Business card basics

One of the first decisions a new business makes is what to put on its business cards. I suggest that a clear understanding of your brand – or the brand you expect to create – helps you decide the stock color and weight, the ink colors, the shape, the feel of the card and, ultimately, the content on the card. Too many organizations slap together a business card, relying on conventional type, printed on one side of a standard-sized horizontal white card. There are so many possibilities for that little space, so many opportunities to begin to tell your story, and the first chance to make a great impression. Here are just a few things to think about when making decisions about your business cards:

Pay attention to design. If great design is part of the brand experience, you’re card should be amazing too. Use a legible typeface and print the basic information in black or a dark ink. Please don’t use six point, san serif type in a nice shade of gray. It’s just not readable.

Think about the paper. Use a paper stock that attracts attention, that says your serious about everything in your business, right down to the business card. You don’t even have to use paper: if you’re a plastics manufacturer, why wouldn’t you have plastic business cards? Steel fabricators: how about steel business cards? Wood business cards? A little extra thought can turn a business card into a product sample.

Use a great title. My card says “brand warrior” and 99.9 percent of the time, people look at it and comment on it, often asking “what’s a brand warrior do?” giving me an instant opportunity to explain my personal brand and how it will help them define their organizational brand. Do you have the guts to be something other than a “manager,” “director,” “specialist” or some other title plucked from the organizational chart? I keep trying to get my boss and chief sales guy to add the title “chief disruption officer” to his title because that’s what he gets to do when he engages prospective clients as he gets to know them better.

Don’t forget the contact information. Communicating your name, title, address, phone numbers, email addresses and web addresses are the first and most important role for a business card. Carefully think about how to arrange that information and don’t forget a toll-free number if you work with people outside of your area.

Please use the name you want to be called. This is no place to put your full given name if that’s not what you want people to call you. If you want to be called “Chuck” use “Chuck” on the card, not “Charles.” If you use your middle name, please just put that on the card: it’s “Brian Whatever,” not J. Brian Whatever.” (Okay, I admit this is just a pet peeve of mine, but why confuse the reader when you don’t have to?)

Don’t be afraid of color. Color has an emotional effect on people and begins to tell the viewer something about you. Carefully choose a color palette that reflects who you are, and make sure that it relates to the rest of your brand identity. Visual integration is the first level of integration: if you don’t at least make your materials relate to each other, how to you ever expect the marketing and the sales people to tell the same story? Shouldn’t a John Deere business card have a huge splash of John Deere green somewhere on it?

Use both sides. Few organizations ever think about the back of a business card: there’s valuable real estate that can be used to make a bold statement with color, or extend your message beyond the business basics of name address and phone. Sometimes, organizations say they need to keep the back of the business card white so they can write notes on it. I don’t believe that one: they’re usually afraid to pay a little more to print on that side. It’s the designer or brand warrior’s job to use that real estate strategically. One commodity organization I know features recipes on the back of its business cards. If you have a hard-to-find location, why not put a small map on the back. If you’re in retail, use the card back side as a coupon or as a frequent-buyer card or to give directions to your location. Mission statements are fine when printed on the back, but why not ask an intriguing question in that space, list three key product features or repeat an image from a corporate branding ad?

Size matters. The business card has to fit into Rolodexes (yes, some people still use them) or in a card binder, but it doesn’t have to be the exact shape and size as everyone else’s cards. My firm recently created business cards with rounded corners and they really stood out from the crowd: better yet, they repeated a visual pattern in all of the other printed materials and helped communicate the friendliness and unstuffy attitude the company delivered. When I worked in the vitamin business, one business had cards shaped like a two-part capsule, which was unique (believe it or not) and relevant. Folded cards work when they’re important information to be communicated.

Who says it has to be a business card? Think outside the rectangle and create a tool that tells a great story.

Smile for the picture. Why not put a picture on the card? Many people are scared of looking like a real estate agent if they put a picture on their card, but if done right – and for the right reasons – a photo business card will help tell your story. For example, if individual service is a hallmark of your brand, put the person’s picture on the card to help connect the customer with the employees. If you’re an actor or model, you’re going to have to provide photos sooner or later; why not make it sooner. And make it special. Make it big, get it outside a small box, bleed it off an edge, cut out the background or turn up the image.

A word about cost: if you can’t afford to print your card without the printer’s ad on the back, then you can’t afford to be in business. Pay a local printer or pay an online printer (I like, but there are others that do an adequate job for simple projects like business cards) but don’t use the freebies. They make you look less than professional.

Ultimately, your card is the first opportunity to tell your story, and make it different, inviting, relevant and truthful. You can’t be gimmicky, but if you’re not taking advantage of this opportunity – and using your brand as a decision making tool – you’re starting out with one strike. And that’s not a good place to be when you’re starting a business.

So tell me, what are some of the coolest, most innovative, most interesting, most strategic things you’ve ever seen in a business card?

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8 Responses to Business card basics

  1. Timothy says:

    >Awesome comments and insights, Mark. I’m about to rebrand and recard, so it couldn’t have been any timelier. I’ll be sure to apply these tips when reordering my cards. Between you and Mike Wagner, branding (or in my case rebranding) is becoming less painful.

  2. Mark true says:

    >Glad to be of assistance, Timothy. Mike and I speak the same language, sometimes with a different accent, and then I get the opportunity to put those concepts into play in websites, brochures, ads, etc. Stay tuned..I’m next going to tackle letterhead basics, brochure basics and website basics. There are plenty of sources from which to gain creative inspiration: mine role is to simply poke you in the ribs along the way!

  3. Timothy says:

    >poke away, Mark! Mike’s ribs will be too tender for a while anyway. 😉 Selecting a brand the first time was hard. Revisiting the topic to come up with the right brand that truly tells my story was mental boot camp.

  4. Mark true says:

    >Thanks, anonymous. Proofreaders are God’s gift to writers.

  5. Mark true says:

    >Timothy:Remember, you can’t select a brand. You can DISCOVER your brand, but you have to ask a lot of questions of yourself – your mental boot camp – of your customers, of your co-workers and anybody who experiences you. That’s the first step in the work we do for our clients.Good look as you figure it out. That’s part of the fun, as far as I’m concerned.

  6. Timothy says:

    >Thanks, Mark… notice I didn’t use the word “select” on the “revisiting” reference. I would agree that’s where I got into trouble the first time. Mike Wagner was invaluable in facilitating me through the discovery process. My new brand truly tells my story in a fashion that fits me… my customers… and my value-proposition…

  7. Mark true says:

    >Outstanding! By the way, Mike has the kind of effect on people!

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