Getting hired for a playing card design gig by one of the more successful playing card companies these days is no easy task. Great designers and their ideas are shelved all the time in this industry. We previously heard about how designer Lee McKenzie's first go at Ellusionist was even shelved. It is the nature of any industry that prides itself on only releasing the BEST designs and companies have no problem turning down or shelving great designers. These companies have excellence in their eyes and do not compromise.
Enter Joshua M. Smith, a tough but humble designer with even tougher skills and designs. Joshua is the man behind the design studio, Hydro74. Although Hydro74 is one man studio, Joshua has worked his way from small design jobs to design gigs for some heavy hitting clients all while giving the finger to anyone trying to stomp his style or hold him back. Joshua knows first hand what it is like working with one of these playing card companies as he has been through the design process with one of the best in the biz, The Blue Crown. He was eventually picked up for a gig that went on to be one of The Blue Crown's most successful projects - Altruism Playing Cards including the very limited, Altruism Snow Owl deck. Currently, the Altruism Snow Owl deck is on Ebay for double the original asking price.
TuckCase spoke with Joshua recently about his work with The Blue Crown and his design career. Read further to get an inside look at the design studio that has accomplished so much yet is just getting started.
Tuck Case: Can you talk a little bit about your design background?
Joshua M. Smith: I’m a college drop out. I never wanted to be a designer. It was just one of those things that came forth out of spite towards my advisers in college. I went to college for elementary education since I wanted the good ol’ suit and tie sort of job and wasn't smart enough to be a lawyer or a doctor. You have got to love redneck DNA. When I found out I was ‘too punk’ for the student teaching part of the degree (I wasn't, I was just dirt poor and shopped at goodwill before the hipsters took it over), I decided to do liberal arts until I decided what the next choice was going to be. I could of stuck with it and changed, but it was the principle of a Christian college being judgmental without consulting me first that I just had to give the middle finger to.
Long story short - I took easy classes in art, drawing and painting just to keep the GPA up. I then discovered a class called visual communications. The professor was learning Adobe Photoshop at the same time the class was so I really wasn't learning anything revolutionary. However, after posting some stuff online I started to get a gig here and there. Getting $500 to draw shitty anime characters back in 1997-1998 was kind of a big deal. I ended up dropping out shortly after that when my main adviser suggested I take drawing and painting classes instead of focusing on graphic design. I was perplexed because I knew that those classes wouldn't help me land a job or pay the overpriced cost of this school. In the end, I quit and forced myself to learn on my own. I remember doing shirts for $25 to $50 just to be able to get food. I was also working a full time job at Best Buy.
I stuck with it. Several years and several jobs later (from designer, production artist, art director to creative director), I called it quits on that hustle and started my thing full time. I hate the word freelance since it seems lesser than, so technically, I started up my own company Hydro74. The company is just me but I created an LLC (Limited Liability Company) and pushed forward. I've always freelanced but when I went independent more opportunities came forth with working with Hasbro, Lucas Films, Burton Snowboards, Mattel, Nike, Adidas, The Blue Crown and so on and so forth. Not bad for a college drop out.
Tuck Case: How did you team up with The Blue Crown?
Joshua M. Smith: Alex over at The Blue Crown is a great guy. He hit me up a while back when I went on this rampage so to speak of trying to develop playing card backs. Theory 11 contacted me earlier, which eventually went no where. However, it was fun to work with them so getting an email from Alex was exciting since my mindset was already involved in that style. We went back and forth a few times trying to figure out what to develop and we eventually landed on the owl concept. I wish I invested more time into the actual cards rather than the backs, box and a few other tidbits. However, something is planned soon with The Blue Crown.
Tuck Case: Why didn't the Theory 11 project work out?
Joshua M. Smith: Not sure, they have pretty high standards and this was the first time trying to figure out a deck. I don’t think I nailed what they were looking for. And if I did, I have no clue what or if anything is getting used. They are a great company and always producing amazingly inspiring pieces so hopefully, I’ll get the offer to re-do and create something epic.
Tuck Case: Altruism is an incredible design and highly sought after in the playing card industry, how did this project develop?
Joshua M. Smith: That I didn't know. I am glad it got a great response in the field. The concept took a bit to figure out. First, we talked about mystical, masonic and secret society hints. However, since I love drawing owls I mocked up a raw concept and Alex really dug it. There is so much symbolism with an Owl but I always used it as a basis of selflessness. Even though the owl is a predator and an individual, as it goes forth with it’s life there is a selflessness or "Altruism" expressed because the needs become habitual and it’s actions are natural and not about proving anything.
We still threw in hints of different symbolism in the deck, but one thing I enjoyed most with working with The Blue Crown is the fact that they allowed me to make this deck mine. This was my first time doing this project so I’m excited to see what we can do next.
Images of Altruism courtesy of TheBlueCrown.com:
Tuck Case: You posted some playing card back designs on Behance that weren't used, can you talk a little bit about some of the designs that didn't get used? Any plans to use them in the future?
Joshua M. Smith: Those designs came from me just exploring some ideas. I guess it can be considered bait in a way to get The Blue Crown to say "lets do this." Actually, I love working with symmetry and ornate objects so designing playing cards is a great practice. A few of those designs turned into or will turn into silk screen prints.
Tuck Case: In your first response after being asked to do this interview with us you mention playing cards is an area you are looking to get into more, have you ever considered Kickstarter.com or any other avenues to release your own deck?
Joshua M. Smith: I have actually. One thing that is planned is a portfolio deck. I just wish I was good at marketing.
A lot of illustrations will change on that design, but the goal was to create something I can give to clients that is unique and different but is still all me. It will be something that defines what I’m into but is something that they can use even if they choose not to hire me. It can serve as more of a constant reminder that I am wanting to work with them. Also, it is great for friends and fans of my work. Ultimately, it will show something different than the norm.
My goal with the kickstarter project (if it ever happens) is to create two decks. A design that is just over the top, but also a portfolio deck or a design that shows my work and range as an artist. I also want to make gold coins, silk screen prints and stickers as bribes or add-ons for the backer list. It is just a matter of finding someone to help me put together a video, the right connections with USPCC and moving forward.
Tuck Case: Do you have any favorite playing card decks?
Joshua M. Smith: Yes I do. It is a deck that I got as a kid from my step dad. It’s a set of naked girls. You have got to love that 80’s hair and adult ‘fro'.
Tuck Case: You mention on your website being ripped off or having your work traced by lazy designers, is this something you run into a lot? What kind of advice can you give artists looking to protect their own work from being ripped off?
Joshua M. Smith: Sadly, there isn't much you can do. I’m not a fan of legal since it’s never been about protecting people but protecting people who have money. I come from the old school concept that design has ethics. It is not a religious idea or spiritual standard, but a common core of respect and knowing what you can do and what you shouldn't do. We are all inspired and emulate, but it is the people who directly steal a piece for their own selfish gain. Those people should have their hands broken with a hammer. Well, maybe not that directly, but the lack of ethics in what we do only makes things worse.
My advice is just get a good fan base that believes in you and has no problem calling people out when something is truly stolen. IF it is a higher company then you can take legal action, but good luck with that. Sadly, there isn't much we can do except bitch. It is really a sad state for designers who want to protect themselves.
Tuck Case: What kind of music do you listen to when you design? Any favorite bands?
Joshua M. Smith: My music tastes are all over the place. I tend to always resort to stuff I grew up with. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Dead Kennedys, Front242, Dead Can Dance... I am also into electro crap and classical music if I am in the mood... Most of the time it is just whatever playlist I’m listening too at the time.
Tuck Case: A question I ask all designers, what advice can you give someone looking to design their own custom deck of cards?
Joshua M. Smith: Just do it, do it again, then keep doing it again and again. The more you discover in techniques, the better off you get. Post it online and people will find you. If you have a solid idea, contact them. Eventually, the right opportunities will arrive.
Personally, I wish there was a good site or blog that showed nothing but designs and the designers who did the designs. There is so much history, symbolism, beauty and insight in seeing what people have done before that could inspire something more glorious years to come. The past has built the road, but now it is up to us to honor and respect that road and make it better.
Check out Joshua's design studio - Hydro74