility of “Cutter” and switch on the “Artwork” layer. Export again, name it “card_artwork.pdf”, but this time check All Pages and Use All Printer’s Marks and Document Bleed Settings.

Step 67

Viewed through Acrobat your “card_artwork.pdf” should look like this. All you need to do now is mock-up a dummy to show your printer along with the artwork and you’re done!.

Conclusion and Scope

Remember, it’s good practice to talk to your printer before creating any complex, cut-out artwork; he maybe able to offer invaluable advice that could save you a lot of time. Happy Holidays!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *