A man pats his slicked back hair as he slides his business card across the table to his colleagues. It’s off-white and the words “Patrick Bateman, Vice President” are embossed on it in a finely etched black font. “Picked ‘em up from the printers yesterday. That’s bone. And the lettering is something called Silian Grail,” Bateman smirks. The assembled suits make noises of approval and envy burns behind their eyes.
Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho brilliantly captures the yuppie culture of Manhattan in the 1980s, days when the perception of wealth was just as important as wealth itself. A business card wasn’t just a way of giving someone your phone number – it indicated your status and your earnings, and whether that translated into good taste.
But how has this relic of the pre-digital age survived? In a world where search engines and social networks mean you’re only a few clicks away from finding out who someone is and how to contact them, carrying around rectangles of card seems like a quaint anachronism. And maybe that’s the point: anyone can set up a LinkedIn account; handing over a card that only a select few own, perhaps emblazoned with the logo of one of the world’s most prestigious companies, is priceless.
While enterprising firms have tried to use technology to improve the format – business cards on mini- CDs in the 90s, vCards that digitally import details to your contact management software in the 2000s – these digital upgrades never took off because they don’t address the underlying appeal of the medium: exclusivity.
One company that thrives on this notion is Black Astrum. If you’re moving in the right circles, you might even come across one of its Signature cards. Being handed one of these at the end of a meeting is the equivalent of being handed £1,000 (give or take, depending on the number of diamonds the person has chosen to embed into it). Black Astrum says it scoured the globe before it found its chosen material, Hesaglas, a thick, acrylic scratch and chemical resistant sheet only made in Switzerland, which is engineered so it’s easier to pick up off of a flat surface than card, nylon or metal.
The cards are designed to be the ultimate status symbol for world-leading businessmen, entrepreneurs and aristocrats, and most of its sales come – unsurprisingly – from China and the Middle East. The cards can only be bought by invitation by creator Sufian Khawaja, who came up with the concept following a one-off commission by a Middle Eastern family to create the world’s most expensive business card. To this day, he keeps to a strict criteria when choosing his potential customers to keep the cards exclusive.
“An exceptional business card is one that reflects the individual and represents far more than just your contact details,” says Khawaja. “It leaves the recipient with a lasting impression of the person and gives an insight into how they conduct themselves. If an individual is willing to spend the time to design and create a unique business card, it is likely they apply the same ethos and attention to detail in other aspects of their life.”
While a Black Astrum card may seem like a distant relation to its everyday paper counterpart, they both share a centuries old history rooted in the complications of social status. “Bearers cards” first appeared in England and France during the late sixteenth century, taking the form of playing cards that were written on and signed to communicate an obligation or to convey a debt, rather like an IOU.
These soon gave way to the calling card which came into fashion in China and France before spreading across Asia and Europe. Unlike the bearer card, these were used to convey a social message. They were popularized in the court of Louis XIV where servants would deliver cards to households to alert them to the impending arrival of an important aristocrat or member of the royal family.
After social gatherings in the homes of the English upper classes, guests would leave their calling cards in specially designated trays. They would be folded in certain ways to express sympathy, congratulations or a Happy New Year. If the card were folded at the corner, it was a signal to the occupier of the household that they expected a house call in return, but if it were folded in the middle, it was a general greeting to the entire household.
In the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers were just getting started and publishers were yet to realise the money that could be made through advertising. Traders would modify their calling cards to promote themselves – these “trade cards” often included the merchant’s name, a list of products, and a description of where their premises were in the absence of street numbering, which didn’t appear in London until the 1870s.
As soon as tradesmen began printing their advertisements on cards, the aristocracy were keen to differentiate themselves. They did this by seeking ever more elaborate designs; popular illustrations included coats of arms and motifs such as hearts, doves, scrolls and forget-me-nots. By this time a specific etiquette had emerged around them and households competed with one another by commissioning craftsman to make increasingly ornate card trays, in which they would display the esteemed visitors that had deigned to visit their home.
Status remains an integral part of card culture today. In modern Japan, a business card is called a meishi and stringent rules must be adhered to during the exchange. The card should be held face up by the top two corners using two hands because blocking contact details with your fingers is considered rude and sloppy. The person of lower status should slot their card underneath the meishi being extended by the person of higher standing, or the person you are trying to impress will be greatly offended. Offence can also be caused if you don’t visibly read the card, bow and thank them, or if the card is worse for wear, warm, written on, creased in any way, or placed in a pocket. The way you treat a contact’s meishi is symbolic of the way you intend to treat them in business, so the utmost respect and professionalism is expected.
Outside of Asia, the game is less about how your card is exchanged and far more about the design you’ve chosen. Originally, trade cards were printed on small printing presses that were far cheaper to run than the large ones used by newspapers. This meant a small businessman could afford colour lithography and hand illustrated cards, which would be distributed to delighted pedestrians who weren’t used to seeing colour print. People avidly collected cards, pasting them into scrapbooks and swapping them with others. The International Business Card Collectors (IBCC) group keeps this tradition alive, although now they tend to swap the cards of the rich and famous. Novelty cards are also popular in these circles, such as the one offered by a divorce lawyer that splits in half, or the survival camp trainer’s card whose contact information is printed on dried beef that you can eat on expeditions.
“In the past two years, designs have become far more ambitious and people have become more judgmental of companies that sell cheap cards,” says Rob Randtoul, managing director of British company Plasma Design. His firm makes cards for CEOs and executives of corporations including Maserati, Bentley, Lloyds Bank and Microsoft.
“If you’re at a conference where everyone is giving out cards, you want to stand out, whether that’s because the card is made using an interesting material or because it’s well-designed. If you’re Bentley, you don’t mind giving out cards that cost a pound each, because you’re selling cars worth £200,000. And if it results in a single new client or sale, then it’s worth it.”
The most expensive card Plasma has ever made was for Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who wanted a metal card that had a blue logo etched into the surface. Usually, coloured ink isn’t available on Plasma’s metal cards, but as a self-confessed “Apple fanboy”, Randtoul went the extra mile and scraped the colour into all 1,000 cards by hand. Wozniak later re-ordered a thousand more of the expensive coloured ones – at £13 per card – and a few thousand uncoloured ones; if you’re handed a blue-etched card from Wozniak, you know he means business.
Of course, the design of the card, the material and the graphics are simply the icing on the cake; if all the right information isn’t on there, you’ll look like an amateur. The contact details people include on their cards is subject to the winds of fashion and technology. Victorian trade cards were packed with detail, incorporating maps and products for sale. These were discarded in favour of good quality paper with a name centred in a smart font, a business title and an address.
Phone numbers were swiftly added, followed by fax and pager numbers in the 80s. As computers became a mandatory part of the workplace, the text on cards became even more sparse. Randtoul says only 10 per cent of his clients now include a postal address on their business cards – most simply display an email address and a website.
Even the strict meishi tradition in Japan is starting to show signs of digital influence. QR codes, a type of bar code that can be read by portable digital devices, have started appearing on meishis to provide contact details in machine-readable form.
But most companies agree that creating a good business card is easy if you follow a few simple guidelines. Use your company logo as the basis of the design; don’t cram too much information onto the card; choose a readable typeface that’s not highly stylised (fonts that mimic handwriting never work well); and stick to one or two colours. One last tip: don’t rush off to a printer demanding your name is written in Silian Grail – it’s a fictional font created exclusively for Patrick Bateman.