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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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