When I First Learned About the Impact of Design

It’s the first official day of spring which means baseball season is just a couple of weeks away.  The smell of freshly cut grass and the feel of sticky summer days will be here soon. Spring reminds me about the time during my youth when I first learned about the impact of design in a rather unexpected way.

In grade school, I collected baseball cards obsessively. I guess lots of kids in the fifties and sixties did the same. But, back then, baseball cards were more widely-popularized as bike spoke noise makers—they made Schwinns sound like Harleys. By the time I was collecting them, baseball cards were serious business—perhaps, a reflection of the money-hungry Wall Street generation of the mid-to-late eighties.

Through card collecting, I did learn some of the laws of economics first-hand. Buy low and sell high. Today’s hot commodity could be tomorrow’s dud. But, the most important education I got in cardboard hoarding was about something else entirely. I learned about the impact of design.

It happened in 1989 when a startup company came into the card collecting market. That was the year when The Upper Deck Company released their introductory set of baseball cards to the public. Like “talkies” to movies, Technicolor to television, and Wi-Fi to the internet, Upper Deck reinvented the experience of baseball cards. It forever changed how I looked at the craft of design. Everything about their design was different from the competitors.

While Donruss, Fleer, and the long-standing giants of the business Topps used wax paper wrapping, Upper Deck card packs were foiled-wrapped. Their wrappers gave off this metallic sheen and tactility that just felt different. It convinced a cash-strapped ten-year old like me that a $1 pack of Upper Deck cards was of better value than two 50-cent packs of Donruss.

The packaging also had utilitarian value. Wax paper wrapping would often mar the bottom card in a pack because of the glue used to seal the bottom (let alone the stain that an old piece of chewing gum would do to the top card of a pack of Topps).

Before Upper Deck, I never considered the value of the stuff around the product. To me, packaging was throwaway. It was the temporary thing between you and the actual thing you wanted. Instead, Upper Deck made packaging part of the experience. The wrapper became it’s own marketing tool; you knew there was something of quality, something that you wanted, inside.

Upper Deck was the first card brand that made photography fit the design. Other brands were littered with photos of players in awkward, canned poses or dull portrait shots. Consider the 1988 Topps Kevin Mitchell card using an unmemorable headshot of Mitchell taken sometime in mid-1987 before he was traded to the San Francisco Giants. Rather than re-taking the shot or choosing a different photo, Topps opted to paint Mitchell’s new jersey and cap over the existing photograph.

Kevin Mitchell card
Photography was never the focus of most baseball card designs.

For Upper Deck, imagery became a large component of the overall design of their cards. On the left is Mark McGwire’s ’87 Donruss rookie card (in typical forced batting stance pose) versus his iconic Upper Deck debut:

Mark McGwire cards
Mark McGwire’s memorable pose in his Upper Deck debut
juxtaposed with his forgettable Donruss rookie card

Up until the ’89 Upper Deck series, baseball card backs were standard fare regardless of the brand.  They’d show a player’s details and yearly statistics. For younger players and rookies without a long professional history, card brands would traditionally fill up this excess real estate with other metrics, “Career Highlights” and “Did you know” tidbits, or baseball trivia. In the end, card backs were usually design afterthoughts. Card fronts were the focus of card design.

Upper Deck made the back equally as compelling as the front. After all, why lose half of your design real estate? Rather than fill up a back with yearly statistics, they capped stats to a player’s last five seasons. For something like a Nolan Ryan card (a pitcher already two decades into his career), the design differences were dramatic. Here’s his ’89 Topps card vs. his ’89 Upper Deck card.

Nolan Ryan cards
Upper Deck made the bold design decision to limit historical player stats in favor of imagery.
Even for a stat-nerd like me, this was well worth the trade-off.

To be honest, I’d probably prefer the stat-rich stuff of more traditional card designs these days. But, when you’re market focused heavily on the 8-15 year old demographic, an action shot of your favorite player was far more interesting than his season batting average in 1982.

Did you notice something else stand out in the back design? The hologram! Not only was this a measure to prevent card counterfeiting (by the late-eighties, this was a sad reality), but a stamped hologram card to a 10-year old felt like, quite literally, a precious diamond. It gave the entire card a sense of grandeur and importance.

For Upper Deck, design was no longer just the chrome around the card—it was in the packaging, the quality of the content, and the feel of the material. They questioned design that once seemed unquestionable. Long before all the trends in design I’ve experienced on the web over the past two decades, it was—surprisingly—a startup baseball card company that provided some of my original education in what makes design special.