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Back in the day, business cards were simple: Black letters, white background, one-sided. You went to the printer (or sent them off) and the guy made a point to print clean, simple, beautiful cards in some of the sharpest fonts known to man.

When marks and logos started getting popular (yes, that whole “branding” thing) they of course started landing on business cards as well. Coca Cola. Nike. Microsoft. Target. Joe The Plumber. (Oh wait… never mind.) This was kind of nice, but then again… not really. (Big difference between having, say, an IBM business card and a Brooks Brothers business card.)

And then colors started showing up.

And then photographs.

And glossy coatings.

And then pretty much all hell broke loose.

On the one hand, many insurance and real estate agents started going crazy with really awful designs, making everything glossy, plastering their “glamour shots” portraits all over the place, and essentially turning business cards into a pocket version of the coupon spam you get in the mail every few days. If loud was good, louder was even better. (Not all do it, but you know who they are. Nuff said.)

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On the other hand, talented designers started creating some incredible business cards – first for themselves, of course – and then for their clients. Case in point, I received a KILLER business card yesterday from Brady Bone, over at The Republik. The best way I can describe it is “Minority Report” meets Homeland Security meets New York subway ticket. It’s black on white, super clean, with bar codes, all kinds of cool little details and a magnetic strip. It even has Brady’s signature and an enigmatic half-tone shot of his face, which are both nice touches. Anyway, my point here isn’t to rave about Brady’s awesome card, but to point out that when it comes to blank canvasses, business cards are still one of the great frontiers when it comes to design.

And brand communication.

So you basically have three options when it comes to business card design: Good, bad, and boring.

Good can be this, this, this or even this. Good can be just a little good, or it can be Brady good. (Go here for a pretty sweet collection of creative designs- some better than others.)

Bad is just bad. I’ll just say this: If it looks like a car dealership ad, it’s probably bad. If it combines Comic Sans and gold/yellow, it’s probably bad as well. More often than not, bad very often looks like this:

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Boring is just… you know… a typical template (or as Rich Lafferty would call it, “corporate”) card: Logo, info, maybe a box of color here and there to dress it up, but zero personality. 90% of business cards I run into fall into that category. I’ll be willing to bet that most websites associated with companies with boring business cards are also based on unremarkable templates and don’t get a whole lot of traffic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you’re going to spend money on a website, money on business cards and letterhead, money on networking events and business organization memberships – money on marketing in general, why not make that money count? Why settle for boring or ugly or ineffective? Seems like kind of a waste, doesn’t it? Why not spend a little bit of time giving your image some thought? Your zip code is filled with graphic designers and creative agencies that could help you with that. Not help you just create pretty cards, but help you make your business more memorable and attractive – yes, even if it is only at first glance. (, you have to start somewhere.)

Think about the stacks of business cards yo come home with after a business event. Don’t you tend to reach for the well designed ones first? The ones with a little bit more personality or information? Of course you do. And what happens to retention when someone hands you a memorable card vs. a boring one? Don’t you have a tendency to remember the encounter a little better? The person’s face, your conversation, the context, etc.? Don’t you find that there’s value in using business cards to anchor contextual memories – which help cement what people and their companies do in your mental business mapping center?

So having a remarkable card (hopefully in a good way) makes good business sense. Having an unremarkable business card puts you at a disadvantage. (Think: lost in the shuffle.) Having an awful card might actually turn off prospective clients and partners if it is bad enough.

Card design is pretty important, then.

Naturally, creative agencies and freelancers will tend to have seriously memorable cards. Some are works of art in their own right. Others are just clever. Some are examples of flawless design. And then some pretty much turn into movements, like Hugh’s designs (below). There is pretty much a design range for everyone. Creatives will often lean towards graphic design masterpieces, while other professions (say, attorneys and accountants) will opt for more sober, less creative designs. And that’s just dandy. As long as the design is good, and as long as the design works for the person or business (fit, image, tone, message, etc.)

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I could yap about business cards for hours, but… I won’t. (Hang out here just a little while longer. We’re almost done.) The reason why I am obsessing over business cards today – as opposed to social media, the latest bailout or Pepsi’s latest can redesign (which sucks, by the way) – is that I have suddenly found myself in need of business cards.

As many of you probably know, the brandbuilder blog is finally becoming a biz in its own right (brand consulting, marketing management, online reputation management, and all that good stuff). Yep, little Olivier is finally all grown up and ready to go help cool businesses conquer the world.

Now that I’ve finally secured an address – which took long enough – I can at last get some business cards printed. No more “my cards aren’t printed yet” excuses during ritual business card exchanges at business events. No siree.

But first, I have to settle on a business card design. And as you may well imagine for a somewhat creative guy like me, picking the right design can turn into a dangerous exercise: On the one hand, I want to stand out a bit. On the other, I don’t want my designs to be too unique. There needs to be some measure of brand continuity between the blog, the site, the cards, etc… but also not so much that the design looks stale. The idea here is to strike the right balance. While I work with my fair share of creatives, I am not a creative agency, and I need to remember that.

Truth be told, my business card design(s) will probably change often. When a batch runs out, I will probably replace it with a completely fresh one. New look, new flavor, etc. Just to keep things interesting. But I right now, I need to settle on batch #1. The BrandBuilder, Inc.’s very first set of business cards. And for that, boys and girls, I need your help. Instead of picking them myself, I will let you guys (and gals) decide what my first calling card’s design will be.

Cool, huh?

Here are the three sets. By the way, the graphics and fonts got a little mangled when I shrank everything to size for this post, so my apologies if things look less than crisp.

Set #1. This one is a little tricky because you have to match front and back.  Combine your favorite front with your favorite back and tell me what you think works best. Feel free to print out the image, get your scissors out, and make your own little cutouts to see how they work together.

Because one’s backside should always come first…

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1.

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2.

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3.

And now for the front…

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b.

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c.

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d.

Set #2: The idea here was to create a simple and clean set of cards. Nothing fancy, just a clean design that can look pretty good in a card holder. In this set, the front (very last image, orange) stays the same while the back (all other images) changes. Each color/flavor has its own caption to help spread the message. (Why have only one tag line when you can have dozens?) The plan is to have all six versions printed.

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above: back side. Below: front side

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Set #3: This is the vertical set. Even more basic than set #2, it tries to be as clean as possible while asking some pertinent value-related questions. I call this the “what if…” set. The “what if…” questions currently on there are kind f lame, but the possibilities are endless. What if you knew how to leverage social media to make your customers love you? What if you didn’t have to spend so much on advertising? What if you could be the talk of the town again? What if your launch exceeded all of your expectations? You get the idea.

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See? I told you. Nothing fancy. I just want to create a visual bridge between the blog and the business via the card/letterhead design, so the creative only has so much rope to play with.

Feel free to vote, comment, etc.

And thanks for taking the time to give me feedback. (Even if it’s negative.)

And by all means, if you have a design concept you want me to see, definitely send it to me. I’m open to any and all ideas, as always. 😉