San Francisco Card Deck

Branding, Cards, Design, Illustration, Packaging, Places, Print, Uncategorized

This year, my client gift was a custom deck of playing cards featuring landmarks from San Francisco, a fun personal tribute to the city I love and that so many also love to love.

I am no stranger to designing cards, having created a custom deck of poker cards for a charity poker tournament, as well as two card-based games for Google (Data Center Manager and Launch & Iterate). I love games, and also love designing for them, so deciding on a poker deck as a client gift seemed like the perfect pair.

I started back in the summer, thinking how to organize the face cards. There are a variety of options, such as by neighborhood, or by personalities (techie, hippie, by park, etc. I decided on buildings and landmarks because they had a pretty decent correlation by category for each set of 4 face cards and also had a certain amount of historical and intrinsic value to the people of San Francisco. But, as no option was perfect for capturing every aspect of the city’s culture, heritage and history, some icons didn’t make it, such as Dolores Park, AT&T Park, or the Presidio, to name a few that got cut from the long list.

What I did include were 3 categories of landmarks for each set of face cards.


SF Card Deck KingsKings were represented by famous tall buildings or towers: Sutro, TransAmerica, Coit and the Ferry Building clock tower. I think I chose them as Kings purely based on height.


SF Card Deck QueensQueens were some of the beloved bridges that are either in or connect to San Francisco: Bay Bridge both east and western spans, Golden Gate, and the slightly less famous but delightful bridge in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. Perhaps I chose them for queens because they hold some of the real power in the city, as far as connecting us to our neighbors.


SF Card Deck JacksJacks comprised of other famous tourist attractions including the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square, Alcatraz Island, Lombard Street, and the Palace of Fine Arts, which coincidentally happened to celebrate its 100th birthday this year.

SF Card Deck 2Of course, the real character of the cards lies in the Joker, whom I aptly chose our dear Emperor Norton to fill the role of. It seemed all too appropriate. (Don’t know who he is? Check out the wikipedia page).

SF Card Deck 3

The final consideration for the cards was the color palette, which is very limited. These colors are the ones I’ve chosen for my personal branding, but it’s not a huge coincidence that the cadmium red (not quite international orange, but certainly in the spirit) and sea green are in play for this San Francisco-based designer.

SF Card Deck 1

Want a deck of your own? Email me, and I can mail you a pack ($20+shipping). While supplies last.

SF Card Deck 4

In the Wilderness for a Week

Illustration, Places

Backpacking 2015

Just a note that I’ll be off in the wilderness for a much anticipated week of backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop Trail from the 21st-29th. I’ll be back in action (in this case “action” is ironic since I will simply be back in front a computer instead of hiking all day) and filling your feed with more infographics and illustrations upon my return.

Going Full-time Freelance

Design, Illustration

Freelance Design offerings It’s official. After nearly 7 years working as an in-house designer, Director of Marketing, and manager of both people and projects, I have decided it’s time to go rogue and have started my own Design & Illustration business. It will be a big change to not have that paycheck hit regularly, to not have coworkers to mingle with day in and day out, and to not have anyone but yourself to blame when it doesn’t go right. It will be difficult, but it will be rewarding.

It’s been a long time coming, in truth. I’ve been doing freelance work since college, always making time for it outside of my usual work hours, and in the last year, have been increasingly more busy with projects and new clients – enough so that the idea to commit to doing that full-time actually seems feasible now. It is not without its fears and concerns, but I am overwhelmed by the support and encouragement I’ve received from friends, family, and professional acquaintances who all believe I will do great.

It is not without sadness that I will leave the job of 7 years behind as I’ve made valuable friendships and learned many great lessons, both on a professional and personal level. I’ve learned what my strengths are, and know I can leverage them when conducting business for myself. I’ve learned what my weaknesses are, so know there are options for avoiding or delegating them so that I can focus on the good stuff. I expect I will make many mistakes still, but hope I will meet them as a challenge to just get better. I am grateful for the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve worked with, and how it all is leading up to this new direction for me.

So consider this proclamation the beginning of a great new adventure, and come back here to keep checking out the latest projects I’ve been working on, ideas I’ve been having, or the things I’ve been admiring. Oh, and of course, feel free to get the word out to anyone seeking some design or illustration help. I can help with posters, info graphics, brochures, game design, invites & announcements, packaging, apparel, logo & branding, editorial illustration, as well as web and mobile design. And of course, I do still paint, so keep an eye out for some new landscapes or what not – perhaps to fill that nook between your bookshelves and tv stand that needs a little extra color.

Making a(nother) Move



I am moving again (something some friends of mine know too well, as it happens rather too often).

I made my typical “I’ve moved” graphic  (see above), but realized I never did post the little animation I made for when I moved (about this time) last year – my first big step moving from Silicon Valley into San Francisco proper. In fairness, it was designed to be mailed via snail mail, and I was super excited to use my awesome die-cutting machine to cut the intricate “monuments” of SF in card stock, then glue together to make one large fold-out card. I mean, I still could, but time never quite permitted that last year, so I turned the art into a quick HTML5 animation instead (click the image to see it in its full glory). For laziness  continuity, I have kept the same Golden Gate Bridge image in place for both graphics even though neither apartment is near or in sight of the iconic bridge.

Oh well. Here’s to (at least) another year in the beautiful city by the bay.


Notation Napkins


I love and hate these.


I don’t go to museums nearly as often as I used to, so it’s not as often that my mind goes through the “art review” tumble. You know, that feeling like you appreciate something, but you also hate it, but want to understand it, but think it’s terribly low, all at the same time.

So, I went to see the Tim Burton exhibit down at LA County Museum of Art (which was pretty sweet), and as I was finishing the exhibit, naturally I was poured into the gift shop. That’s where I found these beauties. In the wise words of someone who recently said them, “I lost 5 minutes of my life thinking about them.” They’re just another kitschy, fun, silly trinket, that someone who either “gets” you, or can’t find anything else under $5, would get you. And I totally adore the idea that you would take something as mundane as the ubiquitous napkin, notorious for being the medium for genius, and “bind” them into a completely useless conversation piece that will get you to laugh for a minute, but in the end, just blow your nose with it.

So why did I get so stuck on them? Why is it boggling my mind still? It’s as if there’s a struggle inside that wants to hate the pop-up commercialism that they completely embody, while simultaneously adoring the complete mockery of it; as if the existence of these keenly bound cocktail napkins are making fun of their own existence. It’s almost so genius, I wish I had thought of it myself, yet if I ever *actually* acted on the idea, I would hate myself eternally. I mean, who would have the gaul to actually bind 3 napkins together, package them like they’re useful, and make some kind of presumption that these napkins are special, maybe special enough to presume that whatever you scribe upon them will be genius?  Or to assume that this packet would be so worth carrying around with you, it could in fact replace paper in that moment of genius? But that’s it- they know you won’t be using it for its intended purpose. It is pure kitsch.

It’s one of the freshest pieces of art I’ve seen in a while; something that got me seriously riled up. The obvious lesson that I’m taking from this is that art is everywhere, not just on the walls in the museum.



Kathleen Kowal Self PortraitI have lots of things on my mind all the time. I enjoy tweeting once in a while to get them off my chest, but sometimes 140 characters doesn’t cut it.

I spend my days working as a graphic designer, and spend my evenings being one too, along with a few other hobbies. I realized I didn’t have a great venue to talk about my work and get feedback like I used to back in college, so figured a blog was a good place to get back in the habit.

My auxiliary excuse for starting this blog is to practice focusing. As a writer, I tend to get side-tracked easily, digressing aimlessly as my stream of conscious wanders. In many ways, this parallels my own life, as I have spent all 26 of the 27 years of it trying a little bit of everything, soaking up the wonders that “variety is the spice of life” can offer. And it’s been fun. I enjoy the fact I can draw and paint in a wide variety of mediums, bind a book, knit a scarf, race a triathlon, sew a dress, bake and decorate cupcakes, design a logo, make dinner for hordes of people, start a business, play the cello (ok, well, I’m stretching it to say that I can actually play it), and etc. But as I get older and wiser, I’m noticing the trade-off in this lifestyle is that my peers are settling down into their careers with an almost hyper-focussed intensity on being really good at the thing they do, while I’m still splitting my time and focus between my many interests.

The reality is, I’m not likely to give up all my interests, but I am trying to cut down. This year has been the year of web design and cupcakes. I started a baking business in 2009, and could probably have jumped off and really committed to it 100%, maybe even opening my own bakery, but the thought of not doing design any more didn’t appeal to me. I really enjoy designing logos, branding, websites, posters, you name it. I’m in love with visual design and can’t see myself dropping it, even for my love of cupcakes.

But, since I already have a blog dedicated to baking, I will refrain from committing too many characters to it here. Instead, I will happily entertain you with news, related posts, projects, and whatever else catches my fancy that I find worth sharing. Keep in mind, I’m practicing focussing, so if you see something pop up that seems completely out of place, just try and remember that it all makes sense to me, somehow, and I will do my best to explain it as I go.