A six-suited deck of cards
Playing cards are an integral part of American (and worldwide) culture. Used in game rooms, casinos, back rooms, and bridge clubs all over, cards break the lines of class, race, gender, and economic status. But the typical standard 4-suited deck is limited in the number of players and in the games that can be played. For years, designers and developers have sought to add additional suits to the deck. In the 1980s, while teaching basic design and creative problem solving, I assigned a project to develop two additional suits for a standard playing card deck. It was a fun and effective introduction to design; it required assessment, conducting historical research, understanding limitations, setting objectives, exploring numerous options, producing professional comps, communicating thorough rationale for each design decision in the solution, and oral presentation skills. Following is my rendering of the solution that was the most common and best-developed.
Assessment of the existing suits
All 4 suits share some commonalities: they are symmetrical on a vertical axis (the diamond is also symmetrical on a horizontal axis), solid shapes, curvilinear forms, and share similar forms.
The two black suits have identical stem bases and the two red suits have identical pointed bases.
Their names are short, and easy to say, although some children refer to the clubs as clovers since they don't look like clubs.
Some objectives for the new suits
• Match, blend in, and fit with the existing 4 suits
• Be distinct from the existing 4 suits
• Be easy to recognize
• Be easy to remember
• Be minimally offensive
• Be easy to render and reproduce
• Use names that are short, appropriate, and easy to say
Proposed new suits
The new suits include the addition of Cups and Shields, paying homage to the Medieval European roots of the names and symbols. The bases of the 3 black suits and the 3 red suits are almost identical. The tops share the same language of color and form.
The new suits meet the main objectives of fitting in with the existing 4 suits while being distinct enough to not be confused with the existing suits.
A failed attempt
In the 1960s, a company in Dallas marketed Nu-Dek, the Sextet set of playing cards. From their instruction sheet: Not intended to replace the 4-handed game, but to supplement it by providing a compatible game for those occasions when chance or preference brings 6 people together to play a game. No bridge host or hostess need now be flustered by an extra, or missing couple. The designers of Nu-Dek cards attached romantic symbolism to all the suits: industry to spades, romance to hearts, wealth to diamonds, conflict to clubs, and now commerce to wheels (a ship's wheel - emblematic of commerce), and sports to rackets.
The design of the two new suits does not meet the visual criteria established by the existing 4 suits. The rackets have an outline,while the wheels have negative spaces, detail, and an outline. The rackets get close to matching by having curves and a mass, but the wheels just do not visually belong with the other 5 suit symbols. They are both symmetrical and a single solid color.
The Nu-Dek set apparently didn't succeed in the marketplace.
History of playing cards
Info from Susan Yelavich, Parsons The New School for Design
The earliest playing cards were Korean and came from the practice of fortune telling. Made of silk, they were about 8 inches long and half an inch wide, with backs covered in feather-like patterns. Their paper counterparts can be attributed to T'ang Dynasty China, years 618-907. Called Domino Cards, they were made with the same block-printing technology that produced the first books. Playing cards made their way from China to the Middle East in the 700s, when papermaking was introduced to Persia by Chinese prisoners taken in battle. over the centuries, Persian cards begat Hindu cards - the round decks called Ganjifa, popularized by 1500s Mughal emperors. Indian Ganjifa feature images of people, animals, and divinities, and ornamental pip cards 1 through 10.
In their 1500s heyday, the disks were made from a variety of materials - ivory and jeweled tortoise shell for the upper classes; wood, palm leaf, and pasteboard for commoners. While all playing cards carry recessive genes from their Eastern ancestors, the lineage of European specimens flows directly up from the Nile. Card fragments from 1200s Egypt show that mameluks, the ruling Islamic military caste, introduced a 52-card deck with four suits: polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. In keeping with Muslim tradition, no figures appear on the 'court' cards, but the abstractly ornate malik (king), na'ib malik (viceroy), and thani na'ib (deputy) cards were marked with the names of military leaders.
By the late 1300s, the Egyptian suits had been adopted in Muslim Spain as well as in Italy Both countries translated the polo sticks into club-like batons). Germany and central European countries developed their own iconography of hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns. And by the late 1400s, France, which had been playing cards for a century, codified the familiar quartet of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs. The same system was adopted by the English, whose earliest surviving deck dates from 1590.
Popular in England, 'transformation cards', which came into vogue in the 1700s, pictured hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs entwined in the bodies of animals and people. Reversible court cards(with heads on both the top and bottom) were devised in the 1700s so players wouldn't give their hands away when their face cards were turned right side up. The corner indices (the numbers and symbols that allow cards to be held in a fan) were a feature of Spanish and Italian decks as early as 1693, but the protocol didn't become widespread until the New York Consolidated Card Company patented its 'Squeezers' in 1875.