MonthJanuary 2016

Designing Business Cards

The second most common item designers are asked to create is business cards. And with tools like Adobe InDesign at their fingertips, oftentimes, success on smaller projects like a business card may encourage someone to pursue an education and career in graphic design. Although business cards are small, they have a big impact and can be the most used part of an identity system. Because business cards are so often reordered, clients may scrutinize their cost more closely than another item like letterhead. And, like most of graphic design, the printed cost is in the designer’s hands, not the printer’s. There are some things that can make business cards really expensive. Let’s go through and see what’s what.

Some things that make business cards expensive are relative to the size of the company and the number of business cards ordered at a time. Some identity systems depend on expensive flourishes to differentiate their branding. Some are distributed by the millions in mailboxes and need to be as economical as possible. It is up to the designer to explain ongoing costs to their client and also teach them the most economical way to order new cards and reorders in the future. If you are unsure, ask your printer for assistance, advice and if necessary, a meeting with your client. Your printer will be happy to help!

If you are designing business cards for a small company, give or take less than 10 employees, digital printing and gang run printing will be your friends in keeping costs down. The following items are moderate to expensive to add to a design:

  • Foil stamping
  • Embossing
  • Die Cutting
  • Very thick paper
  • Unusual paper
  • Large areas of solid ink

If you are working with a large company, designing a business card that can work with masters will keep costs down. Expensive add-ons such as foiling, embossing and die cutting become much more economical when amortized over a large number of masters (more on business card masters later in this post).


This elegant card uses blind embossing to dramatic effect with its minimalist design. 

Printing presses come in different sizes. As you can imagine, the bigger the press, the more it costs to operate. A large press takes more ink, larger plates, and more staff. For that reason, business cards are normally printed on smaller presses that can print on smaller sheets of paper. These smaller presses (with a few exceptions) cannot print a large solid without compromising the quality of the solid. Small presses (often called duplicators) also may not be able to print more than two colors in tight or precise registration. For this reason, business card designs that take these limitations into account can be printed more economically than designs that do not.

There are some exceptions to this (aren’t there always? LOL). When printing large runs of masters, the mastered elements can incorporate large solids and tight registration because chances are they are going to print on a much larger press sheet on a much larger press. Here are some examples of business cards that are difficult if not impossible to print on a small press:

B card

The tan solid on the reverse side of this business card would be enough to negate the use of a small press, but add-on the tight registration of the purple rectangle, and there are few small presses that can handle this project. Also note the round corners. This can be accomplished with die cutting or round cornering on a smaller machine that makes it economical to round-corner small lots.  


This impressive card uses bright solids and die cutting to make a lasting impression. 


The solid green on the reverse of the card is preprinted on masters. 

Printing business card masters involves designing the variable items (name, phone, etc.) to be printed in one color as an imprint. That leaves the static information (Company name, logo, slogan, etc.) to be printed on masters and held for the imprint at the printer. How many cards is enough to constitute a master run? Well, it’s not just the quantity but also the finishing processes that are added. But in general, estimate 50,000 cards as a bare minimum for a simple design that is mastered on only one side. Ask your client how many employees will get business cards and how many. That gives you a total amount for the initial run. Adding another 30% onto that is a really easy way to put some masters on the shelf. Then, when the reorders start coming in the masters will be available and your printer can track how long they last. The first time cards are ordered, when a company is rebranded, for instance, ask your client what their hiring practices will be for the next 6-12 months. Sometimes they will be adding 200 people and your printer needs to be prepared. Remember that business card reprints should always be ordered in a manner that will not waste a master. For example, if the masters are 4-up and you order 500 cards each for three people you are going to waste a slot. You can change the order to four people or you can double the quantity for one person by putting their name into two of the spots on the press sheet.

  • Business card masters are good for:
  • Better color control on a custom color or large solid
  • Process color on an uncoated paper
  • Speeding up turnaround time on imprints
  • Lower cost of imprints
  • More cost-effective to add an enhancement such as foil stamping, embossing, or die cutting.
  • Using a special paper (such as a duplex cover) when the minimum quantity needed is for zillions of cards.

Business cards should be convenient and useable. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, consider the recent popularity of super-thick business cards. Some of these double pasted papers are 4-6 times as thick as a regular business card. What that means to people who carry and hand out a lot of business cards is they have to refill their wallet, folio, card case, etc. four to six times as often! Is that convenient? No. That’s why people who hand out a ton of cards hate thick business cards. What else is inconvenient… have you ever tried to write a note on a UV coated card? IMPOSSIBLE. Even with a Sharpie marker! If you must use a super high gloss UV, keep it on the front so that notes can be made on the back. 



Here’s a super awesome card! It was printed on white paper with a double hit of black plus
a spot dull varnish over the black and clear foil on the orange. WOW.

Thanks to all the talented designers who designed these cards! Many of these have been saved over the years to the printing inspiration box. If you see your work here please let us know! Have you had a surprise business card experience? Maybe you changed something small and it resulted in a big cost increase? We would love to hear your stories, please share in the comments section.

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Logo Design for Print

If you are creative, are good with color, excel at drawing, love fonts, or exhibit other characteristics of a graphic designer (funky glasses anyone?), friends, relatives, and neighbors will very likely ask you to design a logo for their business. Ironically, the single most complex, vital, long-lasting business necessity is what many small businesses spend the least amount of time on—their logo. Nine times out of ten, the owner sketches the logo on the back of a paper napkin or asks his nephew to create it. Conversely, a professional designer who is well versed in publication work printed in run lengths of millions on gravure presses, may be asked to design a logo and not know anything about the sheetfed paper market or reproduction standards.

A company’s logo and identity system (the letterhead, business cards, etc., used to identify a brand) establish the company’s brand for as long as the company is using that identity. Unlike a brochure or invitation, which might never be reprinted, an identity system will dictate the cost of stationery again, and again, and again, year in and year out. You control the cost through your design, so it is important to know how much your client expects to spend each year on stationery. Is the company dependent on business cards that stand out and make a statement, or are they going to be stuffed into mailboxes by the millions? Designing an identity system that is not compatible with your client’s budget for years two through fifteen can send a message that you are not managing costs, and that could lead to the loss of work on future projects, such as marketing collateral or web development.

I have seen too many logos that were “designed” by the aforementioned category of untrained folk and made to work in Excel (yes, I know, SMH) and printed on a home inkjet printer on “letterhead” for a few months while the startup was getting underway, that later cost a FORTUNE when it was time to print the real deal. Oftentimes the logo owner is reluctant to change their “baby” which is already in  the marketplace. Or, an inexperienced business person may see an exorbitant cost as simply “the cost of looking professional”.

A logo, no matter where it appears, needs to look great under any of the following conditions:

  • It is reproduced in black and white.
  • It is embroidered.
  • It is silk-screened.
  • It is reproduced in one color without the use of screens.

Here are some examples of different iterations of a well-designed logo.
It is easy to reproduce, easy to implement in various color scenarios and consistent.
It is the logo for Mohawk Paper, a paper mill. When it comes to advertising budgets and
spare-no-printing-expense businesses, paper companies have the nth of budgets.

When you are designing a logo for your uncle’s donut shop, it may seem impossible that some of the above conditions would ever arise, but they undoubtedly will. Here are some scenarios:

  • The logo is reproduced in black and white in the church bulletin.
  • The logo is embroidered on golf shirts when the donut shop sponsors a tournament.
  • The logo is silk-screened on t-shirts for the employee uniforms.
  • The logo is reproduced in one color without the use of screens, a requirement for some types of printing (such as on pink bakery boxes).

Following are some tips and pointers when designing logos. They are divided up by the kind of element that can make a logo difficult or expensive, colors that complicate logos and design decisions that absolutely raise reproduction costs.

The following elements make logos difficult to reproduce and should be avoided:

  • Very small type, process color type
  • Hairline rules
  • Tight registration on tiny elements
  • Design elements that are tiny in relation to the whole.

This is a photograph of two rows of “environmental” certifications, each from a different publication. The top row uses color logos and the bottom uses black and white versions. The only logo common to both is the FSC logo. Note how the tiny elements are lost. Note how big type reads so much clearer than the tiny type in the biodiesel logo, what is that tagline? In all fairness, these color logos probably have black and white line art versions that would read just as well as the ones above. But, if they have those other versions it is because the designers went through an exercise like this, checking the readability. 

Color choices that do not work well for logos include the following:

  • Any Pantone* mixture that has more than one part of opaque white. We will go into more detail in another post about ink formulas and the downside of inks that contain high amounts of opaque white.
  • Reflex Blue and Pantone formulas that have large amounts of Reflex Blue take longer to dry (a couple of days) than other inks. Other inks take a few hours or will dry overnight, depending on whether or not the press has an IR (Infra Red) dryer (more on IR presses in another post). Therefore, using Reflex Blue on business cards or any rush job is going to be impossible for a client who is always in a hurry. Many ink companies have an imitation Reflex Blue that dries more quickly, but the color is simply not as rich as the real thing. There will be a post on reflex blue and other colors that require imitation pigments due to a host of problems.
  • A process color logo adds cost to a large company, but for a small or home-based business, it is a fine choice. Do specify CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) color for tiny businesses. Digital printing has made it more affordable than Pantone Matching System* (PMS) in some cases. For those instances where digital printing will not work, such as for letterhead and envelopes, more to come on that topic, gang run printing offers a cost-effective alternative.
  • Custom color is difficult to keep consistent. If your client can live with inconsistency, then this option is acceptable. With computerized ink mixing, inconsistency is becoming less of a problem. But if you have only one print shop in town, and employees are mixing ink by hand, discuss this before specifying a custom color for a logo.

Sometimes extra expense is justifiable due to the nature of the business. Ask your client, and make sure to explain these costs are not one-time but will continue whenever that logo is reproduced. The following elements look beautiful but add cost:

  • Multiple colors in tight registration.
  • Foil stamping.
  • Reverses out of large solids.
  • Embossing or debossing.

The small presses used to print most business cards often have limitations for reproduction quality. That is not to say they are incapable of high-end work, they certainly are. But the type of high-end work may be in question. And the unhappy truth is that going onto a larger press costs a lot more. If we address the bullets above, multiple colors in tight registration and reverses out of large solids, those items add expense because if the tolerances are too tight, a small printing press with a common blanket may not be able to print the design. Small presses with a separate blanket for each unit exist and for them, the most precise printing is not a problem. How are you as a designer supposed to know the difference? Trust your printer. And for something as common as a business card, that has such a giant impact, keep it simple and you and your client will be ahead of the game.

Stay tuned, next up, designing business cards!

Confused about digital printing?

For a limited time to can get the actual decision tree in my book, for free! The ultimate tool for figuring out if a project can be digitally printed or if it needs to go on press. PLUS you'll get a heads up when the Kickstarter campaign launches.

We respect your privacy.