Designing fortune: what can designers learn from the history of tarot? | by Jemma Frost | Feb, 2024


As a UX researcher by day and a witchy-curious person by night, I’ve been fascinated by tarot for years. While studying the cards, I uncovered a connection between tarot and the way design professionals find patterns and solve problems.

Understanding how symbolism, storytelling, and inspiration relate to tarot and design can give us a framework for finding deeper meaning in our work and our lives. Ultimately, tarot is the human experience in a deck of cards. If we seek to design for the human experience, we can learn from tarot.

Tarot cards are much more than props for charlatans or new age nonsense. They have a rich history that reflects our very human desires for fun, beauty, meaning, and mystery. Looking into the cards’ past can help us understand their present, and how we should use them in the future.

The origins of tarot stretch back to 1400s Milan during the Italian renaissance. The Visconti and Sforza families commissioned Bonifacio Bembo and other artists to paint a series of playing cards. These cards were designed to play ‘Tarocchi,’ which required four suits of fourteen cards (pips and court cards), and twenty-two ‘trump’ or ‘trionfi’ cards. Today, we refer to pip and court cards as the Minor Arcana and trump cards as the Major Arcana.

Many of these tiny paintings have been lost to time, but enough remain to show us that tarot cards haven’t changed much throughout history. The Visconti-Sforza decks illustrate knights, kings, queens, and fools, along with death, charity, faith, and hope.

Two tarot cards in an old painting style, the left is the fool (a man wearing a crown of thorns in rags holding a stick over his shoulder) and the right is death (a skeleton standing in a field of grass with mountains in the background).
Pierpont-Morgan Bergamo Deck — 1451

Centuries pass while tarocchi cards are primarily viewed as a tool for gambling. Then, in the 1700’s, French Enlightenment thinkers like Antoine Court de Gébelin watched Romani women tell fortunes with the tarocchi — in French, ‘tarot.’ Seeing archetypal themes in the cards, they argued that tarot draws from mystical Egyptian mythology and Jewish Kabbalah, and thus represent a connection to the divine.

Fast forward to early 1900s England. English occultist Arthur Edward Waite collaborated with illustrator Pamela Colman Smith to design the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the most ubiquitous version of the deck referenced today. Unlike previous decks, each pip and court card was illustrated with a scene that spoke to the numerological and symbolic meaning of the card. These lush illustrations inspire tarot designers today, and they are the cards I will reference throughout the rest of this article.

Two black and white photos are flanked by two tarot cards. In the photographs, we see a smiling woman with her hair and dress styled in an Edwardian fashion, and an older man with a moustache and necktie. To the left of them is the Rider-Waite-Coleman Fool, a tarot card showing a prancing man with a bindle stick followed by a dog. To the right of them is the Rider-Waite-Coleman Fool Empress, a regal queen wearing a crown of stars.
Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Edward Waite

Symbolism in tarot draws from a wide variety of sources, including (but not limited to): Egyptian, Greek, & Norse mythology, European paganism, early Christianity, Kabbalah, astrology, numerology, European history, elemental philosophy and color theory. This may seem overwhelming at first, but there is a method to decipher what a card is ‘telling you.’

The first key to understanding tarot is understanding the overall structure of the deck. The Major Arcana are the 22 cards that depict scenes of general human experience and beyond. Here you’ll find The Lovers, The Hanged Man, The Wheel of Fortune, and Death. These cards represent larger cosmic themes beyond the day-to-day mundanity of average life.


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