I like technology. I think this is fairly obvious. I like it personally because it removes a lot of friction points in my life (some in ways that other people appreciate as more convenient, some in ways that are convenient only to me1).

But the downside of technology is that businesses use it as a way of not paying people for things that actually often do require human judgment. The proper way most systems should be set up for, say, a medical insurance claim is that you fill out everything electronically so the data is in the right place and then an actual human can make an actual human judgment on your case.

In practice, however, you fill out the form and the information whisks away to be judged by a computer using a predetermined set of rules. If you’re very, very lucky,  there might be a way for you to appeal the computer’s ruling to a human being (regardless of outcome/reason) — but even then, that person’s power is often limited to saying, “well, the computer said you don’t pass.”

The following story is by no means of any actual consequence, but does serve as a prime example of how to waste your money employing customer service people.

I recently switched banks. When I was at the branch doing so, I asked out of curiosity if they allow custom debit cards (my girlfriend has a credit card that looks like a cassette tape, and is always getting compliments on it. I’m petty and jealous, so I want a cool card, too). Finding out the answer is yes, I waited until my actual debit card came so I can see the pure eye-rending horror that is their color scheme before sitting down and trying to make my own.

I wasn’t really looking to lose a good portion of my day to this endeavor, so I used the Designer’s Prerogative2 to begin. I wanted something computer-y (see above, re: my opinion on technology), so I started with this (royalty-free) stock image. Their design requirements say the PeoplesBank logo has to be large and colored (dark red for Peoples, gray for Bank), so I swapped the colors on the image and flipped it so the faux-binary wouldn’t be covered by the big VISA logo or hologram (see image at top of post, or click here).

It’s not a masterpiece, it’s not like I slaved over it for hours. It’s just a cool design that I thought would work well. Upload, and send!

Three hours later, I got an email: SORRY — your design wasn’t approved!

We regret to inform you that the image you uploaded in our card creator service does not meet the guidelines established for this service, so it has not been accepted for processing.  Please take a moment to review our image and upload guidelines at www.peoplesbanknet.com and then feel free to submit another image after doing so.

Huh. Well maybe I ran afoul of the design guidelines3 Let’s see, competitive marks/names, provocative material (I don’t think so, but who knows?), branded products … Nope. The only thing that it could possibly even run afoul of is “Phone numbers (e.g. 800 or 900 numbers) and URL addresses (e.g. www.xyz.com)”, but since it’s clearly not either of those things, I figured it would be OK.

So I called up PeoplesBank and explained the situation.

“Hi, wondering why my custom card design was rejected.”4

“Well, it should have said in the email why it was rejected.”

“Yes, it says ‘it does not meet the guidelines established for the service.’ I’ve read the guidelines and there’s nothing in there that would preclude this. It’s just an abstract image with some binary code, and it’s not even real binary, it’s just random 1s and 0s.”

“Please hold.”

[5 minutes pass]

“OK, it says the copyrighted or trademarked material part is what it ran afoul of.”

“It’s just numbers and an abstract image. How could that be the problem?”

“That’s what it says.”

“OK, well, is there someone somewhere I can talk to who would be able to tell me what I need to alter in order to make it acceptable?”

“Please hold.”

[10 minutes pass]

“OK, you said something about the numbers? Something about by Mary?”

“Yes, it’s binary code. Well, it’s not even really binary, it’s pseudo-binary.”

“Well, that’s it.”

“What’s it? It’s just random 1s and 0s. It’s the equivalent of putting random letters in a row and saying they’re words.”

“Apparently it’s copyrighted.”

“… OK, well, is there someone who can tell me what I need to change? Because I doubt that, even if I changed the numbers around and submitted it, it would still go through. I just need to know why it’s not going through so I can change it so it does go through.”

“Oh, we’ll need to research that. Is there a number I can call you back at?”

My best guess is that somehow this is getting tripped up as an allusion or reference to The Matrix by some content identifier program somewhere, which a) it’s clearly not, b) The Matrix wasn’t actually binary, and c) you can’t copyright the idea of code on a screen. The computer identified as such, and since no one actually knows why it thought that, no one can tell me how to fix it. And since it’s such an important business case (not getting sued for copyright infringement, even though there’s absolutely no way VISA is getting sued even if someone puts Mickey on their damn credit card), no one is actually empowered to overrule the computer.

What I’ll probably end up doing is just trying another image (I was thinking maybe a motherboard) because at this point I’ve already spent more time than I actually care about the design of my debit card. It’s just frustrating.

I sincerely hope I don’t have to update this post.


  1. I understand this difference, and don’t get angry when people point out that some of the things/systems/procedures I use seem inefficient or useless to them

  2. Stock photos

  3. Oh look, you CAN direct-link things on their site. Maybe that would be helpful instead of expecting people to find said guidelines four pages deep? Still a PDF, though (sigh).

  4. I was more polite/descriptive than this, I’m just paraphrasing here. I’m a firm believer that telephone reps are not the reason for the problem, they’re just dealing with it. I can get testy when they get obstinate or insinuate I’m stupid, though.