It fits in your wallet and in your phone-case, too. It gives you loads, while asking for only four digits or a signature in return. It pays for things with a swipe or a tap, but it clashes with your oyster card. It’s your payment card!
Payment cards are fascinating and complex objects, celebrated by some as a little-recognised “twentieth-century invention which has had most impact on our daily lives.” In economic terms, payment cards are a “means of payment.” As explained by Professor Bill Yang, means of payment facilitate the delivery of money from one party to another, which is exactly what payment cards do. From a history of design perspective, however, payment cards are “systematic” objects shaped by the context in which they operate. But why do payment cards look the way they do? To answer this question, this article will explore characteristics of payment cards, and key steps in the history of these objects up to the present day, where they may be found on the verge of obsolescence.
Like a candy store, the world of payment cards presents the gluttonous prospective-cardholder’s endless choices of treats, brands, and costs. Among such variety, however, payment cards ―which are often referred to as “plastics”― have maintained standard physical characteristics for at least the past 50 years. As their nickname suggests, they are generally made of plastic, because this material is both durable and can be easily customised through print. Payment cards are shaped into a fixed rectangular form which measures 8.7cm X 5.5cm X 0.1cm, to assure they can operate in all card-readers across the world, i.e., the physical system in which they operate. Moreover, the services offered by these objects – their function – have also remained constant throughout this period, and can be said to conform to three typologies. Firstly, some plastics allow the purchase of goods on the spot, while the actual payment might happen at a later date. This type of service has been described as the “pay later” method by professor of economics Steve Worthington. While this service is commonly provided by credit cards, Worthington also describes two other services that plastics might offer: the “pay now” method is what your ‘debit card’ allows for, so that by using this card you are able to transfer money from your bank account into the bank account of the store where you are making a purchase. Finally, pre-paid cards such as your Oyster card ― a specific payment card that is used to pay public transportation fares in London ― make you pay for your ability to use, for example the tube, before you can actually access the train. That is, you pay for your tube fare in advance.
While these features, both the physical and the functional, are common of “payment cards as we know them”, they have all developed over time. Let’s have a look, then, at some key developments in the world of payment cards.
As David Stearns argues, there are predecessors to payment cards, which have played a key role in the history of plastics. Specifically, he proposes American charge-cards, seen as early as the 1910s, as fore-runners of payment cards. Nevertheless, what the historiography generally proposes as the “first payment card” is the Diners Club Card. Invented in 1950, a likely apocryphal though popular legend would have it that one Frank X. MacNamara came up with the idea for this card when he found himself unable to pay a restaurant bill as he had forgotten his wallet at home. The incident sparked an idea, which resulted in the creation of a card, described in Stearn’s book as ‘a rather unusual design, it was made from card stock, shaped roughly like a typical business card, with the account name, address, and number printed on the front, along with a signature line. This “card” was actually a small booklet that opened up to list all the establishments that accepted it. Initially, this was a relatively small list so it fit on just a few pages, and as the number grew, the list was separated from the card.’
As illustrated in the quote above, this early example of a credit card was made of paper (“card”), and allowed its holders to pay for a few restaurants in New York. In order for payment cards to grow from being accepted by this initially limited pool of restaurants to being accepted worldwide, organisations such as Visa and Mastercard had to be “invented.” Founded respectively in 1958 as BankAmericard, and in 1966 as the Interbank Card Association (ICA), these two companies are, in fact, enabling organisations. Meaning, they are those “actors” that actually facilitate the transferring of money between bank accounts, via a payment card transaction.
To recap, payment cards have been, for a consistent number of years, shaped into rectangular plastics that can be used in all card reader devices across the world. They are connected to the cardholder’s bank account, and require companies such as Visa and Mastercard in order to function, as these facilitate the transferring of money, in the form of numbers, between accounts. Payment cards, however, are also greatly shaped by the technology behind their functioning. Various technological solutions have, in fact, impacted both the look and inner-workings of payment cards. For example, in their earlier days, payment cards functioned thanks to a combination of card number and name embossed on the cards. While you can still see these two features on the face of the card, three other technologies have also been added to this device. First was a magnetic strip, which would hold information for the operation of the card, and later a chip was embedded in the card, to both hold information more securely and allow for multiple payment systems to co-exist within the same card. That is, payment cards have been created which simultaneously offer the “pay later”, “pay now”, and “pay-before” methods. Thirdly, a contactless technology has been embedded in the cards, through a chip and a radio transmitter. This allows for faster payments, by simply tapping a card on a card-reader instead of swiping it.
However, as payment technology changes, new solutions are becoming possible. The directions towards which these technological changes are heading may ultimately make payment cards obsolete.
For example, Barclays’ PayTag is a one-third smaller card which gives its holder £20 per day (for the moment at least). This card has been advertised as one which can be safely attached to the back of a phone, although it has no actual functional connection with this device. The push towards sticking this card to the back of one’s phone, as can be seen in the image above, is part of a specific strategy. David Chan, CEO of Barclaycard’s consumer business in Europe, explains that:
‘PayTag is part of a long-term drive to “free payment from plastic”. It will also serve as a tool to get consumers used to paying for goods using their mobiles ahead of a wider rollout of mobile contactless payment options.’
As the quote above attests, PayTag is one example of a transitional object – a temporary tool, which it is thought will help consumers transition from using a familiar means of payment to the new means of the future. If Barclays is one of many firms developing apps for mobile payments, other means of payment are also being and have been devised. For example, specially created watches have been announced as new means of payment. Reported on paymentscardsandmobile.com is a collaboration between PayPal and Samsung; they have created the Gear 2, a wearable device that looks like a wrist-band watch and functions, among other things, as a mean of payment. A trend can thus be seen, in which commonly used objects/devices like smartphones and watches are being enabled to also act as means of payment. How long it will take for these devices to effectively replace payment cards is difficult to predict, for it remains to be seen how the system within which payment cards operate will adopt these changes. Moreover, it is hard to tell whether these new developments in the world of payments might or not effectively bring us closer to the dream of a “cashless society”, which has been theorised, even before the 1900s. Nevertheless, as payment cards might eventually be replaced by other means of payment, they pose an interesting case study for design historians.
 Neil MacGregor, A History of The Word in 100 Objects (London : Penguin Books, 2010), pp. 547-551
 Bill Z. Yang, ‘What is Not Money? Medium of Exchange ≠ Means of Payment’, The American Economist, Volume 51 Issue 2, (Fall 2007), p. 102
 Steve Worthington, ‘The Cashless Society’, Payments – Past, Present and Future: a collection of essays analysing trends in money transmission, (APACS, 1996), p. 59
 David L. Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange: Origins of the VISA Electronic Payment System (London and New York: Springer, 2011), p. 8.
 Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange, p. 13.
 Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange, p. 20. Mastercard, History Timeline, http://www.mastercard.com/corporate/ourcompany/about-us.html .
 Russell Parsons, ‘Barclays readies ‘mobile’ contactless card’, Marketing Week Online Edition, (19 April 2012), http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspxdirect=true&db=bth&AN=74452940&site=ehost- live, p. 7
 Live @ MWC: PayPal launch wearable tech payments, http://www.paymentscardsandmobile.com/live-mwc-paypal-launch-wearable-tech-payments/ .
 ‘Is The Cashless Society a Myth?’, in Management Accounting, Volume 68 Issue 6, (June 1990);
Jack B., Downes, ‘No Cashless Society Coming’, The Futurist, (September – October 2004);
Matthew Hollow, ‘Pre-1900 utopian visions of the ‘cashless society’’, (Munich Personal RePEc Archive, 2012), http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/40780/;
Steve Worthington, ‘The Cashless Society’ in Payments – Past, Present and Future: a collection of essays analysing trends in money transmission, (APACS, 1996);
Warwick, David R., ‘Toward a Cashless Society’, The Futurist, July-August 2004, pp. 38-42.
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: email@example.com
Caterina Tiezzi –
Caterina graduated with a BA in Visual Studies from the California College of the Arts, in 2012. Having left the Bay Area, she’s been wandering through the land of History of Design, researching export sewing tables, and the design of payment cards. For her dissertation she is currently exploring the paths of fashion and dress history, with a focus on the design and production of clothes, in London, from the second half on the 19th century to the early 20th century. Yet her interests in technology and advertising are ever present.
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