Jody Eklund is the man behind Black Ink Playing Cards, a creator of more than half a dozen successful playing card projects on Kickstarter, and a popular designer with a strong following of fans. The market for custom playing cards often feels saturated, so to be successful you have to have something that sets you apart. But Jody Eklund has that special "something", because what makes his decks of playing cards unique are two things, and the combination of these two elements has created a real demand for Jody's decks and contributed to the ongoing success of his projects:
Firstly, historical interest. Jody shares some kind of historical story or historical personages via the illustrations and information in each deck of playing cards. In fact, for many of his projects, he even creates a companion booklet that tells a small story about each of the people featured as characters in the deck!
Secondly, stylish design. Jody combines his historical emphasis with a unique style that reflects a real eye for clean artistic design, and an attractive look. Even though he primarily does everything digitally, his work looks like it was done with pen and ink - hence the name "Black Ink Playing Cards" which he uses as his deck publishing brand.
Jody's venture into custom playing cards began shortly after he returned to his wife's home town of Aurora, Colorado, in 2013. His Kickstarter project for a Golden Spike deck in mid 2014 proved to be a big success, and was followed by further projects in the years that followed: Innovation, Devastation, Inception, Titans, Iron Horse, and Top Aces of WWI. This might sound like a catalogue of movie titles, but in fact it reflects a real historical interest, because in these different projects Jody has captured some of the most important men and women in history, especially inventors and creators. His latest project (his tenth!) is entitled "Top Aces of WWII", and is a sequel to his popular "Top Aces of WWI" project.
Jody was kind enough to answer some questions about playing cards from his perspective as a designer. So let's head straight to our interview with Jody Eklund, in which he shares his insights and observations about creating playing cards and more!
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 guess you can say it all started when my grandfather taught me how to draw cartoons and his crop-duster airplane as a kid. The desire to put down onto paper what I saw in reality or in my mind lasted throughout my childhood. I studied animation briefly at Columbia College in Chicago, then after a stint in the military, I finished my bachelors of fine arts degree from Southern Illinois University.
After college, I worked for a product development company designing retail gift products, marketing pieces, retail products and webpages, but didn’t really get the chance to dive into what I love - illustration - until I ran point on a series of children’s books. After working for other people for 14 years I decided to start my own design business in October of 2013. I moved my wife and kids to Colorado and becoming a freelance illustrator and designer became my opportunity to be more selective in the type of work I would choose.
When I was going through my military training 20 years prior, I told myself I would live in Colorado some day. The funny thing is, I married the woman that only lived a couple miles from where I was stationed back in 1993 and now only live a few miles from where I said those words 20 some years ago. I currently work as a Freelance Graphic Designer and design playing cards as a segment of my overall business. I enjoy the 360 days of Colorado sunshine, hiking in the amazing Rocky Mountains and spending as much time with my family on great excursions.
When did you start designing playing cards, and what got you started?
I started designing playing cards in 2014 when a friend of mine suggested I check out creating a project on Kickstarter. My first project "The Hipsters" failed on Kickstarter, but created a passion for making historical, intricate and custom playing cards.
How would you see yourself as a designer today, compared to when you started?
I see myself as I always have, blessed! Blessed to have been given a chance to do what I love, which is to bring life to stories through playing cards. I have learned a lot about the process of creating playing cards, from concepting, to designing and illustrating 16 illustrations for a deck, to delivering on a promise that I made to a bunch of playing card collectors.
What are some of the things you especially enjoy about designing playing cards?
I love that every project brings new experiences and just builds from my previous projects. I like to look back and see how much my skills have changed. I also like hearing from those who have been my most loyal supporters.
How do you come up with an idea for a deck design?
Every once in a while I’ll do a brainstorming session and just write down as many ideas I can think of. I keep a running list of future projects and add to it whenever I think or see something I would like to do in the future. Ideas can come from anywhere, from surfing the internet, to something my daughter says to me at dinner or a simple discussion with a good friend.
How many decks have you designed so far, and which of these have been your most popular and successful designs?
I have done 9 successful Kickstarter campaigns. I am hoping to add to that number here in the next few weeks with my 10 project called, "Top Aces of WWII". Top Aces of WWII is the sequel to Top Aces of WWI. My most funded project was The Iron Horse, which was the first time I created a fictional story as my theme. I would say that my most successful project was my last project "Devastation Silver". Devastation Silver was a Kickstarter Exclusive based on the original Devastation deck. The overall project, to me, was the smoothest and simplest project I have done.
Which deck (or decks) in your portfolio of created designs is your favourite, and why?
This is a hard one. I like all my decks, but if I were to pick, I would say the "Titans Signature Deck." It is such a beautiful design and I love the theme of "Titans of Industry".
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?
I would describe my playing cards as historically themed, intricately designed pieces of art. I like to use a lot of detail. I think the more detail a deck has, the more value it is to the collector. I don't want someone to pick up one of my decks and say, "I think I can do that".
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?
Idea, researching theme, sketch out some possible directions for the cards, tuck case and back. Once I have decided on the look of a card and the back, I design the rest of the deck. I make small tweaks throughout. Once a deck is designed and all of the art is complete, I start to create promotional pieces for feedback on forums and social media. Create a Kickstarter page, launch the project, go through 35 days of non-stop promoting. I usually send all of the artwork to the playing card printers before the project goes live on Kickstarter. Once the Kickstarter is complete, I send my playing card printers the final counts for production. The printers will send my hard proofs that require my approval before going to production. Production is completed about 30 days from that point and shipped to my fulfillment center to be fulfilled to all of my supporters.
Which printer do you use to make your playing cards, and why? What has your experience with them been like?
I have been working with Legends Playing Card Co. for the past 5 years. Lawrence is great to work with.
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 hardest part of the process is just before I launch a Kickstarter. I get so nervous every time. I also hate waiting for my decks to be produced. It's been taking the factory lately too long to get to production. Waiting for my project to be cued for production is my most frustrating part.
What is it about designing a deck of playing cards as a creator that you wish consumers realized more?
The part I wished everyone realized is how much work it is to produce a deck, from beginning to end. And success is not really based on how much a Kickstarter raises. It's how well a creator can grow through past experiences and get better at the process from beginning to end.
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, and the impact of crowdfunding like Kickstarter?
Yes, Kickstarter. Kickstarter is the biggest part that explosion. Without Kickstarter, creators and artists, like myself, would never be able to create a deck without having to get someone to produce it for us, dilute our ideas and then end up canceling the whole thing due to budget considerations.
Where do you think the custom playing card industry will go from here, and what innovations or changes might we see in the coming years?
I think the industry will always expand, but it will become more refined and sophisticated. When there are more choices, people become pickier about what they are choosing. I think creators, like myself will have to continue to figure out how to create new ways to surprise their supporters.
What do your family and friends think of your love for designing playing cards? How do you explain your work to non-enthusiasts of playing cards?
My family and friends have always supported my crazy ideas. How I explain my work, is that it is an art form. People collect my art through the medium of playing cards.
Do you belong to any playing card organizations, or connect with other designers, either online or in any other way?
I am a member of the 52 Plus Joker organization and regularly chat with other creators, like Alex Chin, Randy Butterfield, Giovanni Meroni as well as many others.
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?
My advice is not to be afraid to act on your passions. If you fail, well at least you did more than the 90% who never tried. Also, do your research and get to know the playing card community though forums and chats. Ask them questions, post your art and take the feedback graciously.
Do you have any recent, current, or upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
Top Aces of WWII was funded on Kickstarter in September, and is the sequel to Top Aces of WWI. At the beginning of this year, I was reminded that the 150th Anniversary of the completion of the 1st Transcontinental Railroad is coming up. May 19th 2019 to be exact. I thought it would be fun to make a limited special edition deck to celebrate the occasion. This is a completely redrawn and redesigned deck of the original Golden Spike Kickstarter project done in the summer of 2014. The Kickstarter Launch is November 12th. You can follow me on Kickstarter, or go to my website to subscribe to my newsletter to get updates, or friend and follow me on social media.
There is a lot to like about the playing cards created by Jody Eklund, and the historical flavour of these decks is especially outstanding. Clearly he enjoys history, and immerses himself in the pages of the past as part of the research that goes into the creation of each project. Since a wealth of historical background is poured into his playing cards, each deck gives us the opportunity to join him in taking a look at some of the movers and shakers that have helped make today's world what it is. Many of his projects also include an option for an accompanying booklet which gives further information about the history depicted on his playing cards.
Besides his attention to historical detail, Jody also has a style of his own, particularly with his black ink type images. This combination draws many to his work, and has proven to be a winning formula that has attracted a solid support base. He has acquired a loyal following as a result of his dedication and contributions to the world of custom playing cards, and his decks should appeal to anyone who enjoys playing cards, but also to anyone with an interest in history or in science. He also has a lot of experience with crowdfunding, with multiple successful campaigns under his belt already, but rather than rest on the laurels of success, he he clearly wants to keep challenging himself to explore new territory and to keep refining his style, which continues to evolve over time. I look forward to seeing what quality custom decks he puts out in the future!
Where to get them? You'll find some of the Black Ink Playing Cards range here at PlayingCardDecks.com, including Golden Spike, Innovation (Standard and Black), Devastation, Inception(Inceptus, Illustratum, and Intellectus), Titans Robber Barons (Standard and Signature), and Iron Horse.
Also check out Jody Eklund's official website (blackinkplayingcards.com), or stay in touch with his projects on Kickstarter (link) and social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter).
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known reviewer of board games and playing cards.
He loves card games, card magic, and card collecting. You can see a complete list of his playing card reviews here.