Business cards: the power of paper rectangles

Even in today's Internet age, these small cards remain a good way to stand out.

When Jon Knowlden launched his own lawn and land development service last spring, he needed publicity – badly. He couldn't claim much experience (he is only 18). And his flyers didn't attract much enthusiasm (there's plenty of competition in affluent Clarkston, Mich.).

So after a few weeks, Mr. Knowlden turned to his brother, who works in advertising, for help.

"There was basically no budget. So we needed one solid way to get the name out there," says big brother Brandon Knowlden, who is an art director for Struck in Salt Lake City. "We decided to focus everything on a business card. But not just any card, a business card that would help his business grow – quite literally."

They designed a card that looks standard on the outside – name, phone number, etc. – but hides a pouch of grass seed on the inside. After

handing out the novel card, Jon got meetings at apartment complexes all over the county and has since signed several annual work contracts.

"Without the cards, I was just a kid looking for work," says Jon. "Now everyone comments on how much they like them, and I really stand out."

In an age when people use Google to find gardeners and Microsoft Outlook instead of a Rolodex, standing out is crucial to small businesses. Many career counselors agree that, for entrepreneurs, sometimes the best ads are on tiny pieces of cardboard. A classic card, they say, gives companies a professional polish, but creative cards can give people like Jon an edge.

"The role of business cards is still very much the same, but they're taking on all kinds of different shapes," says Mark Gallagher, a brand consultant at Blackcoffee Design in Boston and coauthor of "The Best of Business Card Design 6." "In the book, there were, of course, cards from artists and creative types, but some of the most impressive to me were for dentists or lawyers."

There's the divorce lawyer whose card is perforated down the center, the personal trainer whose rubber card is unreadable until you work those arms and stretch out the contact info, and many businesses whose cards are printed on specially shaped CD-ROMs.

For many, considering a more imaginative redesign is simply a practical matter, Mr. Gallagher says. People today need to cram a lot of lines onto a card. There's an e-mail address, cellphone number, a website, perhaps even an instant-message screen name.

Unfortunately, business cards were standardized long before anyone even had a fax number. Some adventurous companies have tinkered with designs outside of the 2-by-3.5-inch box. But they risk frustrating those few people who still maintain traditional business-card holders.

"If the card is the wrong size, it may become a nuisance rather than a provider of information, and at that moment it's lost its value to you," says Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., and author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." He suggests using the backs of cards for extra information, logos, or tag lines, and leaving the front for the essentials.

Matt Verzola avoids cluttering up his card by keeping things simple: name, phone, e-mail, and the line "just Google me."

"I do a lot of freelance work in a lot of different areas," he says. "So I thought, why worry about listing everything on a card when Google will do it for me?" In case you don't make it online, Mr. Verzola's card also acts as a pint-sized portfolio. "On the backs, I printed some of my photos," he adds. "When people see them, we often get into a conversation about my work and they'll ask, 'Do you have any others?' I pull out a batch of them, and they'll walk away with maybe two or three copies of my card."

For those seeking a more daring design, Mr. Post says there's nothing wrong with slicing away at a card's edges. "For example, a guy who runs an auto mechanic shop could cut the top of his card into the shape of a car," he says.

Tanya Harper decided to snip off a whole inch and a half, creating a square business card for Pangea Salon, a hair stylist shop that she opened in Manhattan earlier this year. She designed the card's bright stripes with a friend using Photoshop to reflect the teal and orange hues of her store.

"I wanted the card to be fun and original, just like the salon," says Ms. Harper. "We've definitely gotten a lot of business from the card. I hand it out to people I see on the street who have beautiful hair, and sooner or later they show up here ready for an appointment."

Last week, editors at the British car magazine Intersection got to play with their new cards. Printed on a thick stock, the design can be cut and folded into a model race car or police cruiser, with the contact info tucked up on the undercarriage.

"As with every product that's been around for years, the constraints of business cards can be challenged," says the magazine's creative director, Yorgo Tloupas, who made the car cards. These are the third and fourth car models the magazine has tried over the years. Each has been a hit, he says.

But designer beware: there's a fine line between unique and just strange. "You have to be very careful how far you go," warns Gallagher. "Too often people try to be creative and they come off as cute or clever, instead of brilliant and on the mark."

Career counselor Beverly Daniel remembers meeting a financial planner whose business card was made to look like a miniature dollar bill.

"I still remember that, but not in a good way," says Ms. Daniel, who runs the CareerGrowth Group in New York. "After seeing that, I didn't want to know more. The bill had said enough."

Well-designed cards can also jump-start professionals who have had their careers stall out on them.

"Cards are critical for people who are between jobs," says Daniel. "If you don't have one for networking, it tells people that you're not serious about finding that new job."

Such a card should read as a mini-résumé, she says. Briefly explain your past or desired job position – such as "operations manager with experience in a Fortune 500 company." But don't include your former employer. Some might think you still work there.

"It's understood in many corporate circles that handing out a business card without a company name means they are looking for work," she says. "So, the moment that they lose their jobs, they should be over at Staples printing out new cards."

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