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Credit Card Design: A History

How credit and debit card design has evolved over the last 70 years

Over a century ago a credit card was unheard of unless you read Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy where something similar was envisaged in his sci-fi novel.  Till the 1980s, credit in most households meant ‘on tick’, ‘the slate’, or the ‘never never’.  It was collected on doorsteps or in showrooms.  It meant moneylenders or the pawn shop (the latter still seen on today’s High Streets).

On the inside

In 1949, a forgotten wallet over one’s dinner heralded the start of modern day credit cards.  Ralph Schneider and his forgetful associate that fateful night, Frank McNamara, launched the Diners Club credit card.  The modern credit card as we know today was born, with American Express’ card following suit in 1958.  Theirs was the first to use plastic which was adopted as the same size we use today.

The first credit cards used a closed-loop system, whereby customers could only get credit from the provider’s places.  An American Express card could only be used in participating outlets.  By 1958, an open-loop system was used by participating banks in America.  Under the consortium name of BankAmericard, participating branches issued versions of BankAmericards.  This was sponsored by the Bank of America.

1966 would see competition in America with the launch of Mastercard’s predecessor, Master Charge. This was also the same year when credit cards began to be issued in the United Kingdom. Barclays Bank launched Barclaycard.  In 1972, three of The Big Four UK banks – NatWest, Midland and Lloyds launched the Access Card.  Dubbed as “Your flexible friend” in a series of animated commercials, it became a popular scheme.

The biggest game-changer came in 1977 when the VISA international network began.  Barclaycard joined forces with BankAmericard to create what is now the world’s widely used bank transfer system. The Access Card was discontinued in 1996 when it merged with Mastercard.

Fast forwarding to 2015, the credit and debit card is a familiar part of our banking system and our spending habits.  The closed-loop and open-loop systems are in situ today; the latter enhanced by the introduction of the Link Cash network of ATMs.  Both closed and open loop systems coexist neatly, online and on the High Street.  With electronic transactions and a more open network, the case for tighter security was paramount.

On the back

Before credit and debit cards rose in popularity, instant access to your cash meant the bank’s own cash card.  After the Link Network began operation in the late 1980s, came the rise of debit cards.  The Delta debit card was the UK’s first, launched by Barclays Bank plc in June 1987, then known as the Barclays Connect card.  They included the following features which are used on every credit and debit card around the world.  These being the:

Rear view of credit card.

  1. Magnetic Strip;
  2. Signature Strip;
  3. Card Security Code.

The magnetic strip grants the EPOS terminal access to your card and available funds.  At one time, before Chip and Pin systems were introduced, they were slid through a scanner.  This is coated with iron oxide particles encoded with binary data.  Its expiration date is detailed in the strip, allowing cash machines to swallow your card if past the date (also seen on the front of your card).

Doing exactly what it says on the tin is the signature strip.  There is more to the signature strip than a free space for signing your name on the card.  This is watermarking to deter fraudsters from duplicating your card and if erased, the card isn’t accepted and may have been tampered with.

Right of the signature strip is the card security code.  This uses three digits and is a security feature for ‘Card Not Present’ payments.

On the front

Before the late 1980s, the front of a credit card was virtually unchanged.  The rise of electronic transactions and EPOS and EFTPOS technology meant the arrival of unique holograms.  This was followed by addition of a chip on the card’s left-hand side, to allow for use on Chip and PIN machines. Nowadays, some cards include another chip for contactless transactions.

Front view of credit card.

  1. Issuing Bank Logo;
  2. EMV chip (for Chip and PIN systems);
  3. Hologram;
  4. Card number;
  5. Card Network Logo;
  6. Expiration Date;
  7. Cardholder’s Name;
  8. Contactless Chip.

Ever since the first cards were issued, there has either been an issuing bank logo, or the logo of the card issuing company (i.e American Express, Diners Club).  From 1966, the blue/white/gold of BankAmericard was duplicated for the UK’s Barclaycard system.  Increasingly, banks and building societies elected to adopt their own colour schemes on debit and credit cards.

A most important measure in combating fraud is the EMV chip.  Before 2007, it seemed newfangled though multichannel television broadcasters had used embedded chips for several years before then. Most of our debit card transactions involved signing the receipt, till this was largely displaced by Chip and PIN systems.  On implementation, fraud reduced drastically.

For similar reasons, it is hard to imagine seeing a debit or credit card without a hologram on the bottom right.  This is added to deter the production of counterfeit cards and have featured on cards since the late 1980s.

The number which matters to all cardholders is the card number.  On a UK issued VISA card, it has 16 embossed digits.  The lowest number of digits any credit card can have is 13; the highest is 19.

No bona fide debit or credit card is complete without the card network logo, detailing which network his/her card is compatible with, such as VISA, Mastercard or Maestro.  This is seen on the bottom right, below the hologram.

The expiration date is usually three to four years after the card’s date of issue. Embedded, this shows the date in numerical form (i.e. 06/18).  Below is the cardholder’s name, typically in the name of the person’s or business’ bank account.  The bank’s Sort Code and the account holder’s Account Number may also be displayed.

Debit and credit cards designed for contactless systems have two embedded chips.  As well as the Chip and PIN chip on the left hand, the second one (the contactless chip) is designed for use with RFID and NFC radio based system.

Debit and credit card graphic design

Before the 1980s, it was the norm for cards to feature the designs of its sponsor.  For example, the Barclays Bank logo would feature in the blue part of the blue/white/gold Barclaycard/VISA graphic.

With the card network logo seen on the bottom right, this idea was redundant.  Therefore, the bank’s corporate livery took preference; a NatWest issued card would have the graphics of the National Westminster Bank with the card network’s logo on the bottom right with the hologram.

Today, the bank’s corporate livery on a debit or credit card could soon be a thing of the past.  Banks and credit card issuing companies enable customers to have a photographic image on their card. Therefore, a picture of your favourite car or dog could see the bank’s corporate identity diluted, in the name of personalisation.


The shape of a credit card is determined by International Standards Organization criteria.  This is ISO/IEC 7810, the standard size and characteristics applicable to any identification cards.  ID-1 is the subsystem used for debit and credit cards where all cards are 85.60 x 53.98 mm.

In early 2005, there was some deviation from the standard ISO requirements when Mint (part of the Royal Bank of Scotland) issued a credit card with a more rounded bottom right corner.  Customers had trouble using their cards in cash machines and paying at petrol stations.

Where next?

Well into the next decade, we can see plastic money playing a greater role in our transactions.  More dinners could be paid for using contactless methods.  The debit and credit card may still be with us for some time, but there’s a likelihood Apple Pay and Google’s Android Wallet could take over.  Cash may still have a role, but we may see more self-service card-only tills in our superstores.  Some petrol stations have ditched cash already.

Ten years from now, our flexible friend may be an image on our smartphones.  Paying by cash could go the same way as motor car starting handles, semaphore signals on main lines, and Cadbury’s Spira bars. Whatever happens, the days of traditional wallets and purses are numbered.

Independent Merchant Services, 17 December 2015.

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