Have you ever received a business card and wondered where it came from? Not who gave it to you, the very practice of exchanging a piece of card with contact details on them?
The business card evolved from several sources, from the calling cards gentlemen used to leave for society ladies asking for very dates (very chaste in those days). And when village life in the pre-industrial era expanded, customers were suddenly used to dealing with smiths and carpenters further from home.
As the need for street addresses arose (everybody knew where everybody else was during the feudal era where you hardly ever left your own village), trade cards advertising what you did and where people could find you became popular.
The modern business card is the crossroads between the two, but it’s also worth asking if it’s even necessary anymore in an age where everybody is easy to find online.
Most cards are pretty dull – just a logo and text – so it’s your chance to stand out. People make an instant judgement on you and your business. But the function of a business card has also changed. Gone are the days when you need your name, title, phone number, mobile, fax, address and everything else.
Most of the time it’s merely a conduit to your basic contact information so people can look you up later. A lot of us don’t even keep business cards, making the means to create an impression with the design even more crucial – we’ll just look for a URL where we can connect with you or see more of your work.
So in such a form-follows-function-follows-form mindset, the design of your card should represent your character, not be fancy or clever for its own sake. If you try to be too creative (or even if your particular branding doesn’t lend itself to the form factor easily) and it makes the information on the card harder to absorb or find, you’ve failed.
A universe of possibilities
There are lots of shapes, sizes, forms and even materials you can select for a business card and if you have the budget, doing something whacky or memorable is tempting.
But the first rule in any marketing (and your business card is part of that) is to remember your audience. There’s a standard card size in Australia (89 mm x 54 mm), and if your customer base isn’t particularly web savvy and would likely keep all the cards he or she receives, doing something too outside the box might simply get yours dropped in the bin.
But if it suits your purposes – maybe for a one-off promotion or special – there are business cards made 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 there’s even a company that offers to print your contact details on a peanut.
Weird and funny are all very well, but tread carefully. It doesn’t take much to tip the balance over into annoying and hard to handle, especially after the initial novelty has worn off. Think of the stress ball, which tends to sit forever around people’s desks and office thanks to its inherent usability?
Sometimes being really clever isn’t breaking convention, but doing something new within it. Even within the confines of the standard business card size the possibilities are endless. How about card modelled of a scratch lottery ticket, complete with a discount or ‘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.
Your only real limit
But after all your creative genius there’s nothing like the quote from the printer to bring you back down to Earth. Get them in on the process early – they have the experience and after seeing all the weird and wonderful business card designs that have come through their systems they can advise you on the cheaper paper stocks or unusual shapes to use.
Ask yourself where to scrimp if need be. Some designers will tell you the design is more important than the card stock. Another will tell you to use fewer colours and get the best inks and finishes you can afford to make the card itself something pleasant to hold. As always, it’s about encouraging the perception about your business you want to enable.
There’s also a balance to be struck when it comes to how many cards to produce. Too many and you’ll be left with unusable cards if a staff member leaves, you change address, get married or change your name, etc. Too few and you’ll be more selective about giving them out, and many say you should give a business card to everyone with whom you share a conversation about work.
It’s a problem the less is more design aesthetic also helps. If you only have a name, mobile number and address online they’ll change far less often than other details and have the dual advantages of giving your cards more longevity and being simpler.
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.