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Award-winning card designs show plastic's flashy side

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We've seen credit, debit, gift and ID cards in all shapes and colors, embedded with computer chips and sporting everything from holographic images and family photos to blinking LED lights and even audio speakers.

What could possibly top that?

To find out, the International Card Manufacturers Association (ICMA) sponsors its annual Elan Awards, which recognizes the latest, most ingenious innovations in card design.

True to form, this year's winners combine breakthrough technologies with creative problem-solving to pack more features, functionality and fun into that slim, swipe-tastic scrap of plastic.

To critique this year's Elan winners, we've enlisted the expertise of judges Bill Crawford, technical director for Waytek/Klockner Pentaplast, and
David Tushie, CEO of Magellan Consulting, as well as ICMA veteran and past Elan judge Brad Paulson, owner of Thor Engineering.

Who knows? You may even have one of these winners in your wallet.

Best Gift Card: Walmart stained glass gift card
Why it won: Approximates the look and feel of stained glass

David Tushie was sold at first sight on this holiday gift card manufactured by First Data for Walmart that uses a combination of clear and white PVC layers to create a translucent stained glass effect.

"When you hold it up to the light, you get the impression that it's a stained glass window," he says. "Then, when you run your fingers over it, you feel the raised edges of the window leading."

Brad Paulson says this category always brings the bling.

"Gift cards tend to be more whimsical and have more fun features," he says. "They can play with the card in ways that you can't with a Visa or MasterCard, where the goal is to have a lower risk of being refused because every transaction that doesn't work is money lost."

 

Best Secure Financial Card: Disney Sorcerer card
Why it won: Creative use of lamination to achieve a "magical" effect

New Jersey card manufacturer Versatile Card Technology employed a little magic of its own to create eye-catching effects on a Chase card featuring Mickey Mouse in his "Fantasia" sorcerer's costume.

"The sophistication of the construction was deceptive," says David Tushie.

"On the Mickey card, the image on his gloves was glossy and the rest of him was matte to create this very distinctive image as compared to being printed with a single four-color pass. The pixie dust was very luminescent. The multiple layers and multiple passes that were required to achieve those effects were really eye-catching."

 

Judges' Choice and Unique Innovation: Ritz-Carlton Rewards Visa
Why it won: This baby carries some weigh.

Bill Crawford wasn't sold at first sight on the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Visa card manufactured by Chase.

Then he picked it up.

"It had a layer of metal between PVC that made the card very heavy," he says. "Each of the judges pretended they were pulling it out of their wallets and handing it to a hotel check-out clerk."

David Tushie was equally impressed by the golden-hued embossing. "They used a laser embossing technology that actually bubbles the plastic up rather than impact it with a punch and dye because, with a metal core, you could not punch and dye it from behind," he says.

The overall effect? "You feel like the guy who's holding it is an important guy," Tushie says.

Brad Paulson adds that this prestigious plastic comes with one minor inconvenience.

"It's a piece of metal," he says. "How is that not going to trigger a metal detector?"

 

Best Access Control & ID Card: 2011 Little League World Series access card
Why it won: Turns your ticket into a souvenir

Security is a major concern for the annual Little League World Series. To prevent counterfeiters from crashing the party, Bristol ID Technologies embedded translucent foil into this oversized ID card, then went for extra bases by custom printing seat assignments on the card and punching a hole for a lanyard, turning each ticket into an instant collectable.

"Your entrance ticket with your section, seat and row number was printed in that big white part of the card," says David Tushie. "It was all personalized on the surface for use as a keepsake after the event."

 

Best Government ID Card: Marine license, Queensland, Australia
Why it won: Just try to counterfeit this one!

When it comes to government-issued identification, there's no such thing as too much security. That said, officials in Queensland, Australia really pressed the bubble on their new marine licenses.

Among the card's seen and unseen security features are a data chip, micro printing, UV images, color photo with signature overlay, frequency modulation only detected by the appropriate decoder, embedded optically-verifiable foil and a unique feature the government describes as a "blister."

"The outline of Australia has a bubble effect that looks like Australia bubbles from the surface of the card, but you run your finger across it and it's flat," says David Tushie. "The sheer number of security elements makes this card very distinctive. I suspect it's expensive to make but the security on it is very high."

 

Best Loyalty & Promotion Card: Diamond card
Why it won: Are those real diamonds?

Could those be actual diamond chips in the DiamantKunde, manufactured by Variuscard? Even the Elan judges were stumped – and impressed.

"They weren't embedded diamonds but they looked like they were; that's what was so intriguing about that card," says David Tushie.

In reality, the illusion was created using a combination of offset and screen printing on a hologram metallic foil. Seven sheets of material went into the finished product.

"Those diamond cutouts were multifaceted like a real diamond," says Tushie. "The photos don't do it justice."

Bill Crawford agrees. "There was a great deal of sophistication and elegance in design for a 'you have arrived' status," he says. "It was very cool for those that have not handled the American Express Black card."

See related: A chat with John Grund: A look at the future of credit cards

Published: May 3, 2012



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