Designing sports cards

The first time I ever really paid attention to design was probably cereal boxes or trading cards. And to this day I'm still fascinated by hierarchy & organization in commercial design. I still see things like trademark symbols more as ornamental than legal & I'm unusually interested in unique barcode implementations. So my interest in design systems really goes all the way back to my first interest in design.

But it wasn't until a few years ago that it occurred to me that I could design my own cards. I was obsessed with collecting for about 10 years when I was younger, & a few years ago when the bottom had fallen out of the market I decided to pick up a bunch of cards just to relive my youth. Apparently I wasn't the only one, since the market is way up now. But designing cards feels like the truest way to engage with the hobby. Obviously you can't sell unlicensed trading cards, but as a design exercise it's a victimless copyright violation. So I set out to explore what cards would look like if I had my druthers, & this is a packrat post of some of those exercises.

Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, & Magic Johnson. Fonts: P22 Underground, Bayshore, Memphis Sans

Basketball Rookies

One of the first sets I designed was to commemorate the rookie season of all the players from the 1992 U.S. Olympics Dream Team. Something I wanted to lean into was the tone of vintage printing presses. There's something about the high contrast & low dynamic range of vintage cards that make them seem larger than life. It's really interesting when, like shooting film at 24 frames per second, you can add something to a picture by removing from it. So there's a ton of adjustment layers stacked on the photos to achieve the vintage look, along with some paper texture from True Grit Texture Supply. (Who rule.)

The other thing I wanted to do was to isolate the foreground from the background. This was common in the 1950s, but was probably done best in the 1990 Skybox set, which removes the background entirely. They were really intentional about capturing motion in their photo selections, which I wanted to replicate. And then I also wanted to use the card's frame to create a sense of depth within the foreground.

And type-wise I was most excited to use Memphis Sans for the Limited logo. It's a tribute to the Memphis Milano Group & has a lot of really rad characters & works great with mixed casing.

Larry Bird & Michael Jordan. Fonts: P22 Underground, Adobe Garamond Pro

Designing the reverse side is an art unto itself, & can be extremely satisfying to lay out. And while I wanted clear, scannable data, the real goal was to tell a compelling story. So in addition to the stat sheet from their rookie season, I made sure to emphasize the quirkier things that I loved about this era of basketball: mustaches, fist-fights, trash talkingsneakers.

Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, & Jimmy King. Fonts: P22 Underground, Bayshore, Monoton, Futura Com, Memphis Sans

The Fab Five

A set celebrating my all-time favorite basketball team, the Fab Five of the 1991 Michigan Wolverines, followed a lot of the same themes, but introduced some '90s-style graphics. The Jalen Rose card turned out particularly rad as an experiment using colorization to communicate depth. And the half-tone gradient on the Jimmy King card recalls the 1990 Topps Baseball set, which I actually didn't care for at the time but has really grown on me over the years.

David Justice, Hank Aaron, & Warren Spahn. Fonts: Brandon Grotesque, Memphis Sans

Atlanta Braves

Growing up around Atlanta during the Braves' glory years, a lot of my best childhood memories took place at Fulton County Stadium & Turner Field. And what actually got me back into collecting was a quest to collect every David Justice card from 1990-1996. But I also set out to make a card set that spanned the history of the Braves, from Babe Ruth to Ronald Acuña Jr. I wanted something very simple, like the 1957 Topps set, but I also wanted it to feel very intimate. So I used the pin stripe & some light halftoning to isolate the foreground without obscuring the background. And I used one of my favorite fonts, Brandon Grotesque, all around to give it a very traditional feel.

Pennywise. Fonts: Knockout, Bayshore, ITC Avant Garde Gothic Pro

Horror Movies

My current obsession is genre films, & horror icons are actually ideal subjects for a trading card set. So I had loads of fun working on these cards. I pulled in a number of cues from the basketball card sets, but mixed in the two-tone borders from the 1986 Topps set & tried again to accentuate the depth of the photos so that the characters seem to stand off of the cards.

Red, Pinhead, Freddy Kruger, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, & Sam. Fonts: Knockout, Bayshore, ITC Avant Garde Gothic Pro

These trading card projects are the most fun I've ever had designing. And it's become something I now regularly work on in my spare time in order to decompress & to remind myself what I love about design. At some point I realized that if there's something you'd like to see in the world that doesn't exist, you can just make it yourself.

view this project live