Thursday, June 2, 2016

Around the Horn Review: 2016 Early Releases

In case you didn't happen to notice, I skipped my usual full-release review of Topps Series I earlier this spring. I'd like to say it was planned but, honestly, I just never found the time for it. After a few more releases came before I got around to it, I decided to try out a new format, which you'll see here. I'm sacrificing timeliness for brevity, with the added benefit of avoiding rash judgments.

HOME RUN - All-around success. Asking for more would be greedy.

Donruss Power Alley: I was pretty impressed with this design as soon as Panini released the preview images. This is probably the best argument to be made for them to just relaunch the Donruss brand as Panini's flagship instead of all the zombie Donruss stuff they usually do with retched results. It's modern without being too modern, well-balanced and interesting with just enough interesting stuff going on.

Gypsy Queen base design: This is by far the best Gypsy Design the hobby has seen. Topps was finally able to hit that sweet spot between clean and ornate that fits the GQ brand perfectly. The wordmark has the right amount of personality without being over-the-top. The border color is neutral yet has just enough of a hue to not look boring or garish. And my favorite detail is probably the faux embossing for the elements in the corners. I can't think of a single element here that I'd change. Good job, Topps.

TRIPLE - Didn't quite get all of it but standing on third is a pretty good spot to be.

Gypsy Queen Power Alley: I'm curious what my perception of this would be if I wasn't so enthralled with the Donruss Power Alley design. Obviously the feel of GQ is quite a bit different, but it's still a pretty good design. The color scheme of blue, red and gold is really appealing on the lighter border and helps add some nice contrast to all the elements, especially the home run number total front and center. The wood grain on the bats is another nice detail. The only knock I have is the style of the blue flourishes along the top and bottom of the photo frame. They look a little too '70s-mellow-mushroom for my tastes.

Topps 100 Years at Wrigley Field: The design here benefits from having all the iconic features of Wrigley to drawn upon —red brick, ivy, Wrigley marquee. I like how all of these elements are creeping up from the bottom of the card, just like the ivy creeps up the outfield walls. My only suggestion here would be to maybe have the player name in white running just over the marquee graphic to avoid the dreaded foil-on-dark-background gambit.

DOUBLE - On target for a solid knock. 

Diamond Kings Expressionists: The design here benefits from its simplicity. Playing off the whole expressionism angle, the animated player images are all paint-rendered with the gold, green and red swaths repeating on every card. This is a rare example of them not overcrowding the card with unneeded elements.

Diamond King Aficionado: The best combination of portrait and action shot I've seen in a while. The canvas-colored strips at the top and bottom do a good job of setting the smaller action shot and adding just the right amount of depth. The oil paint look would make a bigger impact here if it was used a little more sparingly in the rest of the Diamond King set.

SINGLE - Success... but just barely.

Opening Day Striking Distance: Even though they don't really have anything to do with the theme of the set, the colorful aura and light beams make for interesting design elements. The "150 WINS" text is a little hard to make out in spots. It also seems like they could move the Opening Day logo down to the actual corner and have the name/goal left aligned next to it since the format of everything else is asymmetrical.

Topps MLB Debut: These came in bronze, silver and gold variations but I honestly can't tell which foil is on the Darvish card here. I probably would have moved this up to the "double" level but the photographs are all especially dark, like their HDR action missed the brightness step in Photoshop. The banner also looks  little hokey when paired with the background texture. Compositionally, it's pretty solid, though.

Topps Walk Off Wins: Kinda like the Striking Distance cards, these have some nice, colorful but irrelevant graphics. I do appreciate that they're team-color based, but there's no real connection to the theme. It would be nice if "Walk Off Wins" appeared in full somewhere on the design. As is, the full line either runs off the edge or it's obscured by something.

Diamond Kinds Heritage Collection: The ornamented circle frame is a nicely rendered element. I like the added depth of having the player cutout overlap it in spots. Another instance of less is more with the background, though, again, the foil on black has some issues as you can see from the scan. The team location at the bottom of circle looks nice in that same gold as the frame. Unfortunately, the player name and position flanking the DK logo towards the tops looks funky since the two lines have such varying lengths on the Frank Robinson here.

Opening Day Alternate Reality: It's very reminiscent of the Striking Distance design. Honestly, they could easily flip the designs for each set and it wouldn't make a difference either way. The "Alternate Reality" text is a little too cliché sci-fi for my tastes. The composition is a little better than its sibling though the elements aren't as nice.

Diamond Kings DK Originals: Give Panini credit for some nicely deployed irony here. This is the Diamond King set's answer to the Donruss Diamond Kings subset. And they named it "Originals" lol. Whatever you say, Panini. It has the same portrait/smaller action cutout set up you'll see in the Donruss version, though executed better here. Making the whole thing full color is a nice distinction. I'm not a fan of the text treatment up top or the "DK Originals" stamped on the bottom. Switching the image order from the Aficionado design is good move to help differentiate them a bit.

Heritage Then & Now: With the constraints of the 1967 base design, this is about as good of a solution as you could ask for. The little details like having the flags split the photos and then wrap around are well done.

Gypsy Queen Walk-Off Winners: Wait, this again? I will say the photo choices here are a lot better than the regular Topps WOW cards. But the horizontal layout means there's less room the image itself since they have to allow for all the typical GQ flourishes to circle in from the borders. My biggest gripes are how the text is handled for both. The "Walk-Off Winners" text up top looks a little to groovy for the rest of the design. And the way Gypsy Queen wordmark arches down along the top really bothers me with the player/team name running above it on a straight baseline. That's a gnarly negative space.

WALK - Mostly good but left a little power in the bat.

Topps base: I'm a fan of the basic look and layout here but it's littered with things I'd change. The "smoke" on the edges, the fake shininess, cut off logos. Has anybody noticed how the colors on the diagonal bars are different? Look at the Eickhoff card. The one on top matches the red from the Phillies logo but the bottom one is on its way to purple. And why is blue the predominant color for the Phillies cards instead of red? Or why are the Pirates cards mostly red with just a smidgen of yellow and zero black? There are too many little things like that for me to be complete sold.

Bowman base: If you saw my previous post, you know exactly where I think the Bowman design can be improved. To sum it up, make the border solid and get rid of all the shiny textures and this would really round the bases.

REACHED ON ERROR - Somehow standing on first despite your best efforts to make an out.

Donruss base: I don't know why Panini is still doing what they're doing with Donruss. Take a few different elements from different Donruss designs of the past, throw lock yourself in a cell with a laptop and see if you can earn your parole (or something). As an evolution from the 2015 design, it's actually an improvement. But they seemed to have incorporated one Topps' least popular design elements into the Frankenstein design here, for some reason. Somehow, though, I don't hate it. Objectively, it's not a bad design per sé. I just can't endorse the way it came to exist.

Donruss Rated Rookie: Hello, halftone gradient. Not so nice to see you again. Having it run across the bottom unencumbered like that is not a good decision. It's teetering on obnoxious. The only saving grace for the rest of the design is the absence of anything else. Just a solid white border and plain white text with the iconic Rated Rookie logo in the corner. So congrats for knowing how to not make things worse (for this design at least).

GROUND OUT - A trip to the plate with nothing to show for it.

Bowman Prospects: While this is almost completely interchangeable with the Bowman base design, it takes a few extra dings here. The issues with border and texture still appear. Without the player name running vertically, it loses some of the dynamism that Bowman has. Also, the team logo sitting in the circle, there's a little too much negative space on the left border that throws things off balance.

Bowman Sophomore Standouts: All the leftover diagonals converge here into...nothing really. The text is boring and too similar for anything to standout. The absence of a primary element other than the player image drags this to snoozeville.

Bowman International Ink: These were doomed once they decided to feature players wearing jerseys over dress shirts in front of the busiest backdrop ever. The team and Bowman logos would be better off if they switched places, letting the team logo be a little bigger. All the fades and shines could stand be toned down as well. The design isn't beyond salvaging but it's probably a more effort than it looks like they were willing to put in.

INFIELD FLY - Took a big cut but ended up not making a positive difference.

Topps Perspectives: I know I'm in the minority here but I'm not a fan of this insert. And it's all because it's completely based off the opening credits of a 14-year old movie. It seems like Topps was attempting to inject some Stadium Club-ness into the flagship set here but it just comes across as a little limp.

Bowman Family Tree: I've never been a fan of when Topps designs insert sets around the auto or relic parallels included. This is a pretty egregious example. All of that wasted space next to the logos just so they can accommodate the autographs. While, the autographed cards are pretty cool, there's no reason to saddle the non-auto versions with such a design obstacle.

STRIKEOUT - Walk back to the dugout in shame.

Donruss Diamond Kings: Why are the "paintings" gray? Why couldn't they edit out the background noise like the NetSuite logo? Why is the player name/team location so prominent? This whole thing screams minimal effort and thought. I can't think of a single positive to mention.

Topps Pressed Into Service: With such a novel concept for an insert, it's a shame the execution is so poorly done. You'd think they would use a picture of the players' pitching, no? The ball stitching is pretty cheesy in the background and I'm not sure why there's a little blip of the photograph fading around the cutout. The swooshes look pretty dated as well. My overall sense is this was a design they've had sitting in the cabinet for a few years now and finally got around to using it to clear out space.

Donruss The Prospects & Donruss The Rookies: Ooh boy. Of all the elements for Panini to pick from the Donruss carcasses, I think the tubes from the 1988 set is very, very far down the list of desirability. Mix in the grungy white texture and it's a match made in hell.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

THIS IS THE REMIX: 2016 Bowman

I thought I'd take the occasion of 2016 Bowman hitting the shelves to post a remix I did a few months ago. My overall impression of Topps' design is mostly positive. I like the angular elements and appreciate that everything is (mostly) readable The biggest issue I have is just the overall busy-ness, with all the shines and fades and bevels. The lack of a solid border was the first thing I changed while keeping a few of the overlaps along the top. Next, I changed the name so both the first and last are aligned on the left and just made the tab a solid transparent tab. The Bowman and RC logos are in the same spot. I decided to make the shape holding the player position into an actual home plate instead of just the "sorta" home plate they used. The little tab thing between that and the logo has the team name repeating over and over like a ticker, like the original design. (The Schwarber here says "ROOKIE" over and over.) Then I added the drop shadow to the player cutout and faded the background image a bit to help the player stand out.

You can see here how the solid border looks with the parallels in comparison to the Topps' design. It's definitely easier to spot on your initial view. The fade on the borderless right side of the card in the original really bugs me. The solid border fixes that. I did a few more below though I don't know if these are included in 2016.

The changes aren't too drastic but they definitely fit my own personal style more than all the over-texturing that Topps is so smitten with currently. In my mind, they're about 5-7 years behind design trends with all of the beveling and whatnot. The remix would definitely age a lot better down the line than the original design.

Monday, April 25, 2016

2016 Spirit Deluxe

The flagship, "low-end" and retro base designs have been in the books for a while now, so it's time to finish up the Spirit quartet with Deluxe, the "high-end" set.

I tried to keep the elements to a minimum and keep the cards from getting too busy. The player names are along the bottom left, stamped in silver foil. Additionally, there's a silver line below and the Deluxe "D" in the upper right corner, all three elements stamped with a bit of an embossed effect. The look is mimicked by the team cap logo in the bottom right corner, though the embossing there is strictly a design effect and not physically embossed. You can see why in the autograph parallels below.

With the white feather coming up from below to help ensure the autographs are visible, the fake embossed look for the logo is a necessity so the players don't have any issues when actually signing.

The backs probably look pretty similar to previous years of Deluxe cards with a good sized photo up top with the rest of space devoted for stats/write-up/other info. Here we have full-size team logos as well as a single stat line encompassing the players's whole career. Also, I actually took the time to do the "write-up" instead of using lorem ipsum text like I usually do, so enjoy more of my meandering writing if you'd like.

The next design post will probably be the Clubhouse All-Stars insert I've done every year but I may do a "review" post with an exciting new format! (Mostly because I've been reeeeeally bad at keeping up with reviewing the 2016 releases from Topps and Panini thus far.)

Monday, March 21, 2016

2016 Pennant

I've posted the flagship and the "low-end" sets, so now it's time for the retro set. The Pennant designs of the past haven't necessarily tried to emulate a particular era. Basically what I try to do is keep them simple while incorporating design elements and trends that are decidedly un-modern. I think it's a good strategy for me so I don't run into a situation like Topps has with Allen & Ginter and Gypsy Queen designs that are hard to differentiate year after year.

The 2016 version harkens back to the late-'60s, with simple colors and a no-frills typeface (Franklin Gothic Condensed). As I tend to do, the color palette is dictated by the team logos instead of some arbitrary system like you would have found back then. The whites are dulled to represent the old uncoated stock and I added grain to the photos and the color boxes to imitate the look of cards from the era as well.

On the back, I went with a horizontal format for the first time with Pennant. All elements are black & white. The little corner tabs which housed the team and Pennant logos on the front are used for card number and a small player portrait on the back. These are definitely my favorite card backs I've designed for the Pennant brand.

Last year I had a "sepia" parallel but this year's design didn't really lend itself to it. If Spirit ever decided to go the "Chrome/Prizm" route, though, this would definitely be a candidate for it. The autograph parallels are still in existence, as well as the addition of a "jumbo" relic. There probably wouldn't be a parallel of each for every card in the set but the design changes so minimally that calling them parallels works for me.

Of all the designs I've posted here, this is probably the one I'd be most tempted to actually print samples of, especially for in-person autograph purposes. If anybody feels so inclined to do the legwork, I'd be up for the designing.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

2016 Clubhouse

I seem to be going every-other-year with the orientation of the Clubhouse set. Last year, they were vertical. So I guess it's time for horizontal again.

Once again, the design is filled with bold colors and simplicity, with the card cut in half by diagonal color boxes. The player cutout is surrounded by a white outline to keep them offset from the background. Diagonal bars come in from opposite sides for the player name and position with a team logo in a circle in the bottom right corner. It helps tie Clubhouse to the main Spirit base set without being such a overt copy. These simple elements keep the design from feeling overdone or cluttered while also keeping with the "fun" feel this low-end product strives for.

The back has plenty room for career stats while still following the elements and look of the front. Even the stat box is able to keep the angled format. If not for having to cut out every player, I'd consider doing a card for each of the 30 MLB teams just because the designing was so fun for me. To me, it strikes a good balance of modern and fun, without being too ornate like some designs are these days.

We still have the Pennant and Deluxe designs to finish/post and then I'll probably start on some new inserts for all four Spirit sets.

Friday, February 26, 2016

2016 Spirit Award Winners

Now that the base design has been unveiled, I'm keeping with tradition and presenting the Spirit Award Winners as the first insert design of the season. You know the drill by now — 18 Gold Glovers (9 AL/9 NL) with gold foil and 18 Silver Sluggers (9 AL/9 NL) with shiny, shiny silver. After starting out super gaudy like disco balls and gold bars, the foil has been a little more subdued in the past couple years. That's also meant a little bit more actual designing on my part.

The gold and silver is mostly found in the four corners with a little bit of deckled texture added in. These make for a nice way to frame the player cutouts. The backgrounds are once again blue and red, respective to each league. The texture is just stormy/grungy enough to keep things interesting without going overboard. It's a good match for all the clean, modernistic lines everywhere else.

The backs are basically the same design as the front, only flipped vertically with text replacing the cutouts. The small mug shot along the top gives you another chance to see these superstar honorees up close. Overall it's a pretty efficient design with just enough ornamentation to add interest without overwhelming you.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

2016 Spirit Base

With pitchers and catchers reporting today, what better time to unveil the look for the 2016 Spirit flagship set. Just like last year, I've designed a card for every team. You can see a roundup of them all below but to get a better look, you can check them out on my Instagram page. Without further ado, let's breakdown this year's design.

For the fifth straight year, the flagship set is borderless. (Just wanted to point that out since Topps seems to be getting a lot of credit for going borderless in 2016...) These diagonal bars in team colors coming from the edges converge to add a little bit of dynamism that you don't get from just plain old rectangles. I guess diagonals are all the rage in 2016. The team logos are back to full-color after I went with gold foil last year. The last element is a small accolades strip extending just above the bars. For any award-winning or all-star player, there's a designation to help them stand out a bit from the rest of the league. You can really tell below even at these small sizes.

Though he's kinda cut off, I had to go with the Cal pic for Machado's card. And that A-Rod photo is so trolltastic I love it.

The Donaldson photo seemed like a good emblem of his 2015 season.

Solid trio of cards here. I like how you can see Kinsler's bat in the bottom left corner, peeking out.

Check out the flow on Keuchel's beard there. Also, I was just barely able to get the ball in frame on the Santiago card without the whole thing getting imbalanced. Just barely.

All three batting cards featuring different parts of the swing. God I love Nelly's fly ball pose.

Good balance of photos here. A candid on-field, a candid dugout and a statue-esque action shot.

The look of concern on Joey Walks face is something you'll probably be seeing a lot of this season.

Piscotty gets the RC logo in the bottom right corner. It's a little tight but fits. I decided to go with red and teal for the Diamondbacks even though they don't actually feature it much in their new identity. Anything to add some unique colors to the set.

Glad the Padres added yellow to their team colors. The sand was always so drab. Maybe next year they'll add brown in there as well.

The back are a progression from the 2015 design, updated with the 2016 design elements. Everything fits pretty coherently. For veterans with years and years of service, the stat box will get a little crowded but that's always been the case with any base design. I think my favorite part is how the logo fits perfectly below the card number and to the left of the vitals, filling the negative space from the diagonal photo.

Well this is the fifth Spirit base set I've designed. If I find the time I may do a retrospective post comparing them all across the years. Maybe even a poll for everyone to vote for their favorites. Stay tuned for that....

Sunday, January 3, 2016


First off, Happy New Year to everybody. 2016 is here so I hope everyone is looking forward to the Giants' World Series win this fall as much as I am. The other 29 fanbases around the league had your chance last season. For you non-Royals fans, 2017 is just a year away. I already have the 2016 Spirit base design completed. I'm just waiting a little bit to start posting them in case one of the players I picked gets traded. (I've already had to scrub my Shelby Miller/Braves selection.) I'll be posting them on Instagram like last year leading up to a full post here, so look forward to that. In the meantime, I plan on posting a "remix" or two, starting off here with 1992 Topps.

The most noteworthy thing about Topps' 1992 release is the use of a coated card stock for the first time in a Topps' flagship release. On top of the smoother surface, the entire card was just brighter than ever before. The design itself was a continuation of the 1991 set with the color and info along the bottom of the card and some extra frames inset from the borders. There's not a lot of exciting stuff going on here, basically just colored boxes with text. For better or worse, I stuck with this strategy for the remix while just making some slight adjustments.

On the original design, the boxes had some hatching added to the bottom and left edges to help add a sense of depth. It's a minor detail that does what it's supposed to. The boxes themselves are mostly team-colored though there are a few random exceptions like the yellow used for the Giants here. The inset frames are also kinda team-colored along with an additional white line on the outside. Topps was able to use these frames to add a little bit of excitement as they had some periodic overlapping where the photographs called for it. Something as simple as having the player's hat or glove or bat cross over that line really adds depth and interest.

Instead of any kind of branding, the team name is simply spelled out in a cursive typeface on the smaller box with the player name in an all-caps sans-serif font in the bigger box. Again, these colors are seem to correspond with the team colors most of the time but not always.

Looking at the remix, the basic feel is very similar with just each area tweaked ever so slightly. The shading of the boxes is gone and instead each ones fades from one team color to a slightly darker version. There's a solid stroke around each with the respective team color. Those strokes then connect with the new inset frames that extend from the boxes. You can see on the original how there was a thick black outline around each frame. Those added a lot of unnecessary heft that imposes on the photograph. I decided to stick with just two simple lines that interact with each other instead of overpowering the borders. The added distance between them and outside white border also keeps things from being as congested. The players still overlap the frames when appropriate.

The text treatments are the same but with different typefaces, though all are in white to keep them legible. (I'm still not sure why the 1992 Bohanon up there has his name in yellow since the Rangers haven't had yellow happening in their branding ever.) I did make the addition of the player position in the negative space between the right edge of the name box and the right frame just above the team box. It can be black or white, depending on the particular image below it on each card.

Like all the other remixes I've done, the feel is intact while the elements have just been tweaked/updated to reflect either more modern design elements or correct (perceived) design errors.

What set(s) should I do next? Surely there are a few designs from the last 30+ years that are just a few little adjustments away from being good. Let me know what you think could use a 'remix.'

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Deluxe First Rate Rookies

The 2015 rookie class may go down as one of the strongest in MLB history. This post is probably a bit of a precursor to the 2016 Spirit All-Rookie Team or whatever. Since a player's worth/value in the hobby is probably no higher than their prospect and rookie years, seems like a good time to throw some rookie autos into a high-end product. Even at 15-deep, this is a pretty solid checklist:

1. Kris Bryant
2. Carlos Correa
3. Matt Duffy
4. Miguel Sano
5. Kyle Schwarber
6. Noah Syndergaard
7. Francisco Lindor
8. Jung Ho Kang
9. Joc Pederson
10. Robert Osuna
11. Stephen Piscotty
12. Addison Russell
13. Chris Heston
14. Andrew Heaney
15. Odubel Herrera

The design is pretty similar to the Dynamic Duos and the Deluxe base, using elements of team colors with a bit of a beam pattern, minimal text/ornaments and similar typefaces. There's a soft white fade for legible signatures along with some of the standard gold foil for the name and logo.

The back has minimal design elements. Along the top color bar, player portrait fades in from the right with the "First Rate Rookies" logotype and card number on the left. Below is the name/position/team combo from the front as well as a full-color team logo. The rest of the space is filled with the standard authenticity language and the rest of the fine print.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

2015 Spirit Home Grown

With all the player movement this season, I thought a good insert concept would be to focus on some guys who have risen all the way to the majors with the same team that drafted and developed them. Some people refer to them as "home grown" so that's the name I picked. 50 cards here featuring such players that have at least 5 MLB seasons in the ledger.

Playing off the "grown" part of the title, the design features a grassy background image fading into a subtle paper texture. The title is in an ornate typeface that looks similar to an immaculately tended hedge garden. There are also some green-ish vine-line flourishes adorning the edges of the card. A player cutout overlaps all the elements before softly fading to make room for the the text at the bottom. The cardboard here is uncoated in keeping with the earthy, organic feel of the concept. It also makes a great contrast for the foil-stamped player name and Spirit logo.

The motif carries over to the backs with the grass fade reversed to top-to-bottom. A small player portrait rest in the middle along the top, flanked by the "Home Grown" text and the team logo below. A brief write-up closes things out.

With the checklist here numbering 50, you'd get some of the less-marquee names like Perkins and Gardner here along with heavy hitters like McCutchen and Kershaw and Trout, so something for everyone.