If you’ve recently received a new credit card, you may have noticed a change. Perhaps what was missing caught your attention. A growing number of credit cards have a sleek design on their faces without bulky, raised account numbers running along the bottom. Don’t panic. It’s not a scam. Flip the card over, and you’ll see that the numerals have been moved to the back with the rest of the card information.
It’s a trend that has taken off across the industry in the past few years, from elite cards like American Express Platinum to low-cost accounts like Capital One 360. Although it’s difficult to determine exactly when this style started taking off, credit card companies have increasingly modeled their cards in this fashion as they search for new ways to make users feel confident and look classy while using their cards, a spokesperson for credit card manufacturer CPI Card Group told Slate.
The biggest reason for this innovation might be that physical numbers are no longer needed for a card to function. Years ago, numbers had to be raised on the front of the card; when it ran through a card reader, an imprinted image of those numbers would appear on a slip of paper for customers to sign. But traditional magnetic strip cards, which required a customer’s signature for security reasons, have largely been replaced by chip cards that encrypt cardholder information into a unique code that is difficult to copy. The microchip’s added layer of protection renders embossed numbers unnecessary, allowing credit card makers to issue cards that have a decidedly different look.
As issuers experimented with design, traditional embossing continued to fall out of favor. The technique, which is more susceptible to wear and tear, was also harder to apply on metal cards, which became more popular in the late 1990s because of the “plunk factor,” designed to get cardholders noticed when they put down a heavy metal card on the counter to make a payment. As a result, embossing was largely phased out in favor of laser printing that not only prolonged the life of cards but also made them look more appealing to customers. Aesthetic elements continued to become more important over time, evolving the face of the card into a platform for design and personalization.
“Issuers are going to experiment with design as long as there is a physical credit card to be had,” said Matt Schulz, a senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com. “The truth is, people do care how their card looks. If they see one of their friends or family members take out a card that is really interesting, it can catch people’s attention in a way that a boring, standard card can’t.”
Without the account number, issuers can focus cardholders’ attention on their brand, which is becoming increasingly important as the market becomes more competitive, Schulz said. As more consumers transition from cash to cards, millions of credit card transactions are taking place each day. Credit card issuers collect a small percentage of each purchase, causing a fierce competition to differentiate themselves through design, style, and rewards programs in an effort to attract new customers.
“The credit card market is so competitive. Every little edge that an issuer can get, they’re going to try to take,” Schulz said.
Changing the placement of the account number results in two convenient features for consumers. First, it protects users’ information. Although card security is embedded in the chip, moving the numerals to the back keeps account information out of plain sight. It may prove useful in public places, such as a restaurant, where a cardholder might lay it flat on the table when paying the bill.
Second, it puts all the card information in one place. “The way people pay has changed, and that’s the reason we did it—to reflect how cards are used today,” said Betty Riess, a spokesperson for Bank of America. “A lot of people do online shopping, and rather than flipping the card over, it’s easier because people have all the information on the back of the card.”
High-end and elite cards like JPMorgan’s Chase Sapphire Reserve, which launched in 2016, are even more likely to differentiate themselves and try to impress spenders through design. “The Chase Sapphire Reserve was a phenomenon to the degree that a credit card can be,” Schulz said. “People went crazy over it, and that’s because those aesthetic things are impactful.” Even with a $450 annual fee, its travel perks, minimalist composition, and metal core proved so popular that the manufacturer ran out of the metal used to produce the cards.
But a sleek design is not limited to exclusive accounts. Students can get in on the action with the Discover student card, which can be personalized with a unique design that will not be obstructed by an account number. Four Bank of America credit cards that rolled out last September have a solid background with the logo subtly printed on the face. And in 2013, Capital One introduced QuicksilverOne, which has the look of a high-end card with a cool metallic finish for people with average or fair credit. It lets consumers answer the question, “What’s in your wallet?” with a new, cool status symbol.
This post was updated to modify the attribution for the spokesperson for the CPI Card Group.