Interview with Playing Card Designer Karin Yan of Bona Fide Playing Cards

Interview with Playing Card Designer Karin Yan of Bona Fide Playing Cards

by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame

Who is Karin Yan?

Bona Fide Playing Cards is a creative outfit based in Spain, that has produced several beautiful decks of custom playing cards. The expression bona fide comes from Latin, and literally means "in good faith", and so hence today "genuine, real, sincere". And that's what Bona Fide Playing Cards strives for in their decks of playing cards, as they explain: "a genuine union between the genuine love for art in general and beautiful and unique playing cards in particular, covering a wide range of themes and styles.

Despite their relatively short history, Bona Fide Playing Cards has achieved the honorable distinction of having one of their designs, Nouveau Playing Cards, being chosen as the United Cardists annual deck for 2016. Karin Yan is the creator and designer behind the Nouveau decks and behind Bona Fide Playing Cards. She has an enthusiasm and passion for art, and drawing and design is something she has long enjoyed as a hobby. Karin loves the creativity and versatility that art and design offers, and is particularly drawn to classic drawings and designs.

Karen Yan

So it is no surprise that in the Nouveau series (nouveau being French for "new, fashionable; newly arrived or developed") she created a number of designs that go back to the roots of French playing cards, and was also inspired by the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th century. The original Nouveau deck went on to become part of a larger series that consists of several similarly styled artistic decks: Nouveau Bourgogne, Nouveau Bijoux, Nouveau Perle, and Nouveau Gemmes, some of which are jewelry inspired designs. Besides these, Bona Fide Playing Cards has also produced a set of elegant decks inspired by literary classics, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and right now is in the middle of producing a luxurious looking chess-inspired deck called King's Game Playing Cards.

As part of a series of interviews with designers of playing cards, Karin was found willing to answer some questions from her perspective as a designer, and so I am pleased to be able to share her insights and observations about playing cards with my readers.

Bona Fide Playing Cards Logo

The Interview

For those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background? What do you do for a day job and/or what are your other interests?

I’m living a quiet life as a student and insurance agent by day and (recently) a freelance designer by night. I was never big on having many hobbies and rather enjoyed the few things that I truly liked, such as reading and (mostly) drawing.

When did you start designing playing cards, and what got you started?

Drawing has always been my unwavering passion and I never missed the chance to indulge in it, spending most of my free time sketching whatever came to my mind. This passion was the reason why, after stumbling upon the growing world of custom playing cards back in 2014, I decided to create something serious and real for the first time and take my chances without giving it a second thought. I can say that my first deck, Nouveau Playing Cards, was undoubtedly the push I needed to pursue professionally something I always regarded as nothing but a hobby.

An old intricately illustrated deck given to me by my grandfather was the reason why the idea of creating custom playing cards immediately caught my attention. I put together the first deck in 2014 and, after a few failed attempts, teamed up with Mike Ratledge from the United Cardists forum and brought Nouveau to life a year later.

How would you see yourself as a designer today, compared to when you started?

To put it shortly, in my case a designer didn’t create the deck; a deck made the designer. When I started I had no previous experience designing, nor any related studies. Needless to say, I lacked in many ways, so the different projects and decks created during these past few years, as well as all the wonderful people I met thanks to them, helped me to grow both on a professional and personal level.

There’s clearly still a lot of room for growth, but I can say that now I’m confident in my skills and ideas thanks to the experience gained during the last 4 years.

Bona Fide Playing Cards

What are some of the things you especially enjoy about designing playing cards?

What I like the most is trying and combining different concepts and styles. Creating designs that can actually work on a deck of playing cards can be challenging but that’s what makes it interesting and fulfilling.

How do you come up with an idea for a deck design?

Coming up with ideas was never an issue for me; there’s always something out there that can be turned into a deck of playing cards. So far I’ve done different topics, such as going back to the roots of playing cards as we know them today and then restyling them to pursue a jewelry inspired design. I’ve also paid tribute to some of my favorite literary classics, as well as to the most widespread board game in the world. There are more decks I’ve been slowly working on which cover completely different topics, such as the Carnevalia series.

So, basically, you could say that I don’t specifically try to come up with ideas but rather give freedom to my mind and when I see or think about something that has potential for becoming playing cards material, I think about it for a length of time and try to figure out whether it’s actually doable or not.

How many decks have you designed so far, and which of these have been your most popular and successful designs?

So far I’ve designed 6 decks, 3 of them having two versions in different colors. The most popular has been, hands down, Gemmes Playing Cards, followed by Nouveau UC2016 and The Three Musketeers.

Which deck (or decks) in your portfolio of created designs is your favorite, and why?

My favorite design happens to be the most popular one, Gemmes. I tend to like intricate designs, and I specially love mixing concepts. That’s why Gemmes is the perfect match for me, since it’s not a mere tribute to the roots of playing cards as we know them, but also a collection of intricate jewels inspired by the Art Nouveau style.

The other deck I’m really fond of is King’s Playing Cards, which is currently in production. Though not as artistic as Gemmes, it keeps the level of detail I like and it also brings a fresh approach to a topic that has been widely covered in the playing cards community. Working on it has been really fun since I found it challenging to be original while keeping the essence of chess untouched; going around these limitations to put together a deck with my own seal was an interesting process.

More Bona Fide Playing Crds

How would you describe the style of your playing card decks? Are there any particular features or characteristics of your decks that you hope people will notice and appreciate, or help make your decks different from the many others out there?

So far, pretty much every deck I designed has a different artistic approach to it, but I’d say that what all of them have in common is the attention I like to pay to detail, as well as the meanings and ideas behind every design. An easy example of this would be the two decks that pay tribute to Alexandre Dumas’ classics: The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Both decks depict some of the most important characters from each book and each design is full of details that represent the story and the most memorable traits of each character. Most people, mainly those that never read these books, would probably get these decks because they liked the artwork or simply enjoy collecting playing cards. However, those that read the books will easily spot the details in every design, making it more memorable.

In other words, I always try to add a reason behind every choice in every design, going from the suits’ distribution to the clothing’s ornaments. That’s probably what I’d love for everyone to notice, since it makes every design way more interesting.

What is your process in designing a deck of playing cards, starting with the concept, all the way to completing the project and having finished decks?

After settling on a certain topic, I tend to list the different characters and concepts for every suit, find and list the details that each of them needs and then start sketching. For the backs and tucks the main point is to represent, in the best and most minimal way possible, the idea behind the deck. From there on, I work on the artwork until I’m satisfied, set the goals I need to produce it and move forward to fund its creation. If it’s successful, the following steps are usually revision and fixing of the artwork, proofing, changes and then finally production.

What are some of the easiest, and what are some of the hardest parts of the process in making a deck of custom playing cards?

The easiest (for me) is coming up with the idea, the hardest is to make this idea doable and appealing for different tastes and minds.

What is it about designing a deck of playing cards as a creator that you wish consumers realized more?

Mainly, the time and thought process behind the designs.

Bona Fide Plying Cards

The playing card industry has changed rapidly over the last decade. Do you have any thoughts on the explosion of custom playing cards that we are seeing today?

I think that it’s actually a natural course of events. A few years back, when this trend was just in its early stages, some designers and their custom decks gained a notorious popularity and found success within the crowdfunding platforms. This success inspired many designers to try and create their own decks, and that’s how the market was soon filled with many new and different decks. The expansion of the industry has both positive and negative aspects to it, such as offering different and creative ideas for everyone to enjoy but also leading to a market saturation and decrease in design quality.

What impact has crowdfunding like Kickstarter had on the custom playing card industry? And what has your own experience with this been like?

I can’t say how things would have turned out if there was no Kickstarter around to actually help bring these ideas to life. As things are today, everyone can agree on the fact that it played a huge role in the industry’s expansion. You can have an idea and even create something great out of it, but will hardly risk your funds or time for producing something that may or may not be successful. Having a platform where people can share their feedback and actually show whether your designs are worthy of their time and money is certainly helpful in many levels.

What advice would you give someone just starting to collect playing cards today? What do you consider to be important elements of a quality design, and what they should look for in a quality deck of playing cards?

I can’t consider myself as a collector so there’s not much advice I can give to someone just starting to collect cards. For me a quality deck is one that is original, has a meaning to it and not just a pretty design, and is durable (though I’ve been mainly talking about design, paying attention to the printing quality is just as important). I don’t believe in trends so I’d suggest to collect only those decks that we actually like or find interesting, but that’s just my personal opinion.

Do you have any recent, current, or upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

My most recent project was King’s Playing Cards, a chess inspired custom deck. I have several other decks scheduled to be released in the near future, such as the remaining 5 decks in the literary classics series, the Lewis Wars Playing Cards as the second chess inspired deck and the Carnevalia series. There’s also another design I’m currently working on which is still a secret, as well as a collaboration with Andrea Pellegrini from Trinity Playing Cards for a really fun yet mysterious deck that’s scheduled to be released in the upcoming months. More details will be shared soon.

My next project, however, will be something new and different: a collection of enamel pins and other goodies inspired by the designs from Gemmes playing cards.

Bona Fide Kings Playing Cards

Final Thoughts

Thanks to Karin for giving us opportunity to have a question and answer session and to learn something about the creative design process that produces the lovely decks of cards we've seen from Bona Fide Playing Cards. I have personally especially enjoyed the Nouveau series of playing cards; the stylish back designs have made them ideal for cardistry, and I also really appreciate the inspiration taken from classic art and jewelry and how this has influenced the design. Using the classic French characters that were commonly featured on court cards from the 16th century is also a wonderful touch that makes these decks a lovely tribute to the important sources that have shaped the decks we enjoy today. The classy and attractive tuck boxes of the Nouveau series are also outstanding, and I am particularly fond of the Nouveau Bourgogne tuck box, since the intricate detail of the circular design really comes to life with the gold foil, and the combination of gold and burgundy creates an immediately stylish look.

The Alexandre Dumas decks are totally different again, going in a literary direction, and incorporate many elements from the books, with remarkable attention to detail. The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers decks show that Karin not only has ability to make ornate designs, but also to incorporate thoughtful symbolism and content based on characters and themes drawn from classic novels. That same creativity, depth of thought, and artistic design is also present in the forthcoming King's Game decks, which are a wonderful tribute to the classic game of chess; these decks are both sophisticated and classy, while remaining practical and playable.

My respect and admiration for Bona Fide Playing Cards only continues to grow, and by the sounds of things, Karin Yan has many more wonderful decks in store for us. Meanwhile, check out out the range of their decks that are already available, and consider adding these artistic beauties to your collection.

Bona Fide Playing Cards

Where to get them? You'll find most of the Bona Fide Playing Cards range here at Nouveau, Nouveau Bourgogne, Nouveau Bijoux, and Nouveau Perle, as well as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Also check out the official website (, or stay in touch on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr).

Bona Fide Card Decks  


About the writerEndersGame 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.


Last update date: 04/07/20

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