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to. ice bear (ㅍㅋ)


Our friend Thomas's birthday was coming up, and Joanne and I were determined to put together ANOTHER creative, unique (truly incomparable), thoughtful (full of memories and happy moments), and utterly unexpected surprise to celebrate his special day. (Check out the song and lyric video we prepared for him the year before!)

After writing an entire song for his 20th birthday, we knew we had to come up with something even more special and creative to top our previous gift idea. The outcome? Something (we hope) no one else has ever received on their birthday before: 


  • Card Design & Layouts
    (in collaboration with Joanne)

  • Image Retouches (removing backgrounds, editing colors)

  • Drafting Messages


  • Joanne Nguyen
    (Card Design & Layouts,
    Icon Color Edits)

Our Spin on Birthday Cards

Early on, because Joanne was now working full-time in Seoul and I was still finishing my senior year at Stanford from Atlanta (via online classes due to the COVID-19 outbreak), we figured we would only be able to order some gifts online and get them delivered straight to Thomas's home in Los Angeles. But, as we thought through potential gift ideas and remembered his love for practicing magic card tricks, a wild idea came to mind...

Whenever Joanne or I come up with something creative, we always preface the idea with "okay, I know this is crazy but HEAR ME OUT" — and that's exactly what I screamed (through chat) this time as well: what if we put a clever spin on the notion of birthday cards and created a personalized deck of playing cards? "Cards" designed from scratch to incorporate all our memories together??

Once we had a collective vision and roadmap in mind, we spent the next few nights hustling through a 13 hour time difference to execute the exciting idea.

Throughout the process, some of our key design considerations were: 

 #1: FORMAT 

Given the COVID-19 situation that had sent us all home, we weren't sure when we would finally see each other again. In an attempt to make the best of this uncertainty, we decided to create two versions of the playing cards: [1] a digital deck with a personal message on the back of each card (relating to the associated card number/suit/icon on the front), and [2] a physical deck with consistent back designs to ensure fair gameplay once printed. This allowed us to share the digital version over a video call on the night of his birthday, saving the physical deck for the next time we reunite in person.


Both versions of the deck feature the same front designs: each face card highlights a We Bare Bears character with some expression that alludes to our own personalities, whereas each number card is mapped to a particular shared memory. For example, instead of having eight 8's on the 8 of spades card, we replaced those eight 8's with a relevant icon that represented the special memory. This meant that we had to maintain consistent icon styles and colors to avoid a messy and disarrayed appearance across the deck. Specifically, we searched for icons with flat shadow effects and no harsh outlines, and edited each icon's color palette to suit our final project vision.


Continuing off the theme of our first birthday surprise for Thomas, we also named this playing deck "to. ice bear" as a tribute to our We Bare Bears friendship analogy. However, ㄴㄹ (the Korean acronym for "song") was now replaced with ㅍㅋ, which creates a sense of continuity in our friendship and anticipation for future iterations of our "to. ice bear" birthday series. 

(ㅍ and ㅋ represent the "p" and "k" sounds in Korean, making ㅍㅋ a Korean/English-blended acronym for playing cards.)

Learnings & Takeaways

Despite the depth of our friendship and many shared experiences together, it was still a massive challenge matching each number card to its own unique memory. We had to brainstorm so many moments that were significant enough to write a message for, yet tangible enough to connect with an associated icon. In total, we had to find and edit over 50 different icons, in many cases even creating our own icons from scratch to represent specific references like our favorite three-layer boba drink and our matching white/pink/maroon Stan Smith sneakers.

But, this challenge also offered the perfect opportunity to apply divergent thinking — a framework I've relied heavily on since taking my first design thinking course at the Stanford In short, this methodology pushes for quantity over quality in the brainstorming stages, for the most brilliant ideas are often the seemingly ridiculous ones that we only think of after exhausting all our other "practical" and less groundbreaking ideas. 

In our case, ideating wildly helped us remember even our smallest inside jokes with each other, which made for the most touching messages and unique icons that only Thomas would truly understand. Take for example, our card designs for 3♣︎ and 4♥︎ ... do you think you can guess what we're referring to?

Physical Back Design

Digital Back Design