Design Against Humanity: The Creative Team Behind the Blockbuster Game

Cards Against Humanity is a study in contrasts: It’s a best-selling game despite being available for free. It’s hilariously inappropriate, yet its founders have given millions to charity. And its design couldn’t be simpler, yet dig deeper and you’ll find a thriving creative duo helping Cards represent far more than “A party game for horrible people.”

Cards Against Humanity product photography taken by Brent Knepper on March 09, 2014.

Cards Against Humanity product photography taken by Brent Knepper on March 09, 2014.

Creative Director Amy Nicole Schwartz and Junior Designer Lauren Gallagher have extended the game’s visual language in their first six months, says co-founder Max Temkin. “One of the problems we developed is the ‘Swiss design dungeon’ we constructed for ourselves,” he says. “[Co-founder] Ben Hantoot and I are both competent designers, but we committed early to this style and now feel very limited by it. It’s been such a breath of fresh air to get new talent into the design mix, first with Emily Haasch and now with Amy and Lauren.”

Portrait of Amy Nicole Schwartz taken at Some Office on August 03, 2015.

Portrait of Amy Nicole Schwartz taken at Some Office on August 03, 2015. Brent Knepper

Lauren Gallagher

Lauren Gallagher

Both have the art school backgrounds — Schwartz at DePaul University and the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Gallagher at Columbia College Chicago — that Temkin and Hantoot don’t, which gives method to Cards’ design madness. “Amy and Lauren are pushing us far outside our comfort zone, greatly expanding the possibilities of what Cards can look like while still keeping it fundamentally ‘us,’” Temkin says. To see where the game is going, however, one must look at where it started.

Cards is the brainchild of eight Chicago-area kids, friends since elementary school. Home from college in 2008, the group — which formed an improv club in high school and were used to creating their own games — developed the earliest version of Cards for a New Year’s Eve party. The game become a cult hit when they brought decks back to campus. That spring, they built Cards’ first website, uploading the deck, which for two years was solely available for free online. In 2011, Cards became a Kickstarter success, raising more than $15,000 to launch to a wider audience.

The game soon grew from a laugh between friends to its perch atop Amazon’s best-seller list. The original deck — which you can still download for free — spawned three foreign editions, six expansions, numerous special packs and several hilarious holiday promotions. The whole time, founders bucked traditional business strategy, retaining their independence. Besides, you’d be hard-pressed to find a marketing guru who would advise spending Black Friday raising your prices or selling customers literal boxes of cow poop.

The team grew with the game: Beyond the original founders, there are now 10 full-time Cards staffers. Those based in Chicago — like Schwartz and Gallagher — work from the company’s unique office, a 10,000-square-foot converted warehouse that had previously housed a candy factory and mechanic. The space, which Cards shares with friends working in fields ranging from gaming to photography to development, includes a 90-seat theater and meeting rooms built from rehabbed shipping containers.

“Working at Cards feels like a homecoming,” says Schwartz, who also teaches in DePaul’s graphic design program. “I’ve played video and board games my whole life, so working at the intersection of design and gaming is like living a childhood dream. Beyond feeling at home in this office of equally geeky people, the culture and values of the company align quite well with mine.”

These values manifest themselves in myriad ways, most often through special packs, holiday promotions and unique events. Apart from allowing Schwartz and Gallagher to flex their creative muscles, these side projects have done a tremendous amount of good. Cards has given nearly $3 million to charity. Recipients include the Wikimedia Foundation, DonorsChoose.org, Sunlight Foundation and the Chicago Design Museum.

Schwartz developed the branding system and promotional site for the game’s Science Ambassador Scholarship, which will turn more than $500,000 in Science Pack proceeds into full-ride awards for women majoring in STEM programs. “It’s been an incredible honor to bring this to life,” she says. “It’s a project many people wouldn’t expect me to work on as the Creative Director of Cards Against Humanity.”

ScienceAmbassadorScholarship_Logo

Photo Credit: Cards Against Humanity

ScienceAmbassadorScholarship_Site

Photo Credit: Cards Against Humanity

This July, at Indianapolis’s Gen Con, Cards sponsored the Concert Against Humanity, a live show that allowed attendees to protest Indiana’s discriminatory Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “We encouraged everyone to write letters to Indiana lawmakers during intermission about how the RFRA affects them, with help from Lambda Legal,” says Schwartz, who developed the event’s website. “We had a really positive response to it — many Indiana residents feel very strongly about the act and how it affects their daily lives. We had some attendees in tears about how much this meant to them.”

Adds Gallagher, “Ultimately, all we want is to create something for a community we care about.”

When she took the job, Schwartz probably wasn’t expecting to create the website for a private island, either. As part of 2014’s holiday promotion, Cards bought a small Maine island, renamed it “Hawaii 2” and divided it amongst 250,000 participants. “Now, they can say they ‘own’ part of a private island, and Cards Against Humanity can help preserve this gorgeous land as a pristine wildlife area, making sure no one turns it into a McMansion island or TGI Fridays.”

August’s PAX Prime brought a different challenge: Promote a special pack done with Lucky Peach magazine. The solution: Freeze cards in popsicles, selling them from a specially branded food truck they called Cards Popsicle Humanity. Beyond the vehicle, Schwartz and Gallagher branded popsicle wrappers with names like “It’s Too Late To Stop Climate Change Cherry” and “Mango Fuck Yourself.” Says Schwartz, “It was incredibly fun to design the wrappers and food truck — and then watch people bewildered with the product, ultimately throwing your hard work into the trash. What an experience.”

Cards Popsicle Humanity | photo by Andrew Ferguson

Cards Popsicle Humanity | Photo credit Andrew Ferguson

PAX Prime Banners

PAX Prime Banners | Photo credit: Amy Nicole Schwartz

“That has always been the fun part of working on Cards Against Humanity,” Temkin says. “From a design point of view, we’ve already solved the problem of making new cards. But doing these new kinds of jokes and announcements give us an opportunity to tell different kinds of jokes, and fit the form to the function.”

Before PAX, Schwartz and Gallagher helped launch an entirely new company, Blackbox. The Cards team is using its experience to develop a packaging system that helps independent creators sell goods directly to their audience. Blackbox launched with Exploding Kittens, the most-backed game in Kickstarter history. Schwartz and Gallagher expanded Haasch’s identity, designing the landing page, postcards and packaging. “Branding Blackbox has been one of my favorite projects,” says Gallagher. “It’s also been a really good balance for Amy and me in terms of dividing work and playing to our strengths. I had a print-heavy education, so I played a big part in the typography choices and grid system, applying those to the brand and website.”

Despite these once-in-a-lifetime experiences, design at Cards is, essentially, an in-house position. That’s why Schwartz prefers it. “I really loved working at agencies for the diversity of projects,” she says, “but the major challenge was always convincing the client to make the right design decisions. The fun of being in-house is that I can better drive those correct decisions forward. I love having my hands on every part of the company, from product development to conventions and beyond. I don’t have a client to appease.”

Answering only to themselves allows the team to work together seamlessly. “Design is a guiding principle of the company,” says Schwartz, “so Lauren and I have our hands in almost everything Cards does. We had a meeting to discuss our big holiday pranks, and I suggested as many jokes as the non-designers suggested ways design could make them funnier. No one is really ‘the boss.’ We’re all the boss of what we do.”

Cards’ Community Director, Jenn Bane, sees Schwartz and Gallagher’s fingerprints everywhere. “Our design team breathes life into every project,” she says. “When we’re at crowded, noisy conventions, they make our signage beautiful and eye-catching. When we write, they make sure people actually read it. I’m an organizer and writer, so I deliver the material, but they essentially craft the design ‘punchline.’”

As Creative Director, Schwartz is embracing the opportunity to mentor Gallagher. “Lauren and I made specific goals for our personal growth and for Cards’ design, and we help each other reach them,” she says. “Depending on the project and workload, we either both take a stab at art direction or we divvy up the projects, roll on them and get feedback from each other. It’s very fluid and very natural.”

This teamwork permeates the company, which, for Schwartz, is the direct outcome of so many women working together. The CAH Girl Gang, as they call themselves, includes Schwartz, Gallagher and Bane, as well as Trin Garritano, Events Director; Claire Friedman, Experience Manager; Alex Cox, Deputy Events Manager; Holly Chernobyl, Retail Accounts Alien Queen; Karlee Esmailli, Assistant Community Manager; Kara Fagan, Assistant; Maria Ranahan, All-Star Intern; and Ayla Arthur, Game Designer in Residence.

“The CAH Girl Gang are responsible for the bulk of shenanigans customers encounter,” says Schwartz, “from witty customer service emails to organizing every aspect of our convention presence. We have matching knives and work incredibly well together. I barely believe I get to work alongside such smart people who are such experts at what they do. Their expertise and support makes my job a dream.”

It’s a dream come true for Bane, too. “It’s an incredible feeling that I desperately wish every woman could experience — personally and professionally,” she says. “At Cards, I have a voice, I feel supported, I make decisions, and, as a group, we ladies get shit done.”

The team spirit between Schwartz and Gallagher is palpable. “Amy has been amazing to work with,” says Gallagher. “She’s especially helped me become comfortable with the stuff they don’t teach you in school, like working with printers and communicating design with coworkers. By working with her and at Cards, I’m growing faster than I would in any other junior designer position. We’re aware of how unconventional working here is, but it’s also exciting for us, because we get to figure out how we want to define ourselves.”

One thing they aren’t doing is letting others define them. Schwartz raises an eyebrow recalling how Fast Company — reporting on the Design Pack — noted Cards “isn’t exactly known for its eye-catching graphic design.”

“Obviously, they’ve never walked the floor of Gen Con and seen what passes for design in the gaming community,” she says. “While the stark, Swiss aesthetic of Cards isn’t exciting in the realm of graphic design, the things we do on a daily basis are. People would be shocked to know how little of my time is spent kerning black-and-white Helvetica.”

Says Gallagher, bluntly: “I wouldn’t have a job here if it was!”


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