The Five Elements of Good Card Design

7 02 2010

Author: Matt W.

So here’s the question. What makes you want to buy a card? Obviously, if you are a player or team collector, the player or team featured on the card will be significant factors in guiding your decision. Giants’ fans like myself generally don’t have too much interest in buying cards of Dodgers (unless it’s an old Steve Garvey card to stick on the dartboard). But those factors aside, I would argue that the overriding factor, at both a conscious and subconscious level, is the design of the card. Simply put, does the damn thing look good?

One of the more noticeable trends over the past decade has been the rise of retro-themed sets. While more than a few collectors deride retro sets, there’s a reason for their popularity. Quite simply, the older designs which these cards are based upon are generally far superior from a purely graphical standpoint than most new designs. Topps Heritage didn’t just take the hobby by storm by accident. It has been successful because many of the early Topps designs belong in the graphical design Hall of Fame. Even today, sixty-five years later, the 1954, 1955, and 1956 Topps baseball sets are probably the three best-looking baseball sets ever created, and why the 1955 Topps All-American, 1955 Bowman, and 1956 Topps football sets are among the most popular football sets of all time.

So the real question is what these designs all have in common:

1. The player image dominates the appearance of the card

2. They use bright and vivid colors

3. The cards have defined borders (although the 1954 design works just as well as a full-bleed design because the background is a single solid block of color)

4. The player and team names are easily readable, and two of the three designs (1954 and 1955) also incorporate team logos

5. The card numbers on the back are easily readable

And as you might guess from the title of this post, these are also what I consider to be the five principles of good card design. Now before you say to yourself “oh, he’s full of it”, ask yourself this. Which do you like better….1955 Topps or 1955 Bowman?

1967 Topps or 1968 Topps?

Why do you think that 1975 Topps is by far the most popular Topps set of the 70’s? Even looking more recently, why do you think that 2009 Topps was so much more popular than 2009 Upper Deck?

I’ll bet that every time, you chose the design that best adheres to the five principles.

Now, while principles #1, #2, #4, and #5 are pretty straightforward, some of you may take issue with principle #3. Do cards really need to have borders to look nice? Well, my response would be to wonder why it is that people frame photographs. The answer is that for some unknown reason, our visual cortex likes the idea of having a defined boundary. This is why we think most images look nicer framed. That said, full-bleed designs can look good, but generally only under one condition, namely when there is a large amount of contrast between the player image and the background, such as with 1954-55 Topps Hockey, the first series of 1969 Topps football, 1993 Fleer GameDay football and the 1993 Score Franchise inserts.

One area where this is been most apparent is in the design of Upper Deck cards. Up until 1993, Upper Deck cards featured both borders and gorgeous photography. However, 1993 was the year in which Richard McWilliam forced out the original founders of Upper Deck, the result of which was an immediate switch to full-bleed designs and an increased use of foil (which should never be used for lettering unless against a high-contrast background like in 2009 Topps), the result of which has been fifteen years worth of cluttered and garish designs with difficult to read lettering (note to Upper Deck, as anybody who has dabbled in photography or graphic design can tell you, the key to good design/composition is simplicity, not clutter).

Now although I feel that the industry as a whole is struggling mightily, one aspect that I find promising is the renewed emphasis on good design by collectors. Gellman, over at Sports Cards Uncensored, routinely slams poorly designed relic and autograph cards, and many other bloggers have become increasingly critical of lackluster designs such as 2009 Goudey (whose artwork was a pale shadow of the 2008 version), or Topps’ 2010 National Chicle.

Or think of it another way, consider which sets and cards have remained the most popular over the years? It’s the well-designed ones which people still enjoy looking at. There aren’t too many people with a 1970 Topps card on their mantelpiece, but I bet that there are more than a few with a nice 1956 Topps sitting there.


Was Masterpieces a failure?

24 04 2009

It’s really a simple question. What exactly defines success in this case? Critical acceptance? If that’s the case, Masterpieces was a giant success. Selling out? I don’t know many card shops who kept boxes of Masterpieces around very long. So while the second year did suffer from the ‘sophomore jinx’, it seemed to sell extremely well in both releases.

I know hundreds of collectors who busted multiple boxes or even cases of Masterpieces. It had something for every single type of collector out there except for maybe prospectors.

If you liked set building the base design was perfect and the short prints provided a worthy challenge to completing your set.

If you enjoyed bustin’ wax for the “hits”, there was nothing better or more elegant than the ‘Stroke of Genius’ on-card autographs and the autograph/patch relic cards in the 2008 edition.

If you enjoy putting together rainbow parallels you could have spent years trying to find the seemingly endless suply of different colored borders.

If you do through the mail or in person autographs, the canvas-like cardstock was perfect for a Sharpie autograph. I should know, I have multiple successes.

Finally, it was the only brand I ever recommended to baseball fans who didn’t collect. I can name multiple friends/co-workers who today enjoy collecting because I turned them on to Masterpieces.

In a way, Masterpieces brought collectors together (set builders, MOJO chasers, etc.) and set forth to create two of the best releases I have ever seen in my collecting life of nearly twenty years. So where did all go wrong?

Upper Deck’s official response is that there was just not enough interest for a third Masterpieces release. While that may have been the case, that doesn’t explain why ‘A Piece of History’, ‘Spectrum’, and ‘SPx’ made it back on shelves.

Do you ever wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “boy, I can’t wait for 2010 Topps Co-Signers”? Aside from collectors, we are consumers and it’s the card companies’ job to make a product worthwhile and interesting enough that we’d want to burn a hundred dollar bill or more on it.

You mean to tell me that a full release of 2009 Masterpieces would have failed? Was the 2008 release that terrible? Upper Deck has taken the ultimate risk by retiring what is arguably their best product every year and replacing it with brands that hardcore collectors just don’t care for.

Unless Upper Deck has some secret weapon they are planning to release to the masses this year, 2009 Goudey might be U.D’s final chance to impress baseball collectors, ever. I don’t know about you but I don’t think Goudey is strong enough to carry an entire company on its back.

Prove me wrong, Upper Deck.

2009 Upper Deck Goudey preview

17 01 2009

Here are some brand spanking new images of 2009 Goudey which looks a lot like the 2007 version. As expected, Wax Heaven received no information but *sources* tell me the Goudey set will contain 300 cards with with one autograph or game-used relic per Hobby box.

Each case will include a 1933 Goudey buyback card along with one Sports Royalty autograph. No word yet on the initial release and checklist.

What do you guys think of ’09 Goudey thus far?

2008 Upper Deck Goudey review

16 08 2008

(click here to see the archive of Wax Heaven product reviews)

“GOW-DEE pt. 2”

Last year, Upper Deck Goudey was the very last box of baseball cards I bought. I had gone to my hobby shop and each time passed up the opportunity to buy the ’07 release until there was nothing new left but that. The reason for my resistance was because the cards were not the standard size, the box was expensive, and it didn’t have much bang for the buck in my eyes.

This year Goudey looks a lot better than in 07 and while my score for last year’s effort was nothing great, over the months Goudey ended up being some of my favorite cards. I guess you do get a second chance to make a first impression.

Design: A-

While the design is similar to last year’s release, after comparing a few ’07 and ’08 cards it’s clear to me at least that this year’s Goudey looks a lot better than last year. Now add the new inserts that were missing from ’07 and you get a near-perfect score.

Price: B+

There are tons of auctions selling a box of Goudey for under $80 which to me is the perfect price for any box full of base cards and your two guaranteed “hits”. Unfortunately, I have seen Goudey closing in on three digits in the two hobby shops in my area.

Pulls: A

You can’t go wrong with the pulls in this box. Last year I was ticked when my one autograph was Coco Crisp and this year I didn’t do much better but getting a Pujols game-used is as good as it gets when it comes to “trade bait”. Along with the “hits”, I pulled just about every star I collect along with five short-print Sports Royalty inserts, which were one to a box last year.

Overall: A-

As much as I enjoyed the cards, it still lacked that special something that this year’s king (’08 Topps Chrome) brought. Still, if you can find a box for under $80 I would highly recommend buying ’08 Goudey at least once. These are some of the best cards to get signed in person.


2008 Upper Deck Goudey preview

3 04 2008

Something about Goudey just didn’t grab my attention last year. When going to my card shop I always saw the box of ’07 Goudey and would constantly pick another product instead. By the time I had opened all the other products, I was stuck with Goudey and ended up pulling a Coco freakin’ Crisp autograph. That pretty much sums up my entire Goudey experience, although I will admit the cards would look great signed. Below is a preview of the 2008 release along with some product information.

Product details:

$4.99 per pack, 8 cards per pack, 18 packs per box, 12 boxes per case

One on-card autograph per box, 1 memorabilia, 4 Yankee Legacy, 7 mini cards, and 7 short prints per box

200 regular cards, 130 short prints (um, why so many SP’s?)

Arrival date: Early July

Look! Just what I always wanted, a Ronald Reagan baseball card….