Getting Down to Business (Cards)
How to make the right impression with a business card design
by: Nigel French
You only get one chance to make a first impression.
A cliché, but true—and while this applies to many
things in life, it's particularly true of business cards.
Making a strong initial impact with your business
card can make the difference between getting the
job and your card being on a fast track to a bottom
drawer—or the recycling bin.
It's good to stand out from the crowd with a
business card that is funny, unexpected, or clever, or
all three, but first and foremost a business card should
be functional. It's all common sense really, but don't
lose sight of the fact that a successful card should give
a positive first impression; provide clear and accurate
information; and be kept by those you give it to.
Anything else is gravy.
What to Include
Designing a business card is not as simple as it may
look. They're probably the smallest pieces you'll
design, but there's so much information to fit in that
making it all legible while establishing an information
hierarchy is challenging (Figure 1).
Figure 1: While these cards contain a lot of information, it is clearly organized using font size, paragraph spacing, font weight, or rules.
In addition to the company name and logo and
the name of the person, there's the phone number,
the email address, the physical address, the Web site,
the mobile phone, the fax number, the IM address,
the Skype address... the list goes on. And there's the
company tagline, that pithy one-liner that describes
the essence of the company: "Think Different," "Just Do
It," that sort of thing.
Sometimes less is more, and that can be the case
with contact information. People need a simple
way to contact you—having more numbers doesn't
necessarily make you more important or easier to
contact. It can also make it difficult for someone to
figure out which contact method to use. If you feel
compelled to list every possible coordinate (along with
your blood group, mother's maiden name, and name
of your childhood pet), indicate the preferred contact
method by some sort of emphasis—spacing, a bigger,
bolder font, or a different color.
I find business cards a bit irritating, and—in my never ending,
entirely unattainable quest for minimalist
nirvana—toss them at the first opportunity. If it's
a standout piece of design I may file it away in my
samples file; likewise if it's particularly amateurish
I may remember it (for all the wrong reasons)—
especially if it's for a creative trade where design
expectations are higher.
But unless it's a jaw-dropping, award-winning,
laugh-out-loud funny card, then it's bound for the
waste paper basket. That is, after I've transcribed all the
information into my digital address book—that great
design leveler, where no matter how cool the business
card, all contacts are equal. Digital information is so
much easier to manage and I always know exactly
where it is.
I suspect I'm not alone in this rather severe
approach: slip it in the wallet, carry it around until said
wallet becomes uncomfortably swollen (either with
business cards or, less likely, bank notes), then sit down
with the laptop and type in the information. That's when
I really appreciate having the information clearly and
unambiguously presented. A more high-tech approach
is to use a business card reader or business card
scanning software with Optical Character Recognition
(OCR) technology to scan the information—placing an
even higher demand on legibility.
Most business cards are horizontal for a good reason:
that's the shape of our wallets. While vertically
oriented cards may be preferable for some designs,
anyone pulling such a card from their wallet will have
to turn the card—or their head—to read it. A big deal?
Not really, the sun still rises, but a vertical card filed
among a stack of horizontals may cause a moment's
hesitation, a trip of the eye in reading and digesting
its information. Maybe this is what makes it stand out
from the crowd. What you lose on the swings, you gain
on the roundabouts (Figure 2).
Figure 2: If your design requires it, a vertical card can be effective.
One or Two Sided?
Sheets of paper have two sides, so why shouldn't
our business cards? With the ever-growing quantity
of information we need to include, assigning some
of it to the reverse side can help de-clutter a card
(Figures 3 and 4). While printing on both sides costs
more, unless you're planning a large print run, the
difference is unlikely to be significant.
Figure 3: These cards effectively use both sides to expand the range of design possibilities.
But what to put on the reverse? A tag line, a
description of services, or perhaps your company
philosophy. Whatever you choose, don't put the
critical information on the reverse, because it may go
Figure 4: Two sides not enough for you? How about printing with a
flap and turning your business card into a mini-brochure?
Another argument against printing on the reverse
is that it leaves no room for the recipient to write
notes—such as where and when they met you.
Unusual Shapes and Sizes
Being a non-conformist is a gamble. Get it right and
your work will be reproduced in annuals of the year's
best business cards, featured in Web galleries and
blogs discussing what makes a successful business
card, and passed around for the adulation of your
colleagues and potential clients (Figure 5). Get it
wrong and you look like a dork.
Figure 5: Who says a business card has to be a rectangle?
The problem with oversized cards is they don't fit:
literally. People trying to squeeze them into the credit card
sized slots in their wallets or Rolodexes will either
end up having to fold them—a big fat, random crease
is rarely an attractive design element—or will toss
them at the earliest opportunity. But then again, who
really uses a Rolodex these days? A card that folds—a
sort of mini brochure—offers the best of both worlds,
more space for information as well as a larger unfolded
size. At the other end of the size spectrum, mini cards
(28 x 70 mm) such as those from Moo are becoming
International Standard Business Card Sizes
There is such a thing as a standard business card, but what
"standard" means depends on where you live.
Business cards don't have to be serious and depending
on the nature of the company, humor can be an
effective way to communicate and help you stand
out from the crowd (Figure 6). If your clients are
international, remember that humor doesn't always
travel well—your biting wit, irony, or sarcasm may miss
the mark completely and convey the opposite of what
you had intended. Worse, your joke may be offensive.
But being humorous doesn't necessarily mean telling a
risque innuendo or side-splitting joke; it might mean a
clever and playful twist on your line of work.
Figure 6: Funny or playful, your card doesn't need to be
The Numbers Game
There are several things to consider with numbers you
include—and the order in which you list them. In the
UK, mobile phones have a five-number prefix, making
them easily distinguishable from landline numbers.
Some small businesses have ditched the landline
altogether. But what message does listing only a
mobile number send? A fly-by-night operation and
thus untrustworthy? Or a dynamic person—always on
the move, yet always reachable?
Beyond that there's the decision on how to divide
the number chunks: with hyphens? Spaces? Periods?
There's no right or wrong way, but whichever you
choose, be consistent. And what about the style of
the numbers themselves? Proportional Old Style?
Lining? With OpenType Pro fonts it's effortless to use
proportionally sized numbers that have ascenders and
descenders and so fit with the surrounding upper and
lower case text more harmoniously.
Call me old fashioned, but I find business cards with
mug shots cheesy. Unless it's the convention for that
particular trade to include a headshot, or unless you
plan on using the photograph in particularly stylized,
humorous, or clever way (in itself a gamble), then
spare us the car-salesman grin.
Working from Templates
InDesign comes with several standard business card
templates and you certainly won't go wrong using
these as a starting point. But really, what's so hard
about setting up a business card document? Call me a
fuddy-duddy purist if you like (I'd be flattered, really),
but I always feel that no matter what the document,
setting it up yourself gives you a connection to and
sense of ownership of that document.
One Card, Many Names
Using InDesign's Data Merge feature can take the
tedium out of designing a card for which there are
multiple names—and the greater the number, the
bigger the benefit of this approach. You design the
card as usual and then combine it with a data file
prepared in Microsoft Excel that lists the names and
other information that changes. In the template card,
you place fields for the real information then merge
the file with the Data Source, and presto! Your result is
a document with as many cards as there are records in
the data source.
For step-by-step Data Merge instructions, see
"Automate This!" in the April/May 2006 issue (#11), also
posted on CreativePro.com at www.creativepro.com/article/indesign-how-to-automate-this-
Before you run the presses be sure to test mock-ups of
your card on people whose opinions you trust. Watch
their first response when you hand them the card.
Are they squinting to read the information? Are they
turning the card around, confused about which way
is up? Is it clear to them how to contact the person?
Did they turn it over to read the reverse side? Present
them with several card options and ask what they like
and dislike about each. Be prepared to act upon their
suggestions—but also be prepared to (politely) ignore
them—design by committee can leave you with a
Getting it Printed
When choosing a printer, assume nothing. If you're
working with an online printing company they
will likely have directions on how to prepare the
final piece for their specific printing press, but
never underestimate the power of an older piece
of technology: the telephone. Successful print jobs
depend on good communication between designer
and printer and there's nothing like a quick chat to
clear up any areas of confusion. Printer reps should be
able to answer your technical questions and advise
you through the process—and if they're not, then
find one who is. There are plenty of them out there
and successful commercial printers are built on good
Consider the weight of the paper, its finish and
its texture, and what's appropriate for the type of
business concerned. Textured, uncoated stocks lend
themselves to "green" or nature-themed companies
and non-profits that want to avoid looking too slick.
Coated stocks are typically better for photographic
reproduction. Terms for describing paper are confusing
and, unless you're experienced in handling paper, can
be abstract—so ask your printer for samples.
If you need a small number of cards right now and
want to print them on your desktop printer, avoid the
sheets perforated in business card sizes. Nothing says
Cheese quite so much as a rough perforated edge
to your card. Instead, gang up the cards on an A4 or
A3 (Letter or Tabloid) size page and cut them with an
X-Acto blade and metal ruler.
But before you even start thinking about paper,
ask yourself—does it have to be printed on paper?
What about steel, wood, transparent plastic, cotton,
stretchy plastic (Figure 7)? There's even an online
spoof offering business cards on beef jerky!
Figure 7: Paper cards are so last century.
Online digital printers offer a limited range of extras
to keep costs low, but if you opt for offset printing
there are many customization options: spot varnish,
rounded edges, embossing, raised printing, foil
stamping, die-cutting. In the right context these might
be the perfect embellishment: for example, rounded
corners (not necessarily all four) can give a friendlier
vibe and complement a card with round design
elements. In the wrong context, they could make your
card into the equivalent of an over-coiffed poodle.
Ultimately it comes down to the strength of the basic
design and concept—if that's sound then a subtle spot
varnish or elegant foil stamp might be the icing on an
already delicious cake (Figure 8). On the other hand, if
the design is weak... well, homilies about silk purses
and sow's ears come to mind.
Figure 8: Some examples of tastefully deployed printing extras.
There's more than meets the eye when designing a
successful business card that really works. Considering
all of the above won't guarantee a successful result,
but it will guard against a bad one—and as with any
set of rules, they can all be broken, if broken well.
The hard part is finding the happy medium between
convention and irreverence, designing something
that ticks all the functionality boxes while at the same
time makes people think about business cards in a
whole new way. Innovations in affordable printing
and the over abundance of "standard" business cards,
have allowed and demanded greater creativity in
business card design. Today your business card is a
blank canvas—or clothes peg, or bar of chocolate, or
whatever else you choose.
Nigel French has more than 15 years experience as a graphic
designer and graphic design educator. He is the former director
of the graphic design program at University of California, Berkeley
Extension, and has taught various aspects of graphic design in
colleges. An Adobe Certified trainer and Certified Instructor, he is
author of InDesign Type: Professional Typography with Adobe InDesign,
and Photoshop Unmasked: The Art and Science of Selections, Layers,
and Paths, as well as an author for the lynda.com online training
library. He lives in England—but left his heart in San Francisco.
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