Biz cards get creative: Smaller firms turning to bolder graphics to stand out

April 28, 2008

In the face of tough economic times, many small businesses are cutting back on advertising and canceling direct mailings as they tighten their financial belts. But some are still looking to stand out by jazzing up a basic: business cards.

That's good news for local graphic design firms that specialize in business-card customization-an industry that generates an estimated $1.2 billion each year nationally.

"Business has improved in this economic climate because creative cards are a cheap marketing tool," said Don Alt, owners of Fishers-based Pocket Billboards, a custom business-card design and printing business.

Fellow designer Tami Highbaugh Abdullah, owner of Indianapolis-based Aries Graphic Design, said her card business has seen an uptick, too. Given the economic instability in the corporate world, more people are starting their own businesses and ordering custom cards, she said.

"People are starting to see they need to do their own thing," she said. "They're getting out of the corporate America scene and making their own income."

Abdullah also is a tax accountant and lands many of her clients by first doing their books, then advising them on logos and business cards.

Landscape architect Darci Pellom is among her customers. Pellom runs Living Spaces LLP in Plainfield with her husband, whose expertise is in carpentry and interior remodeling.

When they started the business three years ago, they had a basic cream-colored card with a logo designed in Microsoft Publisher. They went to Abdullah because Pellom wanted something "different, with some depth and texture."

The new card's background looks like wood grain and includes quirky elements, such as a font that resembles a design ruler. Pellom said it's important that the card stands out because most of her marketing is done through in-person networking at Chamber of Commerce meetings or similar events.

"We rely on the business cards a lot," she said. "It's our business cards that are doing most of the talking for us."

An eye-catching look is important when you only have a moment to make an impression.

"People looking at a new business card devote about a half a second to it," Alt said. "If you have an interesting card, it gets people's attention."

Alt charges $45 to redesign a card while Abdullah charges $50 an hour. Printing prices for 1,000 full-color, one-sided cards range from $50 to $100.

Alt encourages clients to feature product images on their cards and sold Steve Orner on the idea. Orner and his brother, Tom, run Indianapolis-based Jay Orner & Sons Billiard Co., which sells pool tables, poker tables and game room accessories.

His custom card features a pool table on the front, a map to the store on the back along with a list of what the firm carries-using colorful pool balls to mark each bullet point.

Orner said his previous cards were "nice but plain" and he still sets them out at trade shows or expos where people pick up cards but may not be seriously considering a pool table.

Several national chains also are getting into the customdesign game.

In August, officesupply firm Staples rolled out a "Business Card in Minutes" program where customers can design, proof and print business cards immediately. The same month, competitor OfficeMax teamed with VistaPrint Ltd., a national graphic design services firm, to bring design kiosks to OfficeMax stores where customers can use VistaPrint's design software to produce business cards.

Anecdotal evidence points toward a growing industry, but statistics are hard to come by, said Gail Nickel-Kailing, an analyst with Seattle-based Business Strategies Etc. Business-card stats are generally lumped in with the overall printing industry, Nickel-Kailing said, and she's only seen only a few privately commissioned reports that said annual business card sales range from $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion. Though there are lots of opportunities for business owners to design cards themselves online, she said she thinks the niche graphics firms will survive. "I'm not going to put fillings in my own teeth. There are professionals to do that," she said.

Likewise, professional designers can ensure a card catches the spirit of a business.

"It's one of the most economical pieces of collateral you can create," she said. "Your business card is you. The more personalized the better."

Still, there is such a thing as being too creative, Nickel-Kailing cautioned. She went to a trade show where a firm handed out cards that folded out to minibrochures. She saw several people just tearing off and throwing out the brochure section to reduce the card to a normal size that would fit in a Rolodex.

Another potential boost for card production: Some professionals order funky cards to use in social situations-highlighting their non-work personas, personal blogs and Web sites or a side business.

Although that trend was featured in a recent New York Times report, local designers say they haven't seen much of it in Indianapolis yet.

Forward Moves LLC owner Trina Dawkins Patterson has more than one card design, but hers are strictly professional. Each of her cards highlights a different service her Indianapolis-based training firm offers.

The cards promoting Forward Moves' networking and business-etiquette seminars have a traditional design with a logo but no other visuals.

But she has a different batch of cards tied to her classes-mostly for girls-focused on self-esteem development and sexual abstinence under the logo "The Cookie Movement."

Those feature stacked cookies and the workshop's motto: "Save your cookies for the right glass of milk."

"I get a lot of positive feedback on the cards," Patterson said. "They're eye-catching and spark a lot of interest."
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