Being asked to design a divination deck for a third party might sound fun, likely feels flattering, and possibly will prove to be profitable. However, the hardest lesson of the process is an abstraction until it begins to feel all-too real: when you create cards for someone else, you're ultimately not in control, no matter how profoundly connected you find yourself to the cards in the process. Perhaps as with any form of art, when you create a reading deck that's worth anything, your very soul goes into the work. If the project ultimately gets caught up in limbo or permanently shelved, you're left in an excruciatingly uncomfortable position with little to no recourse. I'll offer a crucial checklist for prospective card designers, but first a brief background on my latest experience working for a big name in the industry.
In early 2013, I was approached by world-renowned mind-reader Kenton Knepper to design a special deck of cards. If you've heard of magicians like Doug Henning, Derren Brown, or David Blaine, you've seen Kenton's innovations in action. He's a stage magician who doubles as an honest-to-goodness wizard (as well as maestro of the crystal bowls), and his goal isn't to trick people but to initiate and facilitate genuine, life-changing insights based upon his life-long study of the Mystery traditions. Now Kenton didn't quite contact me from out of the blue — we'd been acquaintances for years, first coming onto each other's radar when Weiser Books published my Magic Words: A Dictionary, which is a complement to Kenton's Wonder Words study course. One day I felt inspired to work up a little visual gift in his honor, to express my ongoing admiration of his work. Here's what it looked like:
So I had put a little energy out there, and on the very same day Kenton returned that energy with an offer: "Maybe you are the person to collaborate with me in creating a system of polarity and metaphor in images. The idea is to help people come to their own conclusions, and making more 'wide awake dreams' with simple imagery. Climbing a ladder with a ceiling underneath, falling up stairs with a leg tied to a balloon, that sort of thing. Interested in this?"
I was most definitely interested, especially in the idea of a card system that would be "self-intuiting" and thereby allow a subject to decode his or her own insights, with the reader acting not as a professor who does all the talking but as a facilitator who listens to what the subject sees in the cards and asks questions as prompts when necessary. I responded to Kenton: "Yes, indeed! I might try to work up card imagery for the two examples you shared (climbing a ladder with a ceiling underneath, falling up stairs with a leg tied to a balloon), to see if my approach feels right for what you're envisioning with this project. If we're in sync, let's definitely do this! I love the concept -- it's very much my 'thing,' so ... yes!"
Kenton added that he was envisioning an "occult science feel" for the designs (as is typical of my work), with a rationality on display but also an aura of strange mystique. Five days later, I submitted my drafts of his initial card ideas:
I had taken pains to make the imagery visually "work" either upright or reversed (so that the person drawing the card could instantly apprehend the symbolism at a glance). For the ceiling ladder card, my initial thoughts were:
Upright: A figure climbs a ladder on the ceiling. A folk proverb references Newton's 2nd law: "What goes up must come down." Every step "higher" apparently goes lower, yet toward another way out.
Reversed: A figure climbs a ladder in topsy-turvy environment. An old Mexican proverb: "You can't get up without falling down first." Sometimes digging down is the most expeditious way up.
And for the card about falling up the stairs, I brainstormed:
Upright: A figure takes a tumble yet is buoyed just the same and gains a higher vantage. At the foundation is access to a cellar — a crypt? a vault? a cantina? An ancient Buddhist proverb: "The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."
Reversed: A figure rises fast (too fast?) and is presented with the flip side: another way beyond the steps taken. An ancient Taoist proverb: "Be like the water; seek the lowest place." (An image reflected in the clouds is known as a Brocken spectre and is typically the magnified shadow of the observer.)
Kenton was pleased with the designs, though I was surprised to hear that he wasn't concerned about reversals. He explained that from the perspective of his Mystery School training, "Reversal is simply a reflection, not necessarily an opposite at all. I do however appreciate greatly how your drawings, when they have reversals in them, are powerful polarities that help people find their own inner wisdom and meanings at any given moment." And he had his own card interpretations to add, of course. For example, for the ladder card, he noted: "In secret ancient symbolism, going up is going in. You cannot be raised higher without going into the depths of yourself."
And so, freed from taking extra pains regarding card reversals, I proceeded to follow up on eight additional card ideas from Kenton. These were:
- A heart on water, broken but with the space filled with water, fire rising out of it, and bandages and stitches implying healing of the heart as well.
- A person thinking so much that the head separates from the body.
- A picture of someone with her heart in her head and her mind in her heart area.
- A person electrified and shining a light out of himself, only to have it reflected back as a spotlight on him.
- A person growing like a flower out of the ground, but feet first coming up as the "bloom."
- A staircase a person is climbing that leads to the sky or clouds only, and perhaps the ocean reversed.
- A clock where the hands actually form an infinity symbol, and the hands are set to 8.
- A Merry-Go-Round inside someone's head, with the center pole going out the top of the head, connected to a Sun.
I don't have room here to display all of the designs I came up with, but here's the broken heart on the water (and the leaf motif in the heart was my own contribution to the concept):
At this point in the process, my Muse began suggesting ideas, so I began adding new cards alongside Kenton's suggestions, just in case they matched his intentions. Luckily, we seemed to be in sync, and he welcomed my ideas as they were or suggested modifications. After four months of nearly daily back-and-forths, we found ourselves with 52 cards, and I ordered a jumbo-sized proof deck from TheGameCrafter.com. Kenton expressed enthusiasm that not only card readers and mind-reading magicians would find this deck useful but the general public as well, since the cards didn't require a facilitator. I won't say that cartoon dollar signs began to ca-ching before my eyes, but I did have reasonable expectations that something might indeed come of this deck.
And then limbo set in. For over two years, the deck saw no release whatsoever. Kenton regularly showed off the cards at underground magical gatherings in Las Vegas, but he seemed content to keep the deck as his own best-kept secret. The cards got talked about, and they acquired the street names of "Waking Dream Cards," "Metaphor Cards," "Subconscious Communication Cards," "Transformation Cards," and "K-Kards." But their official name remained "[Self-Intuiting] Polarity Cards." Then — horror of horrors — I heard inklings from mutual friends that Kenton was on the verge of retiring from mentalism, and cartoon alarm bells began ringing in the space between my ears. If Kenton packed it in, the Polarity deck would be doomed to obscurity, and four months of solid work would evaporate into the ethers.
Attempting to play it cool, I drafted an e-mail to Kenton, marveling that it had been over two years since we had completed the deck, and being careful not to mention that every single day of those two years had felt like an eternity to me. I asked if there was anything I might be able to do to move the project out of limbo, such as drafting a booklet of card interpretations, designing a box for the deck, and finalizing the various technical issues with fulfilling orders through TheGameCrafter. Luckily, Kenton was now amenable to offering the deck to the general public, and it's belatedly available through TheGameCrafter.
- Does the client know your work well-enough that your style is sure to be a fit for the project? The last thing you'd want to happen is to deliver a draft of the first card and find the client out of sync and looking for another designer.
- Can the client offer a timeline so that you'll know exactly when to expect the deck to be released? If there's no set date, that means the project is amorphously waiting for some time in the future, and that's nearly equivalent to "never."
- Is the client open to an organic process, willing to hear your own suggestions along the way? Designing cards is such a personal experience that you'll most certainly have your own brainstorms. Also, any art project tends to develop a life of its own and may grow in its own directions. Both the artist and the client need to be open to going with the flow, at least to a degree, even as the artist strives to maintain within the client's previously-set parameters. Whenever an aspect of the project begins to veer off the original path, the artist is responsible for finessing the situation. Spend time tactfully handling the change so that it does not present as a surprise. It's probably never wrong in a divination deck to credit your intuition for slight alterations in the existing plan, as intuitiveness is woven into the very concept of card reading.
- Is the client willing to offer payment in advance of the deck's release? Even if you have negotiated a percentage of the sales, an advance on those royalties will be the only insurance that you'll see any money whatsoever.
- Are you willing to take on this project no matter what might go wrong and no matter if the deck never sees the light of day? This is the toughest question of all, but it's vital to consider it since you won't be in total control. The answer may very well be Yes -- your spirit may jump at the chance to work on a particular deck, come what may. And, truthfully, there's no such thing as wasted effort. Even if a deck you've designed never gets released, the very process of creating each card was part of your own spiritual refinement. A completed but unreleased deck becomes like a dream, and how much of daily life is illusory anyway? If it's all a dream, let it be a lucid one that you learn and grow from.
— Craig Conley is author of The Young Wizard's Hexopedia, the Tarot of Portmeirion, HarperCollins' One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, Pomegranate's One Letter Words Knowledge Cards Deck, and Weiser Books' Magic Words: A Dictionary. He is co-author of New Star Books' Franzlations: A Guide to the Imaginary Parables. He has published dozens of articles in such magazines as Verbatim, Pentacle, Mothering, and Magic. His work has been profiled in the New York Times, the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News, Publishers Weekly, The Associated Press, and dozens of others.