Collaborating with a Card Shark: A Lesson in Art, Design and Process

BirdsCollaborating with a Card Shark: A Lesson in Art, Design and Process
By Ed Roberts

Late last year I began setting my professional development goals for 2013. Goals that I believed would help me personally grow as a designer and enhance my performance as an in-house manager.

When working in-house, there typically isn’t much employee turnover. So chances are one could collaborate with the exact same people year after year. Now, you probably like the folks you get to collaborate with on a yearly basis. I do too. But let’s be honest; those collaborative relationships, whether it’s with a coworker in the creative department or the client on the 4th floor in the Risk and Compliance division, can get mighty stale from time-to-time.

With that in mind, I set a goal to seek out opportunities to build rich, collaborative relationships with people (outside my team) who work within my local design and advertising community.

Now that the first quarter of the year is almost over, I can safely say that I have made significant strides in accomplishing that goal. My intent is to continue building rich relationships based off the experience and lessons I learned about art, design, passion, commitment and most of all process from a card shark. Yep, you read it correctly, a bona fide card shark.

Two years ago, I attended an AIGA roundtable and met Emmanuel José. Emmanuel creates these fantastically oversized poker cards. I was absolutely riveted from listening to him describe his design process and knew immediately that I had to collaborate with him on a project.

Sketch_Paper CutWell, two years later I found the perfect project that we could collaborate on together, a promotional poster for a major printer in our state. Emmanuel and I would meet during lunch at a local coffee shop over several weeks to concept. I was struck by how integral sketching was to Emmanuel and our design process. It made me wonder if designers, with all the amazing software that is available at our finger tips, valued the importance of sketching in their design processes. I’d like to introduce you to Emmanuel José, a card shark who keenly understands the value of all facets of the design process, especially sketching.


Why do you create oversized poker playing cards?
I simply love playing poker and I’ve always wanted to create a personalized deck.

After college, I began working for a biopharmaceutical company, a job where I didn’t have many opportunities to express myself creatively—no surprise there. Wanting desperately to fuel my creative inclinations, in late 2010, I thought of a unique and creative way to generate one oversized poker playing card within one week, constructed entirely by hand out of cut paper.

I created my first card by the end of the first week in January of 2011. It was just me with my sketchpad, an X-ACTO® knife, tape, a few pieces of paper and a self-imposed deadline. I sketched and cut every night well into the morning just before having to leave for work. I absolutely loved the results and consequently renewed my passion for art and the process of creating.


What influences your aesthetic and interest in paper cutting?
As a sophomore in high school, my art teacher introduced me to a Jianzhi artist. Jianzhi is a very ancient style of Chinese paper cutting. After meeting this artist and learning more about the art form, I was assigned a project to create a portrait of one of my relatives using only cut paper. I thoroughly enjoyed the process.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until I was a junior at Davidson College that I decided to pick up an X-ACTO® knife again and start creating my own form of Jianzhi in my free time.

My aesthetic gravitates towards the representational—rarely do I create anything that is abstract. I believe my interest in art, psychology and paper cutting are probably part of the reasons why I enjoy the work of Maurits Cornelis Escher and Kara Walker.

SpadesWhen I look at your work, I’m struck by the elegant craftsmanship and well-designed compositions. I grew up appreciating art, but for me the flavor of design is different than art. Of course I can’t live without either. Your work’s high-level of tasteful design appeals to my design sensibilities.

I’m curious—do you consider yourself a designer or an artist?
I’ve always been technical in my approach to creating. I consider myself an artist. People have called me a designer because my work is precise and I’m conscious of composition, measurement and craft. I believe those qualities are inclusive to all who are visually creative. I deeply admire those artists who are also viewed as designers: M.C. Escher, Piet Mondrian, Barbara Kruger

I believe the difference between art and design is shaped by the context and perception of the viewer. Many who view my work online comment, “That’s a nice design.” While those who view my work up close and in person say, “That’s a work of art.” I find this paradox to be truly fascinating.


Where do you go to get inspired? Describe your creative process.
I love books, so libraries and bookstores often inspire me. If I draw a blank creatively, I make up stories to get the ideas flowing. I then sketch to bring structure to those ideas.

The rational model of the design process really is the driver of my creative process, especially in creating new poker cards. Honestly, 80 percent of my time is spent researching, planning and sketching.

I usually begin a new card by researching any unfamiliar themes like a rare species of bird for my clipped wings series. I’m currently obsessed with researching old circus acts for a new triptych I’m creating. It’s also very important for me to maintain the visual integrity of an actual poker playing card, planning the exact proportions and placement of each element on the card. “Measure twice, cut once” is my motto.

Some may think I sketch way too much before I begin cutting, but I think it saves time in revisions later. I know I could always cut an element again, but the dimensions of my paper are finite and I hate to waste a good piece of paper and miss a deadline.


I’d like to ask you the reader a few questions: How important or integral is research, planning and sketching to your design process in-house? Do you work out your ideas first on paper or do you go straight to the computer, open a program and begin designing? What is your design process?


Ed Roberts is a Creative Director who has assembled a brilliant in-house team of strategic, creative superheroes. Together they develop and execute the marketing and visual strategies for ElectriCities of NC, an organization that manages billions of dollars in electric generation assets and serves over 500,000 consumers. Follow Ed (@InHouseObs) on Twitter for more inspiration and insight.

3 thoughts on “Collaborating with a Card Shark: A Lesson in Art, Design and Process

  1. Melissa

    This is a wonderful article. I, too, am an in-house design manager and am inspired by the idea of collaborating with outside talent. How do you set this kind of arrangement? Is payment involved? I work for a non-profit and our budgets are tight.

  2. edr3

    Hi Melissa,

    I’m glad you liked the article. I’m also happy to try and answer your question too.

    Well, I usually meet with my direct supervisor prior to budget discussions begin and outline my personal goals and my teams goals for the coming fiscal year. In those preliminary budget discussions, I require that any conference fees, professional membership fees and staff development training costs be included. These items usually get approved because I am able to align those staff development goals to our organizations strategic plan. I position them in such a way that they show a direct benefit to the overarching purpose of our organization. Budgets are tight all around but I find if you can align them with the purpose of the organization you work for they generally will see the value from a business perspective. That’s key for us in-house manager’s.

    The collaboration that I referred to in the article came about from a chance meeting at a (free to members) local AIGA event. I also came across the poster project in a similar way. I was press checking another project and saw these absolutely gorgeous posters from previous years in the printer’s offices on my way to view some press pulls. I noticed that many were designed by well-known designers in our state and simply asked if I could create concepts for the 2013 posters. I knew this would give me an opportunity to design, which some days I long for when I’m managing folks.

    I then remembered the amazing artist I met at the AIGA event, whom I kept in contact with over the years. I simply called him, asking if he would be interested in collaborating with me pro bono on a fun project that might take him (and me) out of his comfort zone. He agreed. I then organized the project as I would any major, professional project I initiate with my in-house team. I gave the artist a creative brief and set a production schedule including our first creative meeting. It was an incredible and fun collaboration. From this experience, I’m now looking for ways to work with the artist (paying him a fee) on projects with my in-house team.

    The artist is keeping the original artwork and I will be giving him several posters from the printer. Plus both our names appear on the poster. He gets statewide recognition and so do I along my in-house team.

    You don’t have to pay for all your external collaborations. It is a good idea to get involved in your local AIGA, AAF and InSource events though. The costs are minimal. Often these organizations need designers to develop pro bono creative to advertise events or push major project initiatives. Those opportunities are perfect ways for in-house teams to expand their reach.

    Stay tuned, I’m doing some other things with my team that I’ll share in an upcoming post. Melissa, thank you so much for taking time to read the article and posting a comment. I truly appreciate it. I hope I shed a little more light on the topic.


  3. Melissa


    Thanks for these recommendations. We’re currently setting our budgets for the next fiscal year, so the timing of your advice is perfect!
    There are local design groups I can tap into as well.
    Wow. It’s so nice to hear from someone who “gets” what in-house teams are up against. Keeping the spark alive is what it’s all about.