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1-ON-1: RJ Tomlinson



Artists across history seem to have to face adversity as they move along their career, maybe that’s where the term “Starving Artist” comes from. The silver lining in many of these stories is that not only does adversity seem to make these artists stronger and more focused, but also seems to open the door to their true calling. Many of the people I talk to start off doing one thing, mostly out of necessity, to keep their families fed and the bills paid, but seem to find that light, that glimmer that keeps pushing them to chase their dreams and not give up………always gaining more focus on the bigger picture.

Robert Tomlinson is no different. RJ has worked hard to keep his dream alive, and it shows. Now in the middle of his 3rd, soon to be funded, playing card project on Kickstarter, Colonial Unrest, and RJ knows what he’s working for and has seemed to hit a winning formula with his historically themed decks.


RJ’s surrounded by a very artistic family, starting with his wife of 13 years Diane and their two children. It’s a true family affair. Robert was inspired at a young age, like so many others; by Disney movies and the intricacy and detail he would be in awe of when he would visit the Disney Theme Parks. 

Robert studied graphic design at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport PA. and upon graduating made a few stops working for various small town newspapers doing graphic design, page layouts and found himself steadily working up the ladder and eventually landing the position as Editor of a Farm Newspaper. While there was no doubt the hard work that Robert put forward showed, the lofty title didn’t exactly make his financial situation all that much better, small town papers just don’t pay as well. 


“Being a small community, graphic design jobs don’t pay what it takes to survive. The first few years of our marriage we knew what it was like to go hungry. There were nights when I would call my Mom to say I missed her cooking just so we could get something to eat.”

To make things better Robert found himself working in a factory for many years, in more of a hard labor situation stoking furnaces and swaging wire. Determined as always, Robert found himself once again moving up the ladder and into a Quality Control Group Leader position that he still holds today. But the way things are now days, the uncertainty is always looming.

“The pay is good but you always feel your job is on the line due to downsizing and outsourcing. Almost every year we have a sizable layoff. Last year I was only spared from layoff (about 30 more people and I would have been gone). In 2009, I wasn’t so lucky that year… my job was cut and I found myself on layoff for over 9 months.”


With time on his hands and needing to have an income, Robert returned to his graphic roots designing logo’s to make ends meet. Eventually Robert was called back to work, but this time it was very difficult to return, it was not as easy and once again necessity took the upper hand….but the creative juices were still simmering and Robert continued to take on graphic work on the side.

“It was at this time I turned to my graphic design roots to fight for survival.  I started doing logo design work to help make ends meet. When work finally called me back… it was hard to go. It was hard to leave something I enjoyed doing to go back to factory work. But in the end, health insurance and a steady pay check outweighs anything else.”

The everyday responsibilities of a regular job and the hours you put into that job sometimes start to eat away at your time, and that did start to affect the amount of time Robert spend on Graphic Design. With the every looming fear of being laid off once again, Robert started to find himself preparing for the unlikelihood and also stumbled across a crows funding site called Kickstarter.


“For a while I stopped doing graphic design work because I was working so much overtime that I didn’t have enough time for anything else.  But during last year’s slowdown where I was barely spared from layoff I decided it would be best to get things rolling so I would be ready for survival mode. That’s when I discovered Kickstarter and the world of playing card design.”

Wanting to make his mark, Robert took to Kickstarter to figure out what he could come up with using his graphic design skills, what would be the right product and how to go about making something that would get the attention of would be backers.

“I’ve always wanted to be able to create a product and bring it to the market place. Kickstarter just happens to be the best way of doing that. Playing cards happen to be the best product you can make because of their collectability. So, in the end, creating something for my kids to remember me by when I’m gone is also a big motivation when it comes to designing playing cards.”


That was then, this is now. Robert’s 1st two Playing Card projects, Civil Unrest and Global Unrest, both funded on Kickstarter and his current project Colonial Unrest has already funded and is still receiving backer support until Aug. 3 2014. The winning “Historical” formula seems to have found its market and Robert finds himself continually wanting to improve his skills to continue to offer better projects and creations. While Playing Cards are a wonderful foot hold for Robert’s talents, he also finds himself wanting to improve his career and life in other ways.

“My goals include improving upon my design skills at the same time build a foundation for a business that can help sustain my family if times ever get hard again. I would like to create a business that my kids can take part in as they become older. Currently, my wife helps me out a lot… so in many ways we already have a solid family business. Personally I would like to improve my health.”

Many Playing Card designers find themselves so attached to the cards they design they start to amass a collection of their own, and while Robert doesn’t consider himself a full blown collector, he does recall how history became such an important part of his designs process and his introduction into Playing cards. 


“Over the last year I’ve been collecting several decks of cards. But I’m not ready to call myself a collector yet. I mainly support fellow card designers on Kickstarter. I came to designing playing cards last year while we took a weekend trip to Old Sturbridge Village. When we were there we learned that about how early Americans produced playing cards featuring George Washington because they didn’t want anything to do with Kings and Queens. That little history lesson sparked my interest in playing cards. Later that summer we went to Gettysburg and realized it was the 150th anniversary of the battle there so I decided our first deck should be based on the American Civil War.”

The rest, as they say, is History. 

I can’t thank Robert enough for taking some time to collaborate on this piece; with running his current project his time is greatly appreciated. If you haven’t checked out Roberts current Project on Kickstarter, Colonial Unrest, you should, check it out and become a backer!

Before parting we did have a few more last minute question for Robert that he was nice enough to answer for us:

Why do your projects so connected to history?
History runs in my family. My father’s side of the family can trace our roots back to 1592. On top of the, we can trace every generation since we came to American in 1632. When you keep such detailed records you can make many connections to notable people. For example, we’re direct decedents to Gideon Tomlinson (former Governor to Connecticut). We’re also distantly related to several US Presidents and television star, Lucille Ball. To me, knowing where you came from is the best way to see where you’re going.

With a few successful projects under your belt, does it get any easier?
Yes and No. In the end, if you have a deck that appeals to people you don’t have too many issues getting it funded. With Colonial Unrest it was funded sooner (and the first time around). With both Civil and Global Unrest I had to retool and re-launch to get those two decks funded.

How much research and planning go into your playing card projects?
I spend anywhere from two to six months planning a deck of cards. A lot depends on how much already know about the subject. I’ve been planning my next historical deck (Titanic) for about five months now.

Are there any plans to create a deck of playing cards not using history as its concept?
Yes, I have a long list of projects I would like to do. Some of the projects I’m working with my wife on are more based on fictional stories rather than just history.

Any final thoughts or comments?
Over the course of the last year I was able to get to know several great people. I really appreciate the help and advice I’ve been given along the way.

Thank you Robert for the little look into your background and the future of TomlinsonPlaying Card Co. I’m sure that we’ll continue to see bigger better projects from you in the future and I'm sure we’ll be seeing your business flourish. 



This exclusive 1-on-1 is written by Anthony Ingrassia for kardify. No part of this article can be reproduced without written permission from the author. You can check out Anthony's awesome collection at sparkzcollector.



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