Playing cards have been part of human life for over a millennium, used for everything from children's games to grown-up gambling, as well as being utilised for roles as diverse as the staple magician's tool and advertisers' promotional material.
As only one side of each card – the face – must serve a purpose, the back is a blank canvas for artistic expression. And it is one that designers are jumping on to with glee, so we've dug out 20 of our favourite designs for custom playing cards.
The team behind 52Aces are back with their third deck, and as before, each individual playing card has been designed by a separate artist. This limited edition deck is made up of 54 cards and features distinctive, quirky, and sometimes even gruesome illustrations. Provided in a high quality tin can, this set has already been awarded the Red Dot Award, so be sure to grab a deck before they all disappear.
02. Glitch 2.0
Last year, designer Soleil Zumbrunn launched a Kickstarter for her GLITCH playing cards; the campaign was such a success, 2015 saw the Denmark-born creative launching her second set of GLITCH cards. GLITCH 2.0 feature new tuck art, new card colours and new card designs. "All cards have been revised and are much less headache inducing – honest!" says Zumbrunn.
03. Playing Arts
Following on from the success of its first set, Playing Arts are back with a new deck where each card is designed by a different designer and illustrator. A total of 55 artists contributed, with an exclusive reverse pattern created by Starbucks and Adobe designer Danny Ivan.
04. Lisa Nemetz
German graphic designer Lisa Nemetz specialises in branding, typography and lettering. Here, her nautical playing cards were created using hand-crafted stamps.
Including numbers, shapes and characters, she sticks to the nautical colour scheme of red, white and blue. Effortlessly teaming together the ship-like aspects, these playing cards are some of the prettiest we've ever seen.
05. The Design Deck
The Design Deck enables you to learn graphic design while playing poker. It's by no means on par with a degree or graphic design experience but it's a fun and simple way to learn the essentials of graphic design, improve your skills as a designer, and understand more about the design you interact with everyday.
Each of the 52 faces has a piece of useful design information, complete with a visual example, combining to create a well-rounded, thorough examination of the subject. They're also printed on thick 310gsm cardstock with a linen texture, so they feel great too!
Ahoy there mateys! This maritime inspired collection of 54 illustrated playing cards features four unique suits including Pirate Crew, Cursed Pirate Crew, Royal Navy Officers and Mythical Sea Creatures.
Each pack of cards is poker-sized, boxed and shrink-wrapped, with both cards and box finished with a matte overlay. The box artwork was created by the wonderful Brighton-based illustrator James Burlinson.
07. Pedale Design
Created by Pedale design, this limited edition run of 10,000 decks was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that went on to pass the target by over $140,000. It's easy to see why.
The cards come in a white tuck case, using black ink, embossed with gold and black backs and bee quality coated card stock. The illustrations themselves are incredible, with the team at Pedale design also creating a number of tees to go alongside the playing cards.
08. Dark Suits
You could say that Mr. Mead is the Tim Burton of the design world. Creating creepy and hauntingly beautiful characters, his work focuses on dressing animals up as humans - a childhood fear he later embraced in his career.
Here, he has created own edition of playing cards, with each card adorned with one of his 'Bio-Anthropomorphic' characters. The four suits have been adopted by different groups; Birds have adopted the Hearts, Horned Beasts the Diamonds, Foxes the Clubs and Cats the Spades. A beautifully dark set.
Hydro74 is an Orlando-based designer, otherwise known as Joshua M. Smith. Complexity and a fluid organic approach is what is highly valued in each and every piece of his illustration work.
"An Illustration to me is something that tells a story without words needed. It builds a bond with the viewer who will either get it, or find it horrible, yet, the interaction is what is desired when doing a piece." This set of playing cards does just that.
Netherlands based illustrator and designer Felix Blommestijn has created this weird and wonderful set of playing cards that sees a whole host of creepy characters taking centre stage.
Using a monochrome colour scheme, Blommestijn uses the space to his advantage - creating an environment as well as the characters themselves on the small space.
Commissioned by publisher The Folio Society, illustrator Jonathan Burton has designed these custom playing cards in a beautifully nostalgic style. Each card in the 'Odd Bods' deck features a quirky character or amusing illustration that delights each time you see it.
We love the brilliant mix of surrealism, twists on the traditional icons, and chucklesome juxtapositions in this deck, but feel that these custom playing cards could be too distracting for a quick game of 'Snap!'.
Illustrated by Simon Frouws in South Africa, Artisan Playing Cards: The White Edition is a heavily stylized pack of custom playing cards featuring gold foil hot-stamped onto ultra-lux FSC-certified white paper derived from sustainable forests and using vegetable-based inks and starch-based laminates.
The White Edition was unveiled this year to complement to the original Black Edition produced in December 2012. Veteran US magician David Copperfield called them "the best playing cards ever produced" - high praise indeed.
13. The Type Deck
Every one of The Type Deck's 52 custom playing cards is a uniquely designed piece of custom typography design. With each of these cards being one of a kind, each deck has the potential to be a true collector's item.
The Type Deck will be produced on a limited edition run thanks to a successful crowd funding spell on Kickstarter.
14. Joe Douchet
Sometimes, less is more. That's the concept behind these beautiful custom playing cards by designer Joe Douchet. Using simple geometric shapes, Douchet left just enough visual information on each card for players to still be able to use them.
Titled IOTA, the design uses circles, a diamond and triangles to represent both spades and hearts and a single diagonal line on the reverse of each card.
Brilliantly stripping away all the heritage and history of good playing card design, the team at Hundred Million have removed everything they could to make custom playing cards fit for a creative.
The suits have been swapped for the printer's choice of ink: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, and the design on the back created from the kind of utilitiarian registration marks and checks usually never seen by the public.
Clever, simple and as easy as ever to use - the cards are coloured by different opacities of ink, creating an amazing gradient when fanned out in your hand during that tense poker game. Priced at only $14 (£9) we think these cards are a creative steal.
Illustrator Marc Scheff was contacted by a member of alternative banking group Occupy Wall St, who wanted a few illustrations for a deck of informative custom playing cards. Thus began a huge illustration project aimed to educate people about the current US recession through a deck of cards.
Within a few days, the project snowballed into a massive collaborative undertaking involving 28 artists from around the world. The deck grew to 56 cards (52 in the deck, plus four bonus cards). "All of the illustrators came in with incredible excitement and ideas for this collaboration," says Scheff. "I’m thrilled to say that it is a huge success."
17. Best Made Co.
These custom playing cards are designed by Best Made in New York, and printed in Erlanger, Kentucky by the United States Playing Card Company (legendary makers of the Bicycle and Bee brands).
Best Made explains the design: "We enlarged the numbers and symbols, streamlined the face cards to geometric bliss, added some lightning bolts or two, and above all we gave our cards the much needed whitespace and breathing room for your eyes (so you can play by the glow of a campfire)."
Ridley's Kaleidoscope is a wildly colourful range of traditional games, toys and jokes, all enclosed in 1960s inspired colourful vintage style packaging. While the packaging design of this set of custom playing cards is true to retro toymaker Ridley's original style, London's Wild & Wolf has ensured that there is a modern edge to the classic brand.
Another set of custom playing cards that blends the old and new is the 'Deluxe Playing Cards Pixar' set from UK-based graphic designer and illustrator Chris Anderson. Anderson has used a colour palette based on vintage board games to create cards which feature Pixar characters including Woody, Nemo and Mr Incredible.
20. Game of Thrones
A while back, Jim Tuckwell started a project where he illustrated a few playing cards as a fan tribute to Game of Thrones. Like everyone else, Etsy user Paul Nojima was floored by his work and loved the idea. As Tuckwell was unable to create a full pack, Nojima decided to create this inspired deck.