Who is Elettra Deganello?Elettra Deganello is a respected freelance visual designer and illustrator who hails from Italy. She was only introduced to custom playing cards in 2017, but it didn't take her long to make an impression.
Her first successful projects were for the Passione Playing Cards label: Pinocchio (2018) and Florentia (2020), and were both artistic designs. You may also have seen her work in the stunning Blue Jay Dentistry deck, which was the second installment of the popular Meadowlark Playing Cards series. Her first solo project was the Bold deck, which was intended to be a more practical design well suited to card games.
As proof that Elettra should be considered among today's elite designers is the fact that she has been nominated as Artist of the Year for the 2021 Diamond Awards. These prestigious awards are bestowed annually by 52 Plus Joker, the American Playing Card Club. The Artist of the Year category recognizes the top playing card designers in the industry, based on their output that year. The 2021 winner hasn't yet been announced, but to be one of the six nominees is already an amazing achievement.
Her Pinocchio Playing Cards also were a Silver Design Award winner at the 2018-19 A'Design Award & Competition in the Toy, Games and Hobby Products Design Award category. This is an international award that recognizes excellence in original design, and is one of the highest achievements and honours that can be earned.
I have corresponded several times with Elettra, and she kindly agreed to do this interview, so it is a great opportunity for us to learn about her and the amazing playing cards she has been involved with creating.
The InterviewFor those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background?
I was born and raised in Northern Italy, and ever since I was young, I have always nurtured a deep passion for art and illustration. My family supported me all my life, but since drawing has always been considered a mere hobby, I was never encouraged to study art. However, I continued drawing, and I regret nothing!
With this preamble, I studied Classics (*the Italian educational system is very different from the one you are probably used to), and after that, I wanted to become a doctor. Helping other people seemed to be the best way to give a sense to my life. Then by chance, I discovered the degree programs in Industrial Design and Design as part of the Architecture Department of the Università degli Studi di Firenze: the area of study was creative yet technical. It included some drawing classes, some philosophy, and I decided to give it a shot. Therefore, at 18, I moved to Florence, and here I got a bachelor’s degree in Design.
After university, I decided to stay in Tuscany, and I started working as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. Today I am still working as a freelancer, and I also teach classes on illustration and graphic design at the International School of Comics in Florence. When I’m not working, I am usually studying solfège or playing my cello, swimming, reading a book, or visiting an art exhibition.
When did you start designing playing cards, and what got you started?
I started designing playing cards when I was about to finish university. In 2017/18, I met Riccardo Conturbia and Maurizio Toccafondi, who were respectively the founder and the art director of Passione Playing Cards LLC before it shut down. I immediately fell in love with this world.
Since I wanted to convince Riccardo to let me design a deck, I started to propose a number of concepts until I came up with an "Alice in Wonderland" themed deck of cards to show him that I could do it. This persistence presented me with the chance to design Pinocchio playing cards (my debut project) in collaboration with the Passione team.
What are some of the things you especially enjoy about designing playing cards?
Playing cards are a design masterpiece with a delightful history and a significant depth, depending on how you approach the product. Designing a deck implies working on many different and challenging aspects or levels - it’s a design party that can involve research too. I think these aspects are the ones I love the most.
How do you come up with an idea for a deck design?
I usually receive specific theme proposals that I decide to accept or not, but sometimes one thing can lead to another - like most things in life.
For example, with Florentia, I had a clear picture of the project in mind. In the case of Pinocchio, Riccardo proposed the theme, and I liked it. In the case of the Rx Almanac, coming in 2022, it started as a special tuck box for 'Pharmacy on Main', and it became an extended concept. Every deck is different.
How many decks have you designed so far?
So far, I have completed 6 projects where I have designed 8 unique decks (Pinocchio and Florentia include 2 decks with 100% different faces). If we also consider other variations of my designs (e.g. book-like tuck boxes and re-colours, but not gilded editions), the decks should be 14.
Which deck in your portfolio of created designs is your favourite, and why?
This question is complicated (or I'd better say that the answer is). It's like asking a mom or a dad to choose one of their children. You know that, right?! I put all of myself in every design, and every design is a piece of my life, so every deck is unique in a different way. Considering that I tend to change style over and over again, it gets even more difficult for me to choose one deck.
Maybe Pinocchio because it is the first one, and the Rx Almanac because it is the most recent one, and it shows the artistic freedom that I think I am achieving thanks to music.
How would you describe the style of your playing card decks, and what characteristics help set your designs apart from others?
I tend to change style with every new design because I like putting myself to the test and learning new techniques. I am always looking for new challenges.
A common trait is that each deck tends to be different and unique! Other common traits include attention to detail and elegance, according to some supporters. A touch of whimsy always hangs in the air too.
What is your process in designing a deck of playing cards?
Every deck requires a different approach which depends on the purpose, the style and/or the theme. The development of the concept comes first, and the preparation of print files comes last. These are, in my opinion, the unique - trivial - constants.
What are some of the easiest and hardest parts of this process?
I do everything in my power not to make the process easy by using a new style, testing new printing techniques, combining illustrations and cultural purposes, and so on. Easy is boring.
The hardest part is the end: I have an existential crisis any time I finish a project.
What is it about designing a deck of playing cards as a creator that you wish consumers realized more?
Nothing in particular. I am thankful for every single consumer who appreciates the projects I make. My illustrations tell a lot about who I am, and I can only feel gratitude for every single supporter.
I particularly appreciate when people feel the depth I am committed to adding. The idea that someone bought Pinocchio and read the booklet, rediscovering Collodi's masterpiece, or that someone learned and deepened something new about the history of Florence and its architecture, or about Bodoni... this is one of the aspects I care the most about.
How long does it take to actually design a deck, and what aspects of this take the most work and time?
It can take from 3 to 12 months. Each deck is different and time-consuming in diversified aspects but, in general, I feel comfortable saying that the back design tends to be the most time-demanding design component.
Do you use playing cards yourself, and if so, what for?
Most decks are like books I read: they lay in my library until the opportunity arises to consult them again. From time to time, I also use playing cards for card games. I love using Bold for playing Scala 40 and Machiavelli with friends.
Regarding cardistry, I love it, and some years ago, I also tried to learn some moves. I think I actually learned something, but my efforts didn’t persist for a long time.
Do you also collect playing cards yourself, and is there anything you can share about your personal collection?
I do collect playing cards, but I’m not an avid collector. I rarely buy objects, and I like having only the essentials around me (apart from books, I have a problem with books).
My collection is modest, and it’s a bit like the deck I design: the golden rule is basically to have no rules. Sometimes I buy decks with notable features because they might be interesting for the lessons at the School of Comics.
What do you consider to be important elements of a quality design, and what should new collectors look for?
Taste is a moody, messy, very subjective topic. It's not an argument we can keep out, and even if this might sound markedly relativist, we can see something as 'beautiful' or 'awful' for a crazy amount of reasons.
The same can be said for quality: it can be aesthetic or functional, for example. But again, functionality implies the existence of a purpose, so functional for what? For playing a card game? And what card game? Functional for a left-handed person? Functional for the ambient, because the tuck box is fully recyclable? The matter is huge, and I don't feel comfortable making generalisations.
As for me, I prefer to buy only a few decks that are (very) special for me. Anyway, I would say that there is not a golden rule, and I would be arrogant in saying something different.
Do you have any thoughts on the explosion of custom playing cards that we are seeing today, and particularly how crowdfunding has impacted the industry?
First of all, I would like to say that Kickstarter is an opportunity. It’s an amazing tool.
Unfortunately, in the context of playing cards, crowdfunding platforms are increasingly used in an inappropriate manner. Even if their projects have already come to life and they have the instruments and the strength for not needing crowdfunding at all, indeed, some producers tend to use Kickstarter as an online store. These dynamics have harmful effects on smaller creators.
But thanks to playing cards and crowdfunding platforms, everybody can be world-famous for 15 minutes by producing a deck (Andy was right). My main concerns are about the saturation of printers and the increasing delays.
Where do you think the custom playing card industry will go from here, and what might we see in the coming years?
The answer might be selfish, but right now, I am more focused on understanding where I will go from here in the coming years. I would like to move from Italy and I am looking for the right opportunity. But on the other hand, I have also started planning to get back to University as a working student in September. We'll see what happens in the months and years to come!
In addition, I tend to live in my wild imagination rather than observe what other creators do; if I had any ideas for bringing innovation into the industry, I would have already made some steps in that direction. Right now, my main concerns are overproduction, overprinting, and sustainability, and I have no clue if I’ll come up with some innovative ideas in the future. I only know I will release fewer products. As for other creators, I don't pay too much attention to what they are creating as I like to focus on my own plans.
What do your family and friends think of your love for designing playing cards, and how do you explain your work to non-enthusiasts of playing cards?
I don’t know what they think. I can tell that almost everybody gets enthusiastic after seeing hot or cold foil!
As for non-enthusiasts, they don’t need explanations. Once you have held a deck in your hand, admired the illustrations, played with it if you like, there’s no need for further clarifications: you can appreciate it, you can understand it, or you can’t (or choose not to). Quite simply, sometimes a thing is not our kind of thing.
Do you belong to any playing card organizations, or connect with other designers?
I am a member of 52 Plus Joker, of 7Bello Cartogiocofilia Italiana, and of United Cardists/Portfolio 52. Especially on Instagram, I usually connect online with other designers and collectors too.
What can you tell us about your current and upcoming projects?
First of all, the Genoese Tarot. It is a huge deck, and I have been working on its design for a year. It includes 12 honours (the traditional Genoese court carts), 22 reversible triumphs (commonly known as major arcana), 4 knights, 6 cards with points for playing cards games, plus 2 jokers, an illustrated ace, and, of course, all the number cards. Total 87 cards of which 42 illustrated if I’m not mistaken.
This deck is the result of a very thorough process of research, development, playtest, revisions, and then again research, development, playtest, revisions; the road was not that easy, but I am proud of the result. By the way, it all started after I received a contact from Jean Maillard, a card games enthusiast who had discovered my work thanks to Bold. I am enjoying working with him, so you can probably expect other designs from us as a team.
I also finished working on the Rx Almanac, a deck I designed for/with Meadowlark Decks, a second family to me. The deck is vintage and very dense in illustrations, spread all over the deck, including number cards.
The title might be a good start for understanding the theme. In American English, 'Rx' means 'prescriptions' and, in a more general term, indicates drugs and medicines. Given that an almanac is a compendium (typically vintage) on a particular topic in the shape of a book or of a magazine, the 'Rx Almanac' is an imaginary compendium on the theme of drugs and pharmaceutical products.
In particular, the deck is like a magazine but made with playing cards. And in the fiction of the deck, each illustrated card is a page of the 'Rx Almanac' and shows a fake, sometimes humoristic advertisement. I had 100% freedom on texts and illustrations, and it was super funny.
Lastly, in 2021 I started working on Once Upon a Fly, a transformation deck. The main character is a fly. This design started spontaneously (I can’t even remember how!), and I continued cultivating it in my free time. I hope I will have enough time to finish it in 2022!
ConclusionThere's no doubt that Elettra Deganello is one very talented young lady. She has a very respectable background, having studied both classics and design at an academic level. Her personal interests in music and art also inform her design work, and give unique influences. Elettra is no amateur dabbler, but has established a real reputation as a professional designer, and made her mark in the design sphere.
Once she turned her hand to designing playing cards for the first time in 2017, there was little doubt that she was going to succeed. The fact that her very first playing card design was a Silver Design Award winner in an international design competition already speaks volumes. And given the strength, diversity, and quality of her recent output, it is little surprise that she was nominated by 52 Plus Joker for their 2021 Artist of the Year Award. As further proof that she brings her academic credentials and expertise to bear on her design work is the fact that she is currently teaching a class at the International School of Comics in Florence, Italy, where she covers themes of playing cards and applied visual design. Undoubtedly this is the kind of class many of us wish we could sit in on!
What I particularly appreciate about Elettra's work is her ability to shine with different styles. Each of her projects has a very unique and individual feel, and yet there is always a sense of quality. While the Pinocchio project drew on the literary background of Carlo Collodi's famous work, the Florentia decks have more of a classical look that celebrates the birthplace of the Renaissance. The Bold decks are a wonderful reimagination of traditional playing cards while simultaneously exploring the world of type, ensuring a combination of functionality and style. But when it comes to elegance and luxury, few decks do it better than the amazing Blue Jay Dentistry decks, which have been highly acclaimed by playing card enthusiasts.
The upcoming projects Elettra is currently working on showcase her continued dedication to excellence and diversity. The Genoese Tarot is something very different from her previous work, and draws on a somewhat different heritage in the world of playing cards. The Rx Almanac deck promises to provide a real spark of creativity combined with warm humor, courtesy of the amusing fictional advertisements depicted on the cards. But I'm particularly keen to see the final result with the upcoming Once Upon A Fly transformation deck, since I'm a huge fan of transformation decks. Elettra's unique style really brings something fresh and artistic to the transformation genre, and the teasers she has released so far give every reason to have high expectations for this project.
Playing card designer Elettra Deganello hails from a country with storied and rich traditions, because Italy is the birthplace of much wonderful literature and art. The high standard of her work is worthy of the cultural and artistic creations that have preceded her. I await her future projects with keen interest, and highly recommend other playing card enthusiasts keep a close eye out for her designs, and get them while you can!
Where to get them? Some of Elettra's decks are available here at PCD:
● Pinocchio: Vermillion Red, Sapphire Blue, Double Deck
● Florentia: Antica, Nova, Player's Edition, Aeterna
● Bold: STD, Deluxe
Where to learn more? Head to Elettra's website or social media to follow her work and stay up-to-date with new projects and releases:
● Design portfolios: Website, Behance
● Social media: Facebook, Instagram
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and highly respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.