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That card looks so good on you! How the payment card went from function to fashion

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


Bank cards used to be boring. Not any more. Today, experimentation is everywhere. Designers have added crazy colours, LED light effects and even biometrics…

All over the world, people are severing their physical links to banks. The cheque book is a rarity now. Most countries are phasing them out. And even the high street traditional branch is disappearing. In one survey, nearly 70 per cent of European banks said that brick and mortar branches could be gone in just three years.

This leaves banks in an interesting spot. Yes, they have to rise to the technical challenge of migrating to the new virtual infrastructure. But the end of physical banking also poses fundamental questions about trust. In the absence of any tangible bank assets, a consumer is entitled to ponder questions such as where is my bank? What are my bank's values? Can I trust it with my money?

These are deep questions. They matter. But, of course, it's not entirely true that physical bank inventory is disappearing. There is one tangible asset that remains key: the credit/debit card.

Thanks to the growth of contactless transactions, card usage is skyrocketing all over the world. Clearly, this presents an opportunity for banks. Every time a customer takes out his or her card, it is a connection to the bank. Perhaps the only connection. For thoughtful banks, this is an opportunity to address the questions above – and also give consumers a chance to express themselves.

For a long time banks didn’t focus too much on card design and form factor. But now this is changing. New tech and new thinking is making it possible to personalise cards for a wide variety of customer preferences.

These can be:

Different options for how a card looks and feels

New options for how a card is made

Cards with useful extra features such as biometrics or voice-recognition (which improve security and inclusion).


More cards than ever: How contactless payments revived the payment card

Contactless card payments got off to a slow start. They were introduced in 2007, and progress was steady until the pandemic of 2020. COVID pushed people away from cash and kickstarted a more general embrace of new digital behaviors. 

As a result, card payments flew. According to the EU, cards were used in 25% of in-store transactions in 2019. But this grew to 34% by 2022. And in the same time period, contactless payments went from 41% of all card payments to 62%. 

This pushed up the number of cards in circulation. Visa alone has 4.1 billion current users, while Mastercard has more than 1.5 billion.


Why design matters: the card represents the bank brand

As we've discussed, the digitalization of financial services together with stronger competition has put the spotlight on cards as the main (and sometimes only) physical link between an account holder and the bank. This has led to a new golden age of card aesthetics. Designers have been given more freedom to experiment – and advances in printing and materials technology have helped them to do so.

Many designers focused first on minimalist ideas. They threw out old norms and re-considered what to put on the front and reverse of the card. They experimented with unusual color palettes and incorporated fluorescent or phosphorescent inks.

They also took advantage of manufacturing advances to engineer cards made from metal or even sustainable materials. 

The card schemes responded to this new mood of experimentation by adapting their branding guidelines. They changed previously mandatory elements to optional and freed up space by removing the signature panel, the hologram and text elements.

This new flexibility accelerated the creativity. Card designers responded by positioning the module on the same side as the security features, for example. The removal of the magnetic stripe, which is the next key element to be phased out by Mastercard, should unleash even more innovation. 


The arrival of hyper personalisation: how the fintechs re-imagined the card

The arrival of open banking regulation in the 2010s brought new entrants into the financial services space. These start-ups were determined to challenge old practices – and that included what to put on cards.

They challenged accepted norms. For example, cards were always horizontal in orientation because of the requirements of the first ATM designs. Also, most cards had raised embossed numbers. Why? Because of card swiping machines that are now declining in use.

The neobanks challenged all these accepted practices. Eventually all banks started to think experimentally in order to attract new demographics and limit attrition. Some, such as Barclays, even inked the edge of their cards in brand colours. Of course, this makes perfect sense. Banks know that most customers have multiple cards sitting edge-upwards in their wallets. Why not color-code your card to make it stand out and be recognized immediately?


Aesthetic, ethical and practical: all concepts available to banks now

We've come a long way in card design in the last five years. Today, companies work with banks to develop innovative new ideas. As a result, bank customers have unprecedented choice in how their cards look, feel and are sourced. Let's explore the three main options. 

•    Aesthetic 

Changing the look of a card is the simplest and most immediate change a bank can make. This starts with colour, typeface and layout. But now more technical flourishes are available. Card designers can incorporate crystals, hot-stamped foil features and 3D effects. And they can make cards from new materials such as metal too, to convey exclusivity and social recognition.

The card background is another space for innovation. It can support complex and intricate designs on specific themes such as comics, limited editions and partnerships with actors, fashion brands, stores and so on. Banks can even let customers co-design their cards with their own drawings or a background picture that reflects their interests. 

•    Ethical 

Millions of people now consider sustainability when choosing how to spend their money. It stands to reason that they might think this way when choosing a bank or a card.

Why? Because of carbon emissions and plastic waste. It's estimated the 3,5 billion banking cards made every year produce a carbon footprint equal to 288,000 passengers flying from New York to Sydney. 

To minimise this footprint, industry stakeholders have developed a variety of carbon mitigation programmes around the world, such as the Acre Amazonian Rainforest scheme in Brazil. 

And in terms of plastic waste, many card manufacturers now offer alternatives to 'virgin' plastic such as the Polylactic acid (PLA) card. This is a sustainable substitute made with renewable bio-sourced resources such as corn. It is non-petroleum-based and non-toxic if incinerated.

An alternative is to use recycled plastic. The Ocean Plastic card is made using 70 percent plastic cleared from coastal areas. A single card contains roughly the equivalent of one reclaimed plastic bottle. Meanwhile the Recycled PVC card is made using plastic waste from the packaging and printing industries.

•    Practical 

Technological advances have made cards look fantastic. But they also make them much more useful – especially for consumers with disabilities. 

Consider voice tech. Banks are now trialling a voice payment card that vocalizes all the steps of a transaction to a Bluetooth-enabled mobile app. The phone will then 'speak' the transaction steps to the user.

The final major breakthrough in card utility is the biometric form factor. In 2021 the first card was launched with a fingerprint sensor. It means a user can securely authenticate a payment without a PIN or any contactless limit. No upgrade is required on the POS, as the biometric check takes place locally on the EMV biometric card and not over the air.

The payment card has never been more central to people’s lives. But there’s more to the card than pure function. Aesthetics and usage matter too. Today, thanks to new design thinking and UX, consumers have a world of choice. And banks have new ways to present their brand – and their values – to billions of account holders.

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