What We Can Learn From Unlikely Sources

I don’t think I speak with someone these days and don’t get the feeling that the card industry is playing on borrowed time. In general, people people have a negative opinion over where sports cards are going as a whole, myself being one of the neysayers. To me, its obvious that certain parts of the hobby are becoming disinterested with the products being released, and even more people are skeptical of the staying power of the manufacturers as a result of that feeling. When you have a situation like this, its pretty tough to ignore that maybe there is some re-evaluation that needs to be done.

Some collectors have cited that cards in general have become confusing to the point where they have stopped buying. Personally, I disagree, but that is me, not them. The companies seem to agree with the confused people, and have actually intiated programs to move away from the many products that promote said confusion. I actually see where they are coming from as cards themselves have moved so far into a closed demographic that there is no way out. This is where my discussion hinges, and it was actually brought to my attention recently by an unlikely source – my XBOX.

Think about this for a second. How many times have you seen a kid walk up to a Playstation and look for an instruction manual? Let me say, from the beginning, I know my brother and I have never even opened that package of materials it comes with. You can actually go to some of the most underprivleged areas in the country, places where the literacy rate is miles below the national average, and there are kids that are playing these games. Even though they cant read, they still know how to game. Its because video games have created and recreated themselves around an intuitive design, one that kids have infused into their DNA. It’s the reason that video games is one of the most profitable industries in the world.

Cards have gone in the complete opposite direction, and I am talking 100% independent of the “kids are the future” argument. Instead of moving towards an intutive layout accessible to the sports fans that drive this industry, Cards have imploded upon themselves. The sets are only well layed out to existing collectors, and its rare that a casual fan would look at cards and identify with what they see. The nitches where sports fans latched on previously have been replaced by endless parallels and terrible designs.

The reason I say that visual design is so important in cards, is because a good looking card is universal. Its why I love signed base cards so much. Simplicity. No stupid or lame subset name, no ridiculous parallel structure. Just auto on card. Because most base cards are well designed, the appeal becomes highly evident. If more sets focused on similar concepts and used visual appeal to drive the casual fans to card collecting, the hobby and industry would grow.

On the flip side of things, when you have products like some of the stuff that Topps calls its high end brands, it locks out the people that need to be brought in. If card companies produced cards with layout and design as the main focus, the confusion would become more invisible. I have heard the number of products produced as being the main source of confusion, but I actually think its more of the way the sets are approached. If you look back at a time where confusion was not part of the equation, it was not the number of sets that helped, it was the set content itself.

My solution is about focusing on the right things. We should not go in the direction of National Treasures basketball and pack products full of needless jersey cards and subsets that no one cares about. Instead, we need to go more in the direction of a product like the flagship Topps brand, even in high end settings. Topps, as well as Topps/Bowman Chrome is so straight forward in its approach, that even the most casual of collector can appreciate its merits. Forget something like Playoff Absolute Football, where every card has five billion parallels and nothing ever follows a pattern. That is wrong. Even sets like SP Authentic are perfect examples, because they are so extremely popular without being ridiculously expansive. ‘

Creating access is the most important thing that the manufacturers need to do, and the gate key is directly related to simplicity and good design. It has nothing to do with number of products produced, because if every set looked as good as SPA, we wouldn’t have an argument. Sets look so terrible, so much of the time, that the access that visual appeal provides is replaced with, “who the hell is at the helm of this sinking ship?”

OooOOOooO! Shiny!

What the fuck? Seriously. Im so fucking sick of companies using mirror board, foil board and especially the rainbow foil board as a coating for their cards. It chips, it looks awful, and the cards are never in acceptable condition out of the pack. This is because every single ding is highlighted by the poor printing process and the crappy coating doesnt highlight the subject of the card. I dont get why it is used, especially when most of us cant fucking stand it.

For those of you who dont understand what I am talking about, pull out one of your cards from Absolute, Leaf Certified, Triple Threads, Elite, Prestige, Threads and a few others that are printed on what seems to be mirror or foil. The cards are pretty tough to miss. They arent printed on cards like the Chrome, where the card is produced on special stock, but more like cheaper stock that looks like the player pictures were printed on wrapping paper and rolled onto the boards. For this, you can see why so many of think this type of shitty printing should disappear.
Because the cards are printed on cheap stock, they become extremely condition sensitive, as well as looking like poop. When the coating is chipped or damaged, especially in production, its almost unavoidable in drawing your attention. Unlike other normal cards, where the coating cannot peel off, a ding is more in the actual stock than the card. For these types, damage usually keeps the printing in tact, rather than looking like it is peeling off. Foil board isnt so lucky, because of the process in which it is printed. You will see that in addition to the stock being damaged, the foil overlay will also pull apart. Because its reflective, a ding is much easier for anyone to recognize due to the breaking of the flat mirrored surface.
The looks are the other part of the equation, as a good card on mirror board looks twice as bad as a bad card on regular flat stock. I cant think of a worse idea to print cards as one printed on a surface that reflects rainbows. Not only that, but the scans are basically impossible to get something that an online collector can appreciate, leading to more problems. If I ever have the choice between a card printed on rainbow board or a card on a flat board like base Topps, ill take the flat every time. That MO is something I know many collectors have adopted in recent years, only because buying boxes of products like Limited, Triple Threads and Absolute lead to getting damaged cards practically 100% of the time.
Panini is obviously the worst offender, as almost every set they produce uses some sort of foil board, with the exception of National Treasures. Im sure for those of you who have ever bought a box of Absolute, you have also pulled a rookie premiere card that is missing part of a letter die cut, or has edges that look like a tiny ding fairy came and hammered in the sides like crazy. You can also go and check out Beckett’s crapfully displayed preview for the 2009 set, and really get a good idea what to expect. Remember, those preview cards are supposed to be the BEST ones they can find. Go check it out, im going to guarantee you have the same idea I had. The first thing I thought was, “If these are the best, holy fuck.”
Lets be honest here, 15 years ago collectors liked shiny things and were impressed by a card that took it to a level that hadnt been done. Now, we are more impressed by cool design elements rather than some crappy board you have stockpiledd in the back room from 1998. I think most people agree that cards like the Rookie Premiere Material cards from Absolute, the Freshman Fabrics from Certified, or the Phenoms in Limited would be that much cooler if they didnt look like you were looking into a mirror with rainbow accents. Imagine those cards on a flat stock with brighter colors and clearer elements. Its ridiculous how much better that would be.
Of course the morons who produce each of Donruss’ releases are running around with blinders on as usual, thinking that their horrid design team has great ideas, rather than accepting the fact that the tech is old and rotting. “You mean we could go back to the drawing board and do the work to make a good set, or we could do it like last year and hit the links? Huh, thats an easy one.”
Foil is the work of hacks, and its starting to reek of laziness across the board. Instead of putting out cards that actually look good, its seeming like the companies are using the foil to hide a bad design. Because the colors are dulled and the design becomes obscured, its not as obvious how crappy the card really looks. Lets get rid of the mirrors, rainbows, bright neon orange, and all the other tricks. Start doing better. Make cards look good. Its that simple.

Please Leave The Mayo To Hellman’s

Most of you know that I am not a fan of retro sets. Personally, I think it’s a sign of laziness and lack of creativity to just redo an old set for today’s market. Of course, for people unlike me, Retro sets are a must buy, mostly because they are designed to play to a collector’s set building side as well as their nostalgic sentiments about a product from their childhood or earlier.

So far, Magic and Philadelphia were the only slated retro sets of the year, and that was more than enough for me, but not for everyone else. Obviously, Topps finally realized that they were going to have a tough sell for everything not named Chrome or something similar, so they put Mayo football back on the calendar for 2009. After last year, many people lost faith in the product after checklist and collation snafus, so this year they basically decided to remake Allen and Ginter baseball into a football product and call it a day. They have now announced Rip Cards, minis, tons of parallels, framed autos, and box loaders, all of which make this a set that they knew could sell very well, instead of actually making a worthwhile product based on an original idea. Mayo’s current release information is frustrating and boring to me, as I would much rather have something completely different from what is out there already. Why not just insert mayo cards into an existing set? That would be much better.

Im sure that Mayo football wont be awful, retro products never are (except for Magic), but it stinks of stale formats, and makes me want to scream. Im sure that once collectors get bored with buying modernized versions of older cards, there wont be many more retro products that are made. Don’t get me wrong, collectors WILL get bored, as we all know that card companies never get the “too much of a good thing” idea down. When the calendar is stuffed to the seems with old products that have been updated, people will want the creativity back. Until then, I guess Ill have to suffer through all the ones on the calendar this year. Although Im guessing that UD Philadelphia will be the best of the bunch this year due to the inscriptions, on card autos, and use of the most popular retro designs on the market, Im not going to buy any of it. Same with Magic, same with Mayo, same with all the retro sets they make.

I want more sets with simple designs like SP Authentic and Topps Chrome, products that focus on the layout and design of a card as the selling point rather than a gimmick or a stale idea like the retro sets. Both Chrome and SPA have been around for years, but neither seem outdated to me. Its because the cards are focused on as the way to show off the brands, resulting in awesome cards that collectors love.

H/T Matt for the Mayo Pic.