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How theory11 founder Jonathan Bayme elevates brands with incredible playing cards
Jonathan, you’re the founder of theory11… For those not familiar with the company, I think it’s fair to say you make the best playing cards in the world.
And even saying that doesn’t really do it justice… Your playing cards have custom artwork, beautiful boxes and incredible stock quality. Stunning.
So! To start with the obvious question: how did you get interested in playing cards?
There’s no real way to cut the story short, but I’ll do my best! I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, East Coast of the US; a relatively small town. My parents were big theatre buffs, my dad in particular. They used to make me go to every single touring show that came through town. I’ve seen Cats more times than any human should…
That’s once with the movie…
Ha! I’ve also seen Les Miserable a billion times; Phantom of the Opera – all the classic stuff that tours. Anyway, one of the shows that was coming through town was the magician David Copperfield…
Oh, wow. How old would you have been for that?
I was five – but I didn’t want to go! I already thought magic was stupid and cheesy and hokey; clowns and top hats and all of that sort of stuff. But my parents had already bought front-row centre tickets.
And they forced you to go?
They forced me to go! But, of course, it was amazing – I was instantly obsessed… Obsessed with magic, and more specifically David Copperfield. And as you know, magic’s very addictive. You go down the rabbit hole of learning a few things and quickly become super obsessed – and I did. The problem was there was no magicians that I knew of in Charleston so I struggled with it for the first five, six years. When I was 12 years old, though, my parents got me a Gateway 2000 computer – the one with the very questionable cow-themed branding…
Oh my goodness!
Remember?! It still doesn’t make sense to me! Anyway, I then became a computer nerd and a magic nerd. I combined my powers and my newfound AOL account together to make a message board for magicians. And that was the whole original thing. This was 1999 or so; I was 13. That led to working on an initial magic website which is still around, ellusionist.com, which I didn’t found, but I was the president of it for a number of years. When I was 15 – freshman year of high school – it was a 20-person operation.
And what was the focus? What were you doing?
Well, the message board had turned into a instructional website on how to do magic tricks. We were selling VHS tapes; teaching people – creating a whole new generation of magicians around the world. Now we fast forward a few years to 2007!
Which is when you founded Theory11 in its current form…
Exactly. We were really aiming to make magic into something less hokey; more modern and sophisticated; intellectual and cerebral. We thought, “How do we do that if most magicians still use playing cards that look cheesy and aren’t cool or modern?”
“I looked into it, then just immersed myself in design, illustration, letter pressing, foil-stamping…”
Right! And I don’t know how obvious it is, but a magicians’ experience of branded playing cards – before theory11 – was of very generic designs, and pretty poor quality. You’d try to fan them and it’d look like you were holding three stout blocks. So you deliberately set out to change that?
It was like the magic… I looked into it, then just immersed myself in design, illustration, letter pressing, foil-stamping, Heidelberg presses; things that date back to the 1920s, 1930s… The entire production process! I was obsessed. And eventually we released what was among the very first all-custom decks of cards. Because lots of people have made decks of cards with a custom box, or a custom back design… But we did everything: the ace, the jokers, the court cards; a fully-customised deck.
I’m curious, then: who did you think would buy them?
Oh, just magicians. To me, it was a happy accident that lots of other people wanted them: poker players, blackjack players, design enthusiasts… They all started buying and collecting these cards. This market for collectable playing cards quickly exploded.
Exploded is a good word. When I first saw your range it wouldn’t have been enormous. Then it was, “Oh, my God, how do people keep up?”! And actually, maybe we’ll put a link to the store in here so people can see the current range… Given that your cards are so stunning and intricate, though, what’s the design process?
Our process is unique in that we use precisely zero existing artwork from our collaborators. We’ll get style guides and stuff, but they don’t really stretch to what we do. No style guide I’ve ever seen has a sample design for a king of clubs…
Ha! No! So you go completely from scratch?
Yes, in the majority of cases. And for the first 50 bazillion licenses and collaborations we did, it was an uphill road because, of course, licensors are very protective over their brands. They don’t want people to dilute, diminish or devalue the specialness of the brand. So our aim became to elevate every brand we work with to an unfathomable degree.
“An unfathomable degree”… Love it. Can you give us an example of that?
So one that comes to mind is the James Bond deck. When we did that, we made it like the ultimate collectable souvenir. So that if there’s a James Bond super fan on a Reddit group or subreddit – say – that’s our core buyer. Yes, we do also want someone who just saw their very first Bond movie to like them, but we make products that the super fans are going to really admire – and know that we really did our homework.
“We did a deck recently that had so many details, easter eggs and nuances in the design that the licensor had us make a cheat sheet…”
Because this is the thing… Your cards are full of little visual treats and nods and winks and inside jokes; homages and tributes.
That’s it; exactly. We did a deck recently that had so many details, easter eggs and nuances in the design that the licensor had us make a cheat sheet. They didn’t understand all of the homework and references that had gone into that design.
Ha! That’s almost like a magic trick in itself, I suppose…
It’s the dream scenario for me because I want to do more homework than anyone would reasonably do. And yes, honestly, it comes from magic. As a magician, you’ll know the Teller quote that I love, which is that, “Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”
Absolutely; absolutely right. Magicians can impress you because they spend longer than you think, and make more effort than you can imagine, to look like they’re not doing much at all… And you’re saying, Jonathan, that it’s the same with your designs?
Yes. Magicians love this idea of putting more effort into something than anyone else would expect. Magicians are still going at it when anyone else would’ve given up a month before, saying: “That’s good enough!”. For us, we spent a year making our Lord of the Rings deck… That’s another example that’s come to mind. So we often spend a year and a half putting an unfathomable amount of effort into each of these decks.
Great! Your reputation precedes you, now, presumably? You don’t meet the same resistance as you did in the early days?
No – over the years, we’ve won more and more trust from licensors. They increasingly know that we’re going to make them look good. But if anything, I want to make them look better than they’ve ever thought they could look… So we pick these collaborators carefully because we really want them to be impressed.
“How could we possibly do that much research unless it came from a genuine place?”
So you’ve shown me Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Beatles, James Bond, Spider-Man… There are countless others. What have these brands all got in common, though? What makes you think, “We’ve got to work on that licence!”?
It’s really that we only work on the brands we’re passionate about ourselves. If we’re going to spend 18 months, a year – four months at the very, very least – immersing ourselves in a brand, we have to be absolutely passionate about it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be authentic. How could we possibly do that much research unless it came from a genuine place?
Well, might it be too much, then, Jonathon?! We’ll both have seen a magician that’s put hours of time and oodles of effort into an effect… But the effect isn’t commensurate with that effort! Might that happen with intricate design?
I’d say it’s the opposite… Part of me gets a secret thrill from these easter eggs and nuances and details that no one even catches. I can see why you’re asking. People might read this and wonder if that effort was made in vain. But no; it’s the opposite to me because that shows if we can put so much intricacy and detail in design that some people don’t even notice, it means we did our job.
The example you have there…
This is the queen of diamonds from The Beatles deck. She’s the girl with kaleidoscope eyes. But also, cellophane flowers of yellow and green…
And that’s a marshmallow pie, presumably…
Right! So the closer you look at the product, the more little easter eggs…
This is what I think is beautiful about it. With theory11, it’s not that the pack is a work of art: every card is a work of art, every box is a work of art… So, clearly creativity is incredibly important to you. How do you personally stay creative?
I believe – strongly – that creativity is like a muscle; you build it up, just like any bodybuilder would build themselves up. The more you do something, the more you build up a rhythm to something, the better you get at it. I’ve done this since I was 12 and I’ve not stopped. I can’t cite a week where I’ve not done something… I’ve never taken a week off because this part of it is not work to me. This is my passion. I did it when I did it for free! I loved design, I loved magic, I loved creating things, I loved understanding how things work.
It sounds to me as though your creativity is a habit, then… It’s now so ingrained, so part of who you are, that it’s just second nature.
It’s now just a process and how you do something, yes.
That’s a relief; I don’t like it when people say, “I just put my hopes in a jar and trust the universe to provide…”
Oh, no! That’s not me. But hey – whatever works!
Well, Jonathon, I really could talk to you for hours but I can’t even imagine how busy you are. Thank you for making time! Before we wrap it up, what’s the one question I could have asked you today but didn’t?
You asked about how we choose the brands with whom we collaborate. I think equally important to our story, though, is who we’ve chosen to collaborate with creatively, in terms of actually the design process.
Would’ve been a great question! And for context, you’ve collaborated with everyone from JJ Abrams and Derren Brown to your childhood hero, David Copperfield…
Yes, and I’d say the biggest stroke of luck or skill I’ve had is actually not just in the art direction and manifesting. I mean, I love designing stuff… I love making websites. I like coding websites. I like all of those things, but I’ve had a string of really, really good luck in choosing and meeting collaborators and partners that have helped along the way.
Yes. Was your first meeting with JJ Abrams through a bit of good luck?
It was. I was inspired by his TED Talk. And we were connected through a mutual friend randomly… JJ asked if I was going to be in LA anytime soon. I said yes, as it happens, I’d be in LA the following Wednesday. Only I wasn’t – I was in South Carolina…
That’s a very magician thing to do, I think… Say you can do something and then find a way to make it true!
100%. In any case, I stayed up all night the night before that meeting. I prepared a whole list of ideas and stuff to throw at him, and just relentlessly pursued it. But in terms of design, we work with people from all around the world. I spend a huge amount of time choosing these collaborators, obviously. We couldn’t do what we do on the volume of projects and diverse amount of styles just with one person or myself, or even a team of five or ten people internally. We’ve chosen an incredible roster of artists that we collaborate with on these projects.
I’ve had obscenely good luck, I would just say, with who we’ve chosen to work with and how we met them. Jay Fletcher, for example, is an illustrator. Among other things, he did the Elvis project we worked on recently… When we first worked together, though – about ten years ago – we were so focused on the project that it was six or seven months before I realised he only lived three blocks away from me.
Ha! He was round the corner?!
We were communicating over email and phone calls. Then one day I realised he had the same area code as me. But there’s just this string of luck in how I meet one person and one thing leads to the other. The biggest secret of it is just being open to the agility of each project.
“The agility of each project”, I like that.
One collaborator has introduced us to another; and this person has led to that brand, and then that project got seen by this person… So it’s just about the quantity of work and being open to opportunities along the way. If I wasn’t open to opportunities along the way, I’d still be a magician in Charleston, South Carolina. But since the beginning, I’ve been willing to go where the wind blows, and if that means this; this detour into the world of licensed products and playing cards, and stuff that’s tangentially related to my childhood passion – then great!
Brilliant. I love that you seem very relaxed, Jonathan… And still young, full of energy, full head of hair. Very down to earth, incredibly gracious and humble. You’re all of the things I’m not, in fact. So… I admire it and thank you for your time.
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