The Business Card: Then, Now and Forever

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Nowadays, the business card is a ubiquitous staple of business etiquette. This means that in most countries, people collect and trade them with little formality; they serve as nothing more than an internationally recognised way of exchanging contact information.

However, the long and complex evolution of the business card would in fact suggest that these small 85x55mm bits of paper have an impressive and integral role in today’s business culture. The story behind their emergence transports us back into the 17th century. We travel back to France, and the reign of King Louis XIV…

Initially known as visiting cards, the first incarnation of the business cards had dimensions of playing cards. In fact, in their earliest forms, they were indeed playing cards! On them, messages, notes and the distinguished owner’s signature were jotted down; footmen would then deliver them to the home of a host to announce the guest’s impending arrival. By the beginning of Louis XIV’s reign, visiting cards represented an inherent part of upper class etiquette; they even had their own sophisticated system of rules.

290 miles away in London, trade cards made their appearance. Unlike the elite nature of visiting cards, trade cards were popular among the working classes. Their primary use was advertising and promoting local trade. But they aso had the added bonus of doubling up as a map directing the public to particular merchants’ stores. Immediately, their popularity soared and they became a necessary staple for any aspirational tradesman.

19th century calling cards

By the 19th century, newly named calling cards had developed a presence in England. They quickly became essential to the lives of every upper or middle class lady or gent. An integral way of introducing their owners, these cards featured impressive and ornate decoration; the more elegant and ornamental the cards, the more noticeable they were. The recipient stored their cards in a specially designed card tray placed in the hallway of their home; this served as a catalogue of those who had visited. A card with a folded corner meant the owner had personally delivered it; a card folded in half, meanwhile, indicated the call was meant for several, or all, members of a family. These cards were tangible evidence of meeting one’s social obligations.

However, a transition to new manufacturing processes during the Industrial Revolution triggered a shift in the use of business cards. This pivotal moment in history led to a rise of the middle classes and a lessening of social formality. Many newly established business relationships formed around this time; as a result, a group of private entrepreneurs found themselves in need of constant contact with one another. Collectively they developed the modern understanding of the business card – merging together the idea of the visiting card and trade card – which they handed out at presentations and exhibitions. The card featured plain, heavy paper adorned with clear, utilitarian lettering.

The present day

175 years later and business cards continue to be the most powerful ‘first impressions’ tool in business. They wordlessly reveal everything about a company and a person in the short time it takes to hand one over.

While today in the UK, business cards continue to be one of the most effective means of advertising and communication, in a country like Japan, the presentation of a card (or meishi, as they call them) is far more formal and ritualistic than in the Western world. The layout of their cards is extremely specific, as is the way they hand them out. And before you think about folding a meishi or putting it in your back pocket – think again! – this is considered a massive insult!

But just because there is no ritualised way of handing out and receiving a business card in the UK, this doesn’t mean they are not an integral aspect of our business culture. That’s why your card needs to be as striking and unique as possible.

As Steve Edge would argue, it’s all about the subconscious. If someone working at a multi-million pound corporation whips out an unattractive and frankly unimpressive business card, subconsciously your perception of that person and that company will inevitably alter. This then evolves into doubt – doubt in what exactly their business vision is.

Creating first impressions

The moral? Don’t let anyone doubt you or your company. First impressions are unshakeable. That’s why it’s so important to ensure the first impression you make is powerful by wowing someone with a beautifully crafted and engaging business card. Your aim is to make sure your card is not binned; when this happens, symbolically (or subconsciously!), the receiver of your card is also discarding the opportunity for any potential future business with you or your company.

It’s incredible that, in this increasingly technological world, the physicality of a business card has yet to be trumped by an interactive alternative. There’s something about leaving a small, card-shaped reminder of yourself behind, in the hands (or pocket) of someone else that is irreplaceable.

With that said, always ensure that your first port of call is your amazingly designed, truly unforgettable business card.

And whatever you do, never be without one, because business cards will never die.

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