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Business cards

You’ve probably got a hundred of them in your desk, which just goes to show how hard it will be to stand out. Drew Turney tries to demystify the humble business card.

Once upon a time, social interaction between human beings in the developed world was a cloyingly formal affair. If someone of high social standing intended to visit a dignitary of similar eminence, their footmen or carriage bearers would deliver visiting cards to the servants and home staff of the intended host.

If a gentleman fancied a lady, he’d have to formally invite her to a chaperoned outing (where he’d probably ask her to marry him) by sending a calling card to her house as the invitation – if he didn’t have one, he was probably a mere peasant not worth her time.

Trade cards became popular in 17th century England. For the first time, the public were exposed to more merchants than just the artisans in their own villages, so a printed record of your existence was the best advertising. With no formal street addressing system in use yet, early customers also needed help finding you, so trading cards often had maps.

The modern business card is the lovechild between the visiting and trading cards. It says ‘this is me’ as well as ‘this is where to find me’. It’s telling that in the multi-connected digital age where virtual conferences and international collaboration are the norm, business cards are as popular as ever. There were a few early dotcom era rumbles that they’d soon be a thing of the past along with newspapers and books, but most of us now know running a business without face-to-face contact is like the paperless office – a myth.

So as the modest business card is still an essential tool, we decided to ask three successful designers their thoughts on everything from the basic to the extreme when it comes to stock, colours, shapes, quantities and more.

More than your address

Nine out of ten business cards you’ll see will be painfully dull, just a logo and some neatly arranged contact details. Of all industries in the economy, ours is the one in which the ‘this is me’ aspect of a business card is the most crucial.

“Business cards work deeper,” says Miles Burke, general manager of successful web development company Bam Creative. “People make judgements on an organisation or person based on the aesthetics of that small piece of card. As designers, our work is judged in that first 20 seconds by the design of our card, which is normally the first item a prospective client has of our work.”

Justin Ruckman is a designer based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Desktop was struck by how simple and to-the-point his business cards were. When we asked Ruckman, he seemed to confirm that he considers a business card a small, disposable entry portal to his larger world. “It’s just a conduit for a person’s basic information so you can look them up later,” he says. “After I look someone up online, I throw away their card. Anyone who reveres usability as much as I do finds a refined aesthetic level in a truly usable design. Fanciness has its place, but something as conceptually simple as a business card dictates a very straightforward approach.”

To bird.STUDIO’s director Adrianne Barba, both design and usability are twin pillars of priority, and you shouldn’t sacrifice one at the expense of the other. As she quite simply puts it; ‘form follows function.’

Of course, the balance between good looking and easy to take in is delicate, and it’s not even simple enough to say they should be equal. A very plain-looking design itself is still a design aesthetic. How cool or ‘designery’ your card is versus its usability depends on the image you want to project, and that depends on the clients you’re targeting. The object of design – as it should be everywhere and not just on your cards – is to communicate, not suffocate beneath personality.

“[Design] should represent your character,” says Justin Ruckman, “but if it gets in the way of me reading and understanding your contact information, you’ve failed. It’s a business card, not an exhibition poster. What if every time you called a friend they recited a few lines of their favourite song instead of just saying hello? No doubt it’s probably a good song, but that’s not why you called them.”

Perhaps more importantly when it comes to your public face, look at the character your clients will be after. Not everyone is a designer and to win their confidence you have to speak their language, not ours – especially in big, conservative bureaucracies like government or banking.

“When I design a business card, I don’t aim to do something different for the sake of it,” says bird.STUDIO’s Adrianne Barba. “The ‘something nobody’s seen before’ comes from trying to solve a design problem specific to a client, not trying to be different. That’s designing for your own portfolio instead of the client’s needs.”

A universe of possibilities

So if you do want to stand out, what are the options? The only limits are your imagination – plus of course, the standard Australian business card size of 89 by 54 millimetres. “Using die cuts makes it tempting to go for a weird shape,” Miles Burke reminds us, “but with so many people using business card folders and holding sheets, a strangely shaped card has less chance of working within these confines, and could be left out.”

Describing the different things you can do (and that have been done) with business cards would fill this whole magazine. At one end of the spectrum is printing on both sides. At the other is making cards out of wood, plastic or metal, using foils or gold leaf, die cuts to put strategic holes or cut-outs, clever pop-up devices, cards that double as other objects so as to extend their shelf life, and yes – the picture you can see elsewhere in this story of contact details printed on a peanut is real.

If you can think of something nobody’s done before, congratulations! There are rules to card design, but as a designer you’ll know the most important rule is to know which ones to break.

But tread lightly – if you can think of something nobody’s done before it might be because plenty of people have thought of it but not acted on it for good reason. Like so much printed (as well as online) matter, the form factor of a business card has a deeply subconscious language people know. Any unnecessary effort you demand as they try to digest your message should be considered very carefully.

“If it makes sense and isn’t annoying,” says Justin Ruckman when asked if weird is good, “But the shape and size of a traditional business card has evolved for a reason. There’s a lot of residual wisdom there that you should justify breaking from.”

Of course if you can manage something different but user-friendly, an interesting business card is an advertisement for itself. It’ll find itself transformed from mere marketing to an object d’art, something people will keep, show friends and colleagues and maybe even give pride of place on their CPU. Why do you think the (admittedly kind of cheesy) stress ball is still so popular?

Printing on a substrate like wood or metal or using a die cut to achieve a striking shape will make you stand out, but they’re expensive. Even the highest-end digital printing technology can’t produce a coherent image on some surfaces and the last thing you want is for your card to turn out illegible.

But even on the form factor of a 9×5 piece of cardboard the possibilities are endless. Think of the things people do with other small cards in their possession. Produce a card modelled of a scratch lottery ticket, complete with a discount or bonus ‘prize’ for every client’s first job with you. Include the URL to an online treasure hunt that leads to a specialised or personalised service you offer.

There’s a theory that scrawling a note to someone on a card before giving it them – even if it’s a ‘thanks for your time’ and a smiley face – makes them less likely to throw it away and more likely to remember you. If that makes sense to you, make sure at the very least that you have some white space on which to do so.

So we’ve established that it has to be unusual to stand out but not so much so that people don’t know how to grasp it. It must be something your client’s never seen before while reminding them of a million others they have. It must have the same information as everyone else’s card but be completely different.

If your head’s reeling, Justin Ruckman advises sticking with the dependable old ‘less is more’ to skirt the fine line of contradictions. “I reduced my contact info down to the bare minimum needed to reach me and went with that,” he says. “If I reduce it too far it’s not usable anymore, so I guess if anything that’s my guide for walking the line.”

Your only real limit

So how much will all this set you back? As a very rough guide, you can expect to pay about $150 for 500 four-colour cards printed on both sides with a simple matt or gloss laminate at a no-frills local printer. Inescapable economics means the more you get, the less you pay per unit. As always, if you’re doing more elaborate work, find a good printer and discuss it with them at length first.

In fact, get your printer in on the job from the get go. You might find they have standard dies that make the job cheaper than you’ll think. They’ll be able to tell you whether digital or process printing will be more cost effective, or whether you can achieve the desired result with fewer colours or a specialist stock.

One thing’s for sure – unless you’re a multinational ad agency with an unlimited budget or have one of the big four banks or BHP Billiton as a client, it’s likely you won’t be able to have exactly what you want no matter how elaborate an idea you come up with.

If you have to scrimp, where do you do it? Justin Ruckman is unhesitant. “Stock,” he says. “I printed my own cards on a colour laser copier at my local print shop on relatively thin card stock. They feel great to me because they embrace their disposability. Print in black and white if you need to. Your limitations can inform the design.”

Adrianne Barba tells the opposite story. “We always use the best stock our clients’ budgets can afford and scrimp on colour – a one or two colour card can still look as amazing as a full colour card, if not more so. I kept my own cards one colour to keep the cost down so I could afford a silver foil, but I designed them to benefit from it with a lot of contrast. The colour is an unusual but peaceful turquoise blue. The ink is vibrant due to soy-based ink and it’s on an uncoated, environmentally friendly stock that feels thick but soft.”

So who’s right? For the profile of their own businesses, both. “If I were to hand you my card you’d get the feeling I’m a calm, friendly, environmentally-minded person who draws upon the past and nature for her inspiration,” says Barba. To Ruckman, cards are just an arrow in the sand, pointing you to the larger story of his studio, and their ‘read once, go to the website and throw away’ nature is the aesthetic he’s looking for.

If you have more than one staff member, you’ll come up against a whole new problem. Obviously a business development manager will give out a lot more cards than a web developer, so the latter won’t need 5,000 cards like the former will.

But what about in the case of a sudden resignation, if you have to fire a slacker or you move premises – which renders everyone’s leftover cards useless?

“As someone who has drawers full of ex-staff business cards, I would always recommend less cards with more frequent reordering over getting a massive amount of cards only see staff leave,” says Bam Creative’s Miles Burke, who also considers it essential every staff member has a card, no matter how much client contact they have.

“Don’t get more than you need,” agrees Justin Ruckman. “If you expect your contact info will change soon, make sure you keep something constant on your card – a URL or something that you’ll always keep updated with your most recent metadata.”

But bird.STUDIO’s Barba cautions against the natural human tendency to value scarcity. If you start with few cards, you’ll be too selective about giving them out. “If you’re going to use them, get a larger quantity,” she thinks. “Otherwise you’ll be hoarding them and potentially missing out on opportunities. I’ve gained some of my favourite clients from the strangest of referrals – an extra card given to someone makes it easier for them to pass on your details to someone else that might be interested.”

Like every other project you’ll face as a designer, you’ll struggle between the accepted and the fresh, the idea and the cost barrier, your creativity and the client (who’s only too happy to remind you that their nephew will do it in Microsoft Publisher for $20).

But with only one chance to make a first impression, the small piece of card you hand someone in a meeting might be your most important project ever.

Good and bad

Love them or hate them, there’ll be some designs among these links that you’ve never seen before.

Business cards you can eat