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Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Getting Business Cards Right

I like business cards! Done well, they are miniature artworks. They convey that vital first impression of your business when you meet someone at a networking event. They are also one of the few things that people are likely to keep, long after the flyer and other printed materials have been recycled.
So I was on design overload going through a backlog of business cards between Xmas and New Year. What struck me was: there were a few outstandingly badly designed cards - and they all came from design companies and professional marketing specialists!
Without naming names, there was a badly laid out card in heavy gothic script - in pink lettering. Not being a girly goth, that was a real turn-off. It was difficult to read, so failed to perform its most basic function. I'd guess it would be impossible to scan with a card reader or smartphone - if there had been enough info to go into an address list. As it was, a name, website and hotmail address is not really enough to convey a quality impression. It was the business card equivalent of a white van.
Another 'white van' business card also hid the three initials that made up the name of the design company in three tiny smudgy pictures.
A third designer had placed good quality contact information on one side. The other side was completely given over to what I presume was the corporate identity. The design was so faded that most of the company name was invisible. Maybe it worked on a better-printed large format?
Another designer had handed me a nice, minimalist design card - with minimal information to match. So minimal, he hastily scrawled his first name onto the card - which kinda spoiled the overall effect. Weeks later, I couldn't read it.
As for the marketers: I have two cards that look as if the logo has been done by an amateur. They are so lightweight, they lack impact and don't line up with anything. One has their contact details so near the edge of the card, they are in danger of being trimmed away. They make the card appear lopsided as the side margins don't match. To my eye, it doesn't look professional. At least there's plenty of contact info - if you can read it. The writing is in a small, lightweight font.
The other marketer has a very basic logo containing the three initials that form the company name. Two of the initials are in black on darkish grey shapes with black edges. It all looks pretty ropey to me. There are two pieces of spot colour. One is on a tiny line of print that is unreadable - why? The card is so small and thin, it looks like every penny spent on it was grudged. When it comes to business cards, size does matter, but beware odd shapes and sizes that may not fit into your contact's card holders. At least the contact info on the card in question was very detailed and readable, but it could do with more room to make the design look better.
At least the designers had all chosen a decent-sized heavyweight card and two had specified a varnish coating.
So, what can we learn from these examples?
That little card rectangle has to do a big job in a small space, so it deserves design time and attention. There's an increasing amount of digital information that needs to be fitted in alongside the basic contact info. Everything from QR codes to website, email and social media handles. Plus key credentials: awards and kitemarks. Yet overall, it has to be an attractive example of your corporate design.
It is a real design challenge to get it right, incorporating a logo and/or name-style that is capable of generating impact in applications from a few square millimetres on a card, to being used effectively on a pop-up banner or van. Small wonder that some are tempted to skimp on the practical details by using typefaces that are too small, or squashed together (kerned) so that they are hard to read. But if you can't be contacted easily, what's the point?
On my own card, I used heavy card, a strong colour and design and kept the info readable and gave space to the design, but, to do that, I used both sides of the card. As Ian Mackay of Epitome Solutions pointed out: that means the full info can't be scanned in one go. With the advent of smartphone scanners, it is time for a re-design. If I can't get everything onto one side, I need to put full information on one scan-able side and use the other side for corporate design impact. I could use a lighter card, folded to create a solid feel, to give me a 4-sided card. Possibly with a partial fold-over to entice people to open the card out?
If the visuals are the first thing that are noticed on a business card, touch is a close second. The tactile qualities are all about the choice of card and the surface finish. Card varies in thickness (measured in microns) and density (measured in grams per square inch: gsm). Of the two measures, gsm is usually quoted and I would usually specify at least 350 gsm or higher to give the end result a quality feel. However, density affects the rigidity and feel of a card, which is why I would want to see a sample before confirming a business card order.
In fact, I would want a printed sample because the card surface is also critical to the look of a card. If it is porous (uncoated), the ink sinks in and loses a lot of the colour vibrancy. This may not matter for a simple design with no solid blocks of colour. A coated surface will give a marked improvement in the colour reproduction and allow the print to 'float' on the surface.
A printed sample will also give you a feel for the density of the ink used by the printer. Some inks are better than others and ink density is affected by temperature, humidity and the moisture content of the paper which varies from day to day. Printing is part technology, part art - and a whole lot of skill to achieve a good end result. If you need to match a specific colour to another piece of print, supply a sample to be matched and stipulate the colour match is material to the satisfactory end result. Proofs rarely give you a precise colour match because they are often printed on another machine.
Specifying printing a final satin varnish on the card gives an attractive silky feel that suggests attention to detail and a quality operation.
If you can't be bothered to manage all that print detail, use a designer who is ordering print regularly and stipulate the level of detail required to "print you happy".
Of course, card is not the only material used for business cards. They can be printed onto plastic, for example, which would work well for situations where the card is likely to consulted in wet or dirty situations, or where the "card" can doubled up as a tool - possibly for measuring something small and relevant to your business? Or an emergency ice-scraper for car windscreens? There was a vogue a few years ago for printing onto transparent plastic. It could look very good, but often only when sitting on a light surface. On my black desk, they were usually unreadable.
One little card, but oh, so many choices!
No wonder the Japanese - who do know a thing or two about fitting good things into small designs - have elevated the presentation and receiving of a business card to a ritual level. But that's another story. Google 'meishi' if you need to know more about that.

PR blog posted by Penny Haywood Calder at PHPR Ltd, Edinburgh, UK. URL: TV Channel on YouTube: Ltd on LinkedInFollow PennyHaywood on Twitter

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