Wild Ducks Playing Cards

Every card, an artist. Every artist, an IBMer.

Wild Ducks Playing Cards was a collaborative effort among IBM designers to create a global deck of playing cards. Each card was illustrated by a different person from IBM Studios all over the world. In total, there were 55 artists; one person for each of the 52 regular cards, the 2 jokers, and the back of the cards. My name is Russell Huffman and I’m a designer at IBM, the primary project organizer, and one of the 55 artists. This blog post retells my experience of organizing and executing this project, which required 54 other artists who all volunteered their spare time to help me execute this crazy idea.

But why would IBM care about playing cards? Don’t they make software?

IBM is a huge company that employs around 400,000 people. That includes about 1,600 formally trained designers all over the world who regularly collaborate across time zones and continents, myself included. However, bringing designers into IBM at this scale is fairly new and difficult. As a part of this effort, IBM is trying to foster a culture of international shared creativity through IBM Makes. IBM Makes, headed by Seth Johnson, has helped build Make Labs and facilitate print exchanges across the studios around the world. But why playing cards?

Years ago, I had undertaken a personal playing card design project and discovered an entire scene of lively and enthusiastic artists who choose playing cards as their creative medium. I saw so many wonderful projects by individuals and small groups, as well as large-scale collaborations. The large-scale collaborations inspired me the most. These decks of cards are like an entire art gallery that fits in your pocket that you can play with. When I started at IBM, I learned that so much of design is about problem solving and expressing ideas, but with this project I wanted people to make art and express themselves. Many of us designers are also artists, so this project was meant to help designers be artists at the same scale at which we design. When I learned about IBM Makes, I figured a collaborative deck of cards was the perfect project for the culture here. I pitched them the idea, and they agreed to sponsor it as their next global design studio collaboration.

Example workshop held by IBM Makes

Organizing a global project

I had the approval to start this side project, but I still needed 54 other willing individuals to lend me their spare time. I partnered with Zak Crapo, a designer who is heavily involved with IBM Makes, and consulted with a few others who had done other global art projects (thanks Noelle Hoffman and Jenny Sanchez). Together, we set off to get this thing off the ground. We made posters to stick all over our local IBM campus and released a call for entries over our online networks. We asked for artists who would be interested in illustrating a card and everyone who participated would get a free deck of the final cards once completed. Before long, we had so many responses that we had to turn away quite a few folks.

Design for the original call for entries poster

Once all 55 artists were selected, we made templates for all of the cards, set up some rules and guidelines, set up a Slack channel, and assigned everyone a card. We let the artists request specific cards if they had a preference, although we couldn’t accommodate everyone’s choices. We decided to not impose a theme for the deck and let the artists be creative and illustrate whatever they wanted for their assigned card.

With all the prep work done, the artists were given one month to illustrate their card. Throughout the draw period, artists posted progress to the Slack channel and shared feedback. It was pretty cool to see people from all over the world sharing and critiquing each other. At this point, I was pretty hands-off except for fielding random questions and prodding artists that I hadn’t heard from to make sure they were on schedule. In the end, everyone submitted their cards and we were ready to print.

Printing and shipping

Once all the art was finished and collected, Zak and I got to work compiling and proofing the cards. We also had to design a few peripherals to bring everything together. This included the card box, a metal clip, a gold sticker seal, and a pamphlet with all the artists’ names and locations. Our vendor, makeplayingcards.com, was one I had used in the past with great results, so we turned to them again. After getting a proof deck and verifying it with all the artists, we placed the big order.

Within a few weeks, 100 decks of cards arrived at our studio. With the printed decks in hand, we decided to hold an internal art exhibition to hand out the decks to all the artists who were local. We printed and mounted all the cards at 10 x 14, got some wine and cheese, handed out the decks, and raffled off a few decks to other designers in the studio who didn’t participate. In the spirit of it being an international project, and us being a tech company, we brought in some robots so the non-local participants could browse the gallery and talk with the other artists.

Unboxing the final decks
Our gallery space
Artists who couldn’t join in person could explore the gallery via robot

After the event, we shipped out the final decks of cards to all the other participants around the world. We gave every remote participant a deck and sent an extra deck for their studio to keep, and for others to see. The final results were everything I could have hoped for and then some.

The final result

Unopened packs
Final artwork
A stack of the final cards next to the metal card clip
All together now

Thank you

I want to extend a huge thank you to all the artists involved. This project would not have been possible without all of you. And thank you to IBM Makes for supporting this adventure. It’s a pretty incredible thing to work for a place that supports a side project at this scale. We may be a big old tech company, but we’re filled with young people who like being creative. And the fact that we are so well-supported makes IBM such a unique place to work.

Pamphlet with all art names and locations that come with each deck

Thank you to all the artists, in no particular order:

Zak Crapo, Danielle Demme, Jessica Tremblay, Analuisa Del Rivero, Matt Cardinal, Shelby Aranyi, Zack Causey, Thy Do, Ashley Johnston, Frances Kim, Clara L MacDonell, Robin Auer, Caitlin Gettinger, Jenny Hsiao Sanchez, Amanda Shearon, Ryan Downs, Shixie Shi Trofimov, Peter Perceval, Jacki Wakin, Jennifer Whyte, Dallas Hudgens, Jasmine Lin, Calvin Bench, Marissa Kopelman, Megan Mulholland, Wonil Suh, Ty Tyner, Patrick Lowden, Hannah Chung, Devin O’Bryan, Virginia Nicholson, Dina Tawil, Gianni Polito, Shaun Lynch, Emiel Almoes, Harma Makken, Lauren Rice, Jose Paez, Pete Garvin, Scott Bokma, Saskia Clauss, Lia Prins, April M. Harris, Oliver Clark, James Clements, Cody Cai, Ryan Caruthers, Jake Green, Polly Adams, Chiemi Hayashi, Montserrat Jimenez Vindas, Raquel Quiros, Blair Mclean, John Howrey, Russell Huffman

Takeaways and next steps

Overall, this project was an incredible experience. It’s amazing to be supported by a company that lets us do side projects not just related to software, such as this. Even though the project required coordinating with more than 50 people, everyone was so willing, cooperative, and professional, that the whole process was very smooth.

That said, working at a global scale requires a lot of coordination and effort. Coordinating and communicating was occasionally hard just due to the time differences. However, the most difficult detail was international shipping. IBM does a good job at enabling shipping between offices and studios, but international shipping was totally separate, and required a separate budget, which I didn’t learn until late in the process. International shipping ended up being very complicated, including hurdles such as customs, duties, laws, and other things that I learned along the way. In the future, I will look for different ways to handle international shipping.

Even with some difficulties, I consider this project a huge success. I plan to do more decks of cards with the global IBM design community down the road. Realistically, we can probably do one every year, or possibly every six months, depending on the demands of regular work.

Thank you for reading! And thanks again to IBM Makes and all the artists involved. This is your project as much as it is mine. Bonus cat picture.

Amideus likes the cards too

Russell Huffman is a UX designer with IBM, based in Austin, Texas. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.