[Nancy Wu] As this is my last Felt & Wire article, I want to leave on a positive note by sharing 12 lessons I’ve learned via some of my favorite business card designs. I’ve picked up much along the way in both school and work, and I continue to learn more every day. I also tell my students that personal education should never end just because the formal education did. The usual resources of books, magazines, courses and the internet add much to our knowledge base. However, there are those discoveries we come across through those we meet—mentors, students, bosses, colleagues, clients—or even triggered by simple, daily life observations. You may not apply each lesson every day, but making these goals part of your life’s modus operandi never hurt where personal growth is concerned. Let’s begin….
Lesson #1 / Take Risks: Margo Chase
In my graduating year of design school, I became a huge fan of Margo Chase after seeing her speak at an Art Directors and Artists Club (ADAC) conference in Sacramento, Calif. I was thrilled to see her intricate work process—involving a dead bird’s wings, as I recall—and was able to get her oversized logo collection poster plus these amazing cards. She shared her “making of” story with the audience, demonstrating how running a sheet multiple times through a press would bring about rich layers of solid and translucent color on top of each other. She ran textural make-ready patterns on one side of the sheet and a single pass for the three-color design on the information side of the card. After time, the paper became brittle from the additional pressure of the rollers (if you look closely, you’ll see cracking on the edge where the card folds). There were other designers after her who did this same trick, but I believe she was the first to take this risk, with stunning results.Lesson #2 / Be different, be surprising: Letterbox & Paprika
When I was in college, my fellow students were competitive…in a good way. We always tried to do things differently from one another to stand out. Thermography, square and even parallelogram shapes were used for our own personal cards…but in the real world, do design firms do this? In their own way, I believe so. Letterbox was the first firm I knew with a square folded card that was primarily letterpressed. It was delicate, tactile and refined, like their design work. It also demonstrated that being different didn’t have to be badly done or just attempted for the sake of it. In this case, it conceptually made sense.
Flash-forward to 2010 when a Montreal firm named Paprika swept the Canadian Graphex design awards—and rightly so—for their typographically bold, expressive and courageous design pieces. They have fantastic clients who understand what they do and have a great relationship with them. And principals Louis & Joanne Lefebvre are the nicest people you could ever meet—so humble, gracious and playful in their design work. Their vast library of work online is both impressive and jealousy-inducing. The card Joanne sent me was unassuming, but upon opening it, I couldn’t help but laugh and be surprised at how true it was to the spirit of Paprika’s art direction. When this card was first produced, their website echoed the same typographic repetition throughout the entire web browser screen. Knowing how they are though, they’re already well onto something new, bold and deliciously beautiful.Lesson #3 / Start a conversation: Spike
The Spike brand of doggie products was launched in 2004. Designed and written by Matthew Clark (formerly of Karacters Design), the cards are extremely playful in appearance and tone, as demonstrated by these variations. The front and backs deliberately don’t color match, and each card carries witty copywriting that clearly expresses the personality of this brand, carried throughout the brand touch points. The products are definitely targeted for dog lovers, yet the voice of the brand is not expressed in the usual parent-child-nurturing manner. Each card has something different to say that is funny; each encourages a dialogue between the recipient and the brand.Lesson #4 / Be memorable: Design Akers & Solo
During my Sacramento trip at the ADAC conference, I connected with other designers in attendance. I was young, green and totally enthusiastic about becoming a “real” designer. I exchanged cards with Kevin Akers and loved his simple card brimming with loads of personality. I quite enjoyed the whimsical illustration style and easy way to remember his name in the design details.
On the other side of the spectrum is the brand identity design for Solo Mobile, in which the launch messaging demonstrated connectivity through a variety of graphic means. Created by Rethink Communications, the distinctive connecting lines weave in and out, creating visual depth and seemingly endless possibilities for one’s telecommunication journey.
Lesson #5 / Show off what you do best: H&FJ Typography & Nike
Another conference with more opportunities to meet designers presented itself via the AIGA in Vancouver in 2003. I was thrilled to meet Jonathan Hoefler & Tobias Frere-Jones of H&FJ Typography and was not disappointed when I got their cards. The attractive two-color design shows how well their fonts complement and contrast with one another, without any unnecessary embellishment or print finishes. Eight distinctive fonts they have designed are featured, including Archer (originally designed for Martha Stewart Living), several variations from the Numbers series and their most successful typeface, Gotham.My brother and I were Nike junkies and made a Portland pilgrimage to worship at the NikeTown store and head offices in Beaverton, Ore. The headquarters—part corporate workplace, past sports museum—was a cool place to explore (areas such as the creative and design departments had security staff stationed to keep current developments off limits to non-staff). We came across their tiny 3.5 x 1.75-in. business cards, sporting—pun intended—the same simple design on the back (red Nike swoosh + the ubiquitous tagline) and tiny halftone images on the front (contact info) side. Sports personalities, basketballs, footballs and even a statue of the goddess, each at microscopic size, were included. After walking around for hours and taking cards from every desk, we must have had a 50 or so between us, later trading them in our hotel room as though they were hockey cards. I still have 20 left, all of them somewhat precious because of how limited their accessibility was. My favorite is still the single running shoe, followed by the mini McEnroe.Lesson #6 / Show depth & texture: Pascal Milelli & Segura
I’ve been a fan of Vancouver-based painter Pascal Milelli for work like his notice for the Vancouver Opera, food packaging, children’s books and rare self-published picture books. The business card for his previous downtown studio was heavily textured, and normally I don’t like that combination with the fine Bodoni typeface. However, as a painter who often works on canvas or textured board, this is both appropriate and artful in conjunction with his painted self-portrait.Carlos Segura is a Chicago-based designer with a great love for ornamental letterforms and mixing design with photography—producing painterly, sometimes abstract results. This beautifully textured card was designed during the period when he launched his own type foundry, T-26, in 2004. For type trivia nerds: Gaming fans—or those who love Tazo Tea, prior to the recent rebrand—will recognize the distinctive Diablo font used for the address information. The original font is named Exocet, designed by Jonathan Barnbrook for Emigre. The deliberate use of a randomly textured paper works so well on many levels, adding depth to the photo and mimicking the rough surface of a walled background. On the plain side, the dark “show-through” of the photography appears through thick opaque fibers within the paper itself. This is a prime example of where a plain white sheet wouldn’t do justice to a design concept that deserved more richness.Lesson #7 / Be true to yourself: Deremer Architects & M.D. McKinnell
Each of these cards share their own stories using visual texture or illustration grounded with a good dose of simplicity and good taste. Deremer Architects uses clean, modern typography letterpressed in matte silver ink. The non-uniform size is presented modestly in both a thick, plain, white felt stock—or in this blatantly recycled one with generous chunks of color mixed in with the gray. Deremer’s story is about knowing how to work with raw, tactile materials beautifully.Mike McKinnell’s illustration cards are much more direct, showing the recipient what he looks like (with his fabulous beard), his deft hand-lettering, and his snappy dress sense. Over the years, he may have let his hair and rose lapel relax somewhat, but he’s still the man. Skilled with brush and ink, or quick with a pen and nib, McKinnell is consistently a talented and sought-after illustrator for any creative project.
Lesson #8 / Go big or go home (uncorporate-ize yourself): Fox River Paper & Joanie Bernstein
Fox River Paper in Wisconsin is now owned by Neenah Paper. But during their independence, Fox River’s unique card design contrasted with the predictable corporate white cards of many competitors. Designed by Duffy Design Group (lead designer was Sharon Werner, now of Werner Design Werks), everything about it was different: size, soft cream paper, thickness, big bold, typographic treatment. Where typical cards were arranged with the usual information, in the usual placements, with engraving or embossing used for visual interest, I appreciated that this card didn’t fall into the expected—appropriate, in that is was by and for a creative audience.Joanie Bernstein’s artists rep card appears to be cheaply printed digitally, but still packs a punch. Designed by Werner Design Werks, this card goes nuts with typography in a good way, not relying on any particular design trends. The explosive, unorthodox type arrangement fills the entire space and yet it is remarkably readable, even with the multiple fonts.Lesson #9 / Demonstrate your handiwork: DHA & Chris Hold
Argue all you want about digital design taking over the world, but that’s not all there is. True, it is convenient, prevalent, current, affordable (in certain instances) and accessible to anyone with a computer, tablet or mobile device. However, DIY, the craft of design and the human quality in making tangible things is very much alive and well. Both of these cards use graphic imagery of the human hand to remind people of where art, illustration, lettering and design come from. I always liked how simple and striking this was for a card design, using a moody black & white photograph to offer a paper “handshake” from the giver to the receiver. Sadly, I can’t trace who DHA is or what they do.My friend Chris Hold uses an older illustration and typography style to convey the far-from-lost art of tattooing. I first met Chris in a design studio, and reconnected with him years later through social media and a chance visit from a family member who was getting a tattoo at Sacred Heart, where Chris currently creates amazing body art. His laminated card shows off his precision with handlettering on both front and back sides, using a style and color palette from a era when quality craftsmanship, and not bargain basement pricing, was king.Lesson #10 / Be beautiful: Butterfield & Beaucoup
Many designers find it hard not to create beautiful things, as both of these examples demonstrate. New York’s Mucca Design created the brand identity for the upscale Butterfield Market. I was on holiday in Manhattan and happened to walk by, immediately having good reason to get print samples and take photos of the identity on the storefront windows and delivery van. Every brand touch point is as visually attractive as the card, using a two-color design system with typographic elegance, balance and perfection. Some design instructors would argue that students shouldn’t go nuts with typography, limiting themselves to two or three fonts at a time. I’ve counted six here and would not change a thing to this identity that says variety, quality and freshness.Beaucoup Bakery & Café is not just another Vancouver bakery (and believe me, we have many great independent ones). Owner and baker Jackie Ellis closed up her graphic design business and headed to Paris to study pastry making, and the rest is…well, let’s just say that since its opening in December 2012, it is the hottest addiction in the city, with authentic pastries done right. Jackie is a passionate lover of food who hasn’t entirely abandoned her love for beautiful design, either. Her oversized card is bold and beautiful with a powerful hit of red and embossed logotype. The same visual language is present in her shop’s exquisitely designed interior, signage and box labels, as well as interactive areas where patrons are invited to share with one another on the ever-changing Question of the Week chalkboard.
Lesson #11 / Change is good: Dare Vancouver & SRG Design
Lastly, here is a good lesson for us all. While it seems easier to just give up and settle, sometimes that’s not the best solution. Change is good, both for personal growth and for designers who get easily bored (all designers get bored easily, BTW). Dare Vancouver created the ultimate business card for the modern age, commenting conceptually on the merging of a traditional agency with a digital shop. An online tool allowed employees to upload their own photos, enter their contact info, and automatically get back an ASCII image of themselves made up only of characters from their own contact information. Lightly letterpressed on Fox River 17.5-pt printable blotter paper, these cards have a tactile quality like no other. The portraits are so unique that I don’t think 33 cards are enough.
Steven R Gilmore, a.k.a. SRG Design had a cult following in Vancouver creating album covers for alternative artists (Skinny Puppy, Moev and MC 99 Ft Jesus) on the Nettwerk label in the ’80s. Since his move to Los Angeles, Steve has continued to create amazing imagery, typography and design for art galleries, music labels and movie studios (for films like The Dark Knight and The Lord of the Rings trilogy). When he still lived in Vancouver, I had the pleasure of visiting Steve at his home studio to see inspiration for some of his work (e.g., the bottom of an old, scuffed-up saucepan that was scanned and used as a background texture) and get some sample goodies of promotional postcards and business cards. He had plenty of different styles from jobs where there was extra room on the print run. “Why waste good paper?” he’d say, and fill up every bit of the sheet with various card designs he was playing around with. He has always liked to work on personal projects to stay creative, fresh and fulfilled. And that’s what change is all about, right?
I hope these lessons are already things you do or can adapt when you get creatively stuck. Part of my reason for collecting cards is to show there are many approaches to designing contact information. What is appropriate for some may not be for others, and design possibilities in print are endless. Remember…print is not dead. It’s just different. And different is also good. Lesson #12.
Deepest thanks go to the amazing and supportive team at Felt & Wire: Alyson Kuhn (your passion for beautiful design and print will never end—thank you for sharing it with me over the years), Marylou Domian (for always keeping on top of everything), Tom Biederbeck (your wordsmithing skills always help me make more sense) and my always-positive, ever-encouraging dear friend Pam Williams. You are the Meryl Streep of editorial management…I don’t know exactly what that means, but if you’re compared to Meryl Streep, you must be darn good.
Nancy Wu is an award-winning designer, art director and illustrator with experience in the development of logomark and brand identity systems, packaging design, custom typography and print/online communications. She has over 20 years of design experience with established firms, and her talents have been recognized by Communication Arts, Applied Arts, Lotus Awards, HOW and Identity, and in more than 30 other international design publications.