Business Card Readability

Remember the days when a business card was just black letters on white cardstock? It carried contact information that consisted of a person’s name, title, company name, address, and phone number. And that was it.

Over time, additional information was added, such as a logo and a fax number. As time went on and we entered the Technology Age, we added mobile phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and web site addresses. Cards are printed on both sides now. My own card lists my services on the back. Others list a company motto or tagline. Many cards also include the links to a LinkedIn profile or social media addresses such as Facebook or Twitter.

And the card itself is rarely a plain white card anymore. We went from white to colors. First we saw a band of ink in the corporate color along one edge. Then we went from a plain or solid background to including a headshot, and then to creating a full background from a photograph. Some have “foil” or embossed finishes. Some are even no longer in the rectangular shape but die cut into interesting shapes, or folded, both for impact and to create more surface area for information.

I’ve watched these changes take place over the last couple of decades. Most of the new designs are creative and eye-catching. But more than a few suffer from one glaring difficulty: they are difficult to read.

A truly talented designer takes readability into consideration. But so many designers ignore “best practices.” Their first priority is to make the card either pretty or attention-grabbing. In so doing they may make the following mistakes: they choose a font that has too many thin strokes that don’t show up well, particularly at small sizes. Or they are so concerned about cramming lots of text into that standard 3.5” x 2” space, that the size of the fonts are reduced to a size too small to read on the fly. Or they want a jazzy photo behind the text that is either too busy for the text on top of it to be read easily, or similarly, they choose a font color with insufficient contrast against the background image or photo. My own pet peeve is white lettering at 8 points or less against a busy photograph that isn’t dark enough for good contrast. Except for a tagline, I believe no text should be set at less than 10 points, even on a plain card.

When I taught design in another field, one of the models I used to teach my students was the concept of “Simplify and Exaggerate.” At high speed or great distance (both of which are characteristic of today’s society), it’s important to distill the most important aspects of a design to its simplest elements and then play up those elements so they get noticed and the message is transmitted clearly. Business cards should observe the same concept if they are to properly serve their purpose well.

I’m not saying some of the creativity I mentioned shouldn’t be used at all. But the point is not to over-design a business card. Let it speak for itself. Let it “breathe.” Most of all, make it readable.

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