“High ideals at a price”, The Australian, 22-23 Oct, 1994.

Credit cards by Ross Harley

I used to imagine I could do anything with my credit card. Not because it was anything special, but because it was just like the ones TV criminals and detectives used to break into locked apartments and security buildings. It always looked so simple. In fact, all I ever managed to do with mine was to chip the edges and bend the thing in half. Incapable of performing even the simplest financial transactions, you can imagine the looks I got at the bank trying to explain the miserable condition of my dilapidated mastercard.

These days designers find much more inventive uses for this decidedly modern everyday object. Its shape, size, durability and magical aura have rendered the credit card an icon of our increasingly complicated lives: sign of global affluence and debt, a symbol of our consuming desires and would-be affluence.

In the process it’s also become the defacto standard format for anything we might carry about in our pockets. Bus tickets, security cards, travel passes, photocopy cards, phonecards — even address books, radios and emergency sewing kits — now come credit-sized. (More on that in a moment.) The slim polyvinyl chloride ticket, with its classic golden mean proportions, is imbued with the magical properties appropriate to our age. Able to conjure cash (and more besides) out of thin air, the mysterious embossed numbers, opaque magnetic strips, flashy holograms and corporate logos charge the object with a kind of cargo-cult value.

Naturally enough, credit cards are big business in the developed world. As money becomes more and more abstract, as numbers disappear in front of us at autotellers and down telephone lines, the credit card sits in our hands as some kind of assurance against loss. Of everything except our haemorrhaging bank balances that is. Unlike dirty ole money, this object never really leaves our possession. It differentiates my money from yours, and adds to the feeling that status objects can improve the quality of the owner’s life. Needless to say, nothing could be further from the truth. Ask any credit junkie.

When credit cards first appeared at the turn of the century, they allowed companies to identify those customers who had accounts from those who did not. Not much has changed since then. Each company had a different card that could only be used by the company or store that issued it. By the time the Charg-It card company emerged in New York in 1947, banks and other financial institutions began to get interested in the possibilities of more universal cards. But not before the postwar leisure and travel corporations, who really set up and then cashed in on the gigantic credit card potential. Indeed, Diners Club and American Express would have gotten nowhere without the expanding influence of tourism and package holidays. Like any other commodity, vacations and tours could be bundled up and packaged — just like the tourist. Possession of the appropriate card helped assure its holder access to safe yet exotic locations and activities around the globe. Why leave home without one?

According to English critic Deyan Sudjic, pseudo-mystic graphics and US dollar bill allusions confer upon the Amex card a cult object status. As long as the thing doesn’t bounce, this plastic greenback is the perfect icon of American consumption: unlimited and all-pervasive. Although, as the ads used to have it, the card “says more about you than cash ever can”, credit is still not universally accepted as better than cash. Just try getting a waiter in an east-European restaurant to take Amex instead of hard currency.

When the language and form of the credit card is used by designers for other purposes, it’s perhaps in the hope of invoking a little of the same aura. Looking for a new radio, or perhaps an extension to your computer or personal organiser? You’re sure to find a card you want to take home with you. You may not get the same photo-ID, free rewards or 24 hour service that the credit card companies offer; but you will add amazing functionality to your cardholder, wallet or handbag.

In Japan, Sony have particularly taken to the credit card module in the design of its miniature electronic systems. The Sony Clip Radio system for example, allows the listener to clip a small set of earphones to a “credit card” tuned to an individual radio station. To change the station simply change the card. Like so much of contemporary consumer culture, the Japanese have taken an American invention and transformed it into an innovative product that fits the contours and dimensions encountered in other aspects of everyday life.

With the spread of these new “credit cards” it seems we can get even more of what we want when and where we want it. And as we’ve come to expect from the credit era, always at a price.