The Ultimate Deck: Playing Card Design by Stranger & Stranger

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Editor’s Note: The following story is brought to you by PRINT’s trusted partner, PaperSpecs. Check out a vast number of packaging possibilities with the free PaperSpecs Packaging Cheat Sheet.

While some may think that computer Solitaire pretty much killed off the last vestiges of modern interest in playing cards, we’re actually enjoying something of a card renaissance these days. The finest example of this may be the Ultimate Deck, a promo piece lovingly crafted by wine & spirits packaging design firm Stranger & Stranger.


The amazing box we’ll get to in due course, but my word, the playing card design! Designed within an inch of their lives, they resemble an exciting mélange of high-end tarot cards and the very best of DeviantArt.

Says owner Kevin Shaw, “It was like creating and artworking 54 wine labels in a month. And that was on top of our usual workload.”


Dan & Dave & Stranger & Stranger

Wanting to produce something bold to celebrate 2012 as the year Stranger & Stranger expanded its alcohol packaging business to include other luxury goods, the company came up with the perfect piece, thanks to a fortuitous call from one of the principals at prestigious playing card purveyor Dan and Dave Industries.

“These guys are THE masters of the card trick,” says Shaw. “They get pulled in by Hollywood to do the [card] close-ups in movies.”

They also happen to be partially responsible for fueling the aforementioned card renaissance thanks to DeckStarter, a Kickstarter-like crowd-funding site they co-created with The Dieline in 2014. DeckStarter allows anyone to upload a custom-designed deck and have people pre-buy them before they go into production. If people contribute enough in pre-orders to fund the project, the cards get made.

“And they asked us if we wanted to do some cards,” remembers Shaw. “Of course being the masochists that we are, we wanted to do something different, so I suggested a whole deck of transformation picture cards.” (“Transformation picture cards” are those whose non-face cards somehow incorporate their suit — e.g., hearts, clubs — into the artwork.)

Stranger & Stranger has earned many a win in the PRINT Regional Design Annual. Check out the full gallery of winners from New York City, or enter the 2017 RDA by the extended (FINAL) deadline on May 8!

Printed by the United States Playing Card Company, “maybe a dozen illustrators produced the images for the whole deck,” says Shaw. “We don’t generally give anyone free rein with anything; we’re way too anal and controlling for that. And we’re usually very clear and tight about what we’re looking for.”

And considering what Stranger & Stranger was aiming for in terms of quality, it wouldn’t have worked any other way.

“Every Element Was Overspec’d”

In all, the deck contained 54 cards — including two jokers and two information cards. To produce those and the uber-intricate tuck box, they pretty much used every process and finishing technique you can think of.


Says Shaw, “We design liquor brands and the labels are often printed on specialist 12- or even 14-station presses. (If someone comes to us from print design you should see their eyes go wide when they realize that life is much more than a 4-station CMYK press.) So we’ve got used to specifying multiple embosses, debosses, foils, varnishes and special inks. Every element was overspec’d.

“I think one of the nicest things to come from the project was the big picture rather than the details. A lot of people just framed the print sheet — the whole deck on one sheet of paper before it was trimmed — and it looks great.”

The Tuck Box

This being a Stranger & Stranger product, it’s hardly surprising that you could easily spend a day drinking in all the gorgeous details of the deck’s packaging alone.


The front and back of this glossy box are intricately embossed with an ambigram of the word “Stranger” foil stamped on both sides. “Playing cards are in themselves ambigrams so it kind of made sense at the time, and we’re always pushing ourselves to try new things,” says Shaw. “The only thing that’s off limits at Stranger is tobacco.”

Closer examination reveals many other clever touches — esoteric phrases and patterns, that iconic twin-face/cup Stranger & Stranger logo, and what looks like a tax seal at the top of the pack that must be broken to access the cards inside.


The Special Edition

As if these beauties weren’t enough, Stranger & Stranger sent out another 400 special edition box sets to clients and friends. These were comprised of two decks, each in its own cloth bag, packaged together in a handsome presentation box. The cards inside also happened to be edged in gold.


“We’re well known for not cutting corners and for using the best printers and suppliers we can find,” says Shaw. “The gilded edges alone — done by some a
rtisan shop in — cost more than most decks.”

As for the project itself, “it took a while to put together but it became Dan & Dave’s best-selling deck, even if it’s not the easiest deck to actually play with. On that point though, someone said he’d played the best game of ‘War’ ever with them,” says Shaw… “when he was stoned.”


Wow, that Ultimate Deck tuck box sure is gorgeous. Working on a package of your own? Find a bevvy of packaging style choices — from Trays to Seal Ends — and even some design tips, too, in the PaperSpecs Packaging Cheat Sheet — download yours right now!

Related resources:

  1. Brand Building 101: How to Build, Manage and Market a Brand

  2. The Package Pricing Bundle

  3. Best Practices for Graphic Designers: Packaging