Your business card says a lot more about you than you think, as anyone who has watched the scene in American Psycho, where bankers compare their expensively made yet largely indistinguishable cards, will know.
While most saw this as the ultimate display of absurd masculine competition on 1980s Wall Street; for one company it was market research. Black Astrum produces diamond-encrusted business cards for a select number of exceedingly wealthy clients.
The company’s concept director, Sufian Khawaja, says: “Looking beyond the diamonds, when developing the Signature card, we spent more than six months searching for the perfect material. We tested the material’s scratch resistance, how much it weighed, how it looked and felt in the hand, even how it sounded when it was dropped.”
The cards cost between £300 and £1,500 each, depending on the number of diamonds included in the design. Clients include members of the royal family in the Middle East, as well as business people in Europe and China.
Khawaja says: “For many of our clients, wealth is no longer a distinguishing factor in the circles in which they move. In an ever-increasing digital world, people still like to leave a lasting impression and our cards allow our clients to do just that.”
While Black Astrum supplies a very niche market, business cards still play a role in corporate life, despite the digital revolution. Richard Ellis, chairman of the Original Cottage Company, says he regularly uses them with owners of holiday homes and his financial advisers alike. “It’s got your email address, mobile number, the company you work for. It’s an incredibly cost-effective, simple way of passing over details, without standing there and typing lots of information into your smartphone.”
Having this information on a physical object helps trigger the memory of a business acquaintance. Asi Sharabi, chief executive of the children’s book publisher Wonderbly, says: “You can always go back and dig in your box of business card memories, and find some lost gems; or some people that you didn’t really think would come in handy.”
Ellis agrees: “If you file it electronically, it’s invisible, you have to go and actively remember who it is and search it out. I don’t remember people’s names necessarily, or the company. I remember I met someone at that exhibition, I’ll have his business card, I’ll remember it when I see it. I wouldn’t remember enough information to go on to my smartphone and search.”
The physical nature of business cards also enables creative designs, such as the divorce lawyer’s card designed to be torn evenly in two; or a card for a personal trainer made from stretchy material that requires you to exercise in order to read the text.
Ironically, it was the digital revolution that sparked a more creative approach to business cards. In 2006, British company Moo came onto the scene with its graphic, multi-coloured versions, which could carry a different image on every single card thanks to the digital printing press.
Last year, Moo printed almost 200m business cards, helping generate revenues of £75m. It has customers in more than 190 countries and employs 500 people across six offices in the UK and US.
Toby Hextall, director of product design at Moo, is unsurprisingly bullish about the future of the physical business card, even in the digital age. “Business cards are still such an important part of business networking that I think they will only go out of fashion when people stop shaking hands.” The company recently launched a range of eco-friendly cards made from cotton T-shirts.
That is not to say that Moo has ignored the shift to digital. A new range of cards includes near-field communication technology that link directly to a web page or social media channel when tapped with a smartphone.
Others are adding augmented reality (AR) tags to cards, so 3D objects emerge from the card when viewed with an app. Staff at AR company Augment have linked 3D images of themselves to their business cards. Coralie Desmarchelier of Augment says that they can be “very handy when you go to a trade show, for example, because you often remember faces but you might not remember names, and obviously it’s fun as well”.
She adds: “We use it to showcase what Augment can do and to make it memorable because your business card stands out.” Some of Augment’s clients, meanwhile, link 3D images of products to their cards, or whole folders of images, so customers can go home and see how the products fit in their homes.
However, these are just enhancements of the humble business card. There are alternatives that abandon the small, cardboard medium altogether.
Back in 2009, digital business-card company Bump let smartphone users share data such as contact cards with one another by tapping their phones together. Five years later, Google bought it and the service was shut down soon after, as the people involved concentrated on Google products.
There have been a number of apps since then that billed themselves as a business-card killer. None has broken through to the mainstream. These days, business people looking for a digital option will invariably send an email on the spot to share their details.
In China, business people rarely swap cards but instead scan each other’s QR codes, which link directly to their WeChat profiles. WeChat is a ubiquitous social network in China that can be used for everything from booking hotels to transferring money. Sharabi says: “I guess when there is a technology that is so prevalent, that everyone is using, then it’s easy. Outside of that context, I haven’t seen anything that is somehow standardised.”
It is this lack of standardisation that has helped keep the physical business card alive and well. Sharabi says: “As far as I can tell, there is no technology or an app that can fully replace business cards. There’s lots of different things, but I think the fact that business cards survived a good 10 years of digital just tells you something about behaviour.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010