Designers: Interview With The Artist Behind Ellusionist Playing Cards -Lee McKenzie

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Designers: Interview With The Artist Behind Ellusionist Playing Cards -Lee McKenzie

Artist Lee McKenzie has gone under the radar for some time. In fact, when most talk about the extremely popular playing card decks Arcane, Artifice and Infinity the only constant mentioned is Ellusionist. Often times when a playing card deck is released by a company, the artist takes a back seat to the entire project while the brand or company releasing the deck gets most of the attention. As the financial backer and driver of the project, it makes sense the company would get the glory. However, I thought it was time to shine light on the artist. Without the artist there is no deck. I was able to get in touch with Lee, the artist behind Ellusionist's best decks, and ask him a few questions...


Tuck Case: Can you give a brief background about your career? Education? Self taught? Years as an artist? etc...
Lee McKenzie: I've been creative for as long as I can remember. The short(ish) version is that I was a good drawer as a kid. I studied design and experimented further in high school. I got an A* in '98 and went to college for 4 years for my National and Higher National Diploma in graphic design, photography, film-making, 3D and new media. Adding a computer in the mix was exciting and opened up a whole new world of possibilities. I was even asked to teach classes there as the tutors didn't have experience in certain areas that I did, which was great.

After college in 2002, I schooled myself in motion graphics and visual FX. I did some TV work and short films with friends. In 2004, I eventually landed a job at a DVD production house designing everything from logos to print advertisements to DVD menus and visual FX for TV shows, movies for the BBC, and some crazy 70's horror films, which was awesome.

I met my girl and in 2008 I quit my job. We left the UK and I became freelance, trying to scrape a living together designing for my own clients. I've been designing professionally for 10 years, but I've been creative my whole life. Software was taught to me, but creating art with it has always been an experimental self-taught love-affair and learning from great artists around me.

Tuck Case: How did you get involved with Ellusionist?
Lee McKenzie: As a magician and lover of mystery and wonder for many years, I've grown to adore playing cards. But more importantly, how they can tell a story of their very own, just sitting there on the table or in the hands of a talented conjurer. They're a pandora's box, waiting to be opened. An amazing tale waiting to be told.

So as a magician, I was already aware of Ellusionist. I'm a big fan. When they put out the Ghost, Tigers and Vintage 1800 decks, I got a strange feeling in my stomach. I loved these cards! But I felt something more, like this was some kind of symbol to take notice of. Something came alive in me and gave me the green light to say, "Go and do it, design your own deck, this couldn't feel more right!" As I looked at these cards, I knew I wanted to create something just as amazing. Maybe even better, who knows? I had to try. I knew I was meant to pursue this, so I got to work designing a completely custom deck. It had more detail and creativity than I'd even seen in a deck of cards, and it was mine. I was so excited. I packaged it off to Brad at Ellusionist, along with a letter about how much they inspired me to do this. I wanted my deck to sit alongside their decks and finally pave a meaningful way to make a living with my real passions.

As it turned out, Brad loved the deck! I was so happy. I can't even begin to describe it. However, my deck didn't end up alongside theirs. It stayed undercover but they felt I was the right guy to finally design their very first completely custom deck. Not another Bicycle brand redesign, but a new custom deck all of it's very own. In 2008, I started designing the Arcane deck and I became the Ellusionist playing card designer. My dream of launching my own deck was put on hold for the next 5 years...but not for much longer.

Tuck Case: That first deck you worked on and sent to Brad, what happened to it? Is it still on the shelf?
Lee McKenzie: Yes, the first deck I sent to Brad is still on the shelf. My shelf though. I'd like to re-work a lot of it and one day maybe even release that, but right now I feel it's just not really finished.

Tuck Case: How many decks have you worked on with Ellusionist? Which decks are they?
Lee McKenzie: I worked on 5 decks for Ellusionist. The Arcane, Artifice, Infinity, Fathom and I created the back and ace design for the LTD. The Arcane Ace as was a concept I reworked, but was originally created by Jason Brumbalow. Also, the Artifice Joker was created by another artist as well. They look great.

Photo courtesy of

Tuck Case: Were you given a lot of creative freedom with the Ellusionist decks or were you told from the start exactly what they wanted?
Lee McKenzie: Most of the time, just sharing the general vision they had for a deck was enough for me to actually nail the design, or at least come very close to that. After that, there's lots of refining and tweaking to make it really come alive. We had a mutual trust we had built up between us, which meant they were happy that I experimented and took the time to come up with something I saw fit, as most likely it was very useful, if not exactly what they wanted and still want. So yes, there was a lot of freedom, but within the scope of the vision. There were also times when we would completely misunderstand each other, and I wasted hours going in one direction when it should have been in another. Luckily, those were rare occasions haha!

Tuck Case: It is said that the Ellusionist decks were extremely challenging for USPCC to create. Did you ever have to change your work because of USPCC limitations?
Lee McKenzie: Never. We just weren't willing to sacrifice a design because the 'how' couldn't be worked out. I put a ton of passion and heart into everything I do. I can't help it. So if something was "undo-able", it was just a case of trying to figure it out because compromising the design was and is not going to please anyone. The design is the deck. Figuring out how to print something that complex and challenging would only serve to help USPCC prepare for more projects like that in the future anyways. Ultimately, it's of great benefit to them, and everyone else in the long run. Win-win-win. You can't push forward in the world by staying still.

Tuck Case: What was the most challenging deck for you to design?
Lee McKenzie: The most challenging deck for me had to be the very first, Arcane. The concept itself is something that is very hard to put your finger on. It's a dramatic combination of mysterious elements, all of which become very difficult when you attempt to define them on a canvas as small as a deck of cards.

Tuck Case: Out of the decks you made, do you have a favorite?
Lee McKenzie: Personally I have 2. Artifice and Infinity. The story behind Artifice is something I find exhilarating. The dedication to the art of deception. Being bold and taking the risk to win. A life pursued by the hustlers who live on the edge. Amazing! Also, something of deep personal interest to me as the path I've taken in life has not been without it's share of risk and bold action.

Infinity was a concept that I originally brought to the table, so maybe I'm biased, but I love the end result. Visions of early magicians at the turn of the century, dabbling in all sorts dark mystical fancies. It's a very old-world deck, almost like a special time travel device to take us into the past. It's depth, feel and the story it tells is something that really excites me. A genuine artifact of a time when magic was more 'real'.

Photo courtesy of

Tuck Case: Do any other decks on the market stand out to you as a favorite? why?
Lee McKenzie: Rebels. Monarchs. Artisans. Split Spades. Beautiful cards! I love to see great art. The guys responsible for designing those cards are fantastic artists. I love their style and it's great to see so much effort being put into them. I'm also a huge fan of regular Bee backs simply because of their wild gambling roots.

Tuck Case: Who or What do you use for inspiration? Other playing card decks? Artists/designers?
Lee McKenzie: I'd love to say I look at XYZ for inspiration but I can't exactly pin point where my ideas come from. There's so much happening out there to be inspired by. My head is like a cinema, always turning my thoughts into visual stories and movie scenes that usually end up taking shape in reality as creative ideas and inspiration for design. Everything I encounter probably makes its way into my head and may eventually come out onto the screen in one way or another. As each project is so different, there's no one way to 'be inspired' for it. I'm always looking around the Internet for beautiful things, things that move me, feelings and images that tell me visual stories. The outside world, stepping out of your door and getting rid of the roof over your head is a huge tool I use for getting inspired. I can't tell you how many ideas I've had by simply, being outside. That is probably where a lot of visions for my work comes from.

Tuck Case: Other than cards decks, what other design work have you done?
Lee McKenzie: Motion graphics and composting for company ads, DVD menu design for TV shows and movies. Drink labels, various brand logos, website designs and t-shirts. That is the great thing about graphic design - it can be applied to many industries. However, I feel it's best to figure what you enjoy doing most, and frame your life around that as much as possible. Which is why I've decided to stop freelancing and finally move forward with something of my very own. It's an exciting and risky time for me, but I hope it works out. I'll share more soon. (Get Ready!)

Tuck Case: What advice can you give to someone looking to design a deck of cards?
Lee McKenzie: There's room for everyone in this world and I think that being creative is a great way to add value to it. There's 2 paths here: You either want to design cards just for yourself, or, you want to bring them to the world. If it's just for yourself, go for it. Grab a pad of paper or open up the computer and start trying to pour your ideas out and see what happens. It's great to actually make something of your own and enjoy doing it too.

But, if you intend to launch it to the world? What I'd say is to try to add something of your very own. Put enough time and effort in to it to do it justice. There's a lot of, in my opinion, very poorly designed decks out there. Art is subjective, and someone else may like what I don't. That is great, but the point is, don't add to the noise for the sake of it. Do something that matters to you. Just because company ABC is doing this, it doesn't mean that you should too. It's okay to learn from what already exists around you, but try and stamp your own mark in this universe and don't add to the clutter.

If you aren't capable of using the tools needed to design cards, get in touch with someone who can, work with them to fulfill your idea. Just because you can use Photoshop a bit, doesn't mean you should. If you don't have the ability to communicate your own idea in the best way you can, don't half ass it just because you don't know how to do it. Your idea will end up watered down and getting lost. Find someone who can help you realize the vision you have. Either that, or bust your ass learning how to use the tools to make your own vision come to life. The end product should be something that matters to you and that will add value to someone else. If it really matters to you, don't compromise that. Most of all, make sure it's something you enjoy doing. Life's too short for anything else.


There you have it - some words of wisdom and insight from the man behind the industry's most intricate and challenging playing card decks. After going back and forth with Lee while setting this interview up, I realized that Lee is an extremely humble person that just loves design, the work that he does and constantly pushing forward for the next best thing in playing card design. Lee is not complacent or stagnant by any means. Without Lee pushing the boundaries with playing card design it is possible that the industry might not be where it is today. I am almost certain of that. With that said, in the coming weeks there will be more information about Lee McKenzie being posted on Tuck Case. For now I will call it a "follow up interview with a special treat" for everyone! Get excited!

In the meantime, check out Lee's work on his website:

And on Dribbble:
Designers: Interview With The Artist Behind Ellusionist Playing Cards -Lee McKenzie Reviewed by Ivan on 5/23/2013 Rating: 5


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