Business Card Collection 5.0: Cardboard, not just for boxes

[Nancy Wu] Cardboard is probably the last thing one would think of to print business cards on. It’s brown, it’s bumpy, it can have an inconsistent finish, it’s really cheap, it’s dead simple to find, and … wait. Perhaps those are precisely the reasons why designers choose something other than a no-name white stock. These days, cardboard — or its thinner version, kraft paper — is often used for shopping bags, shoe boxes, book covers, furniture and packaging design (this includes self-shippers, wrappers or various structures to hold food, discs, computer software, and gift products). Did I also mention it’s recycled and recyclable? It’s great for the environment, but most of all, it can look great when in the trusted hands of a meticulous designer and an experienced printer.

The Regional Assembly of Text is one really cool stationery and gift shop where DIY is the modus operandi. Everything they create or sell (notepads, journals, boxes, sketchbooks, cards, buttons) has to do with a great passion for paper, print and handcrafted design. They also have a cozy little reading room where one can enjoy browsing through a collection of zines and self-published books. One thing that makes this place so comfy is the warm unpretentious presentation and the used, weathered furniture throughout the store — hardly slick, and hardly IKEA. So it was no surprise that their business cards were a reflection of that same personality. Printed on cardboard from a small quick-print shop round the corner, the cards are simply designed using two inks — a dark brown and a translucent white. Considering that white litho inks are hardly opaque with a single pass, the end result is quite appropriate for a shop that deals with the tactile side of design.

One of my first experiences seeing cardboard used for print was from almost 20 years ago when I first met P.K. Chan and his now-defunct shop, Tangram Designs. Interestingly enough, his first cards were printed in black on a slightly white textured card. It didn’t compare, however, with the richness of the kraft paper and his subsequent promotional postcards. Why did he choose cardboard? It looked unique at the time (he was from the U.K. and had a fresh sense of type & design that I admired) and was really affordable (he said the cost of printing itself was more than the paper!). His local printer of choice was also able to secure a quality of cardboard that had just the right amount of texture and stiffness. One thing I’ve discovered in my years of collecting cards: Not all cardboards are equal.

Above is an example of a card design going very low tech, in every step of the process. Tracy Harvey is a Vancouver designer who made her own cards and printed them as needed. She cut down a piece of cardboard much smaller than standard business card size and used a rubber stamp to print her contact information. A clever idea to use a smaller stamp, as a large hand stamp doesn’t always apply ink as evenly. Relying on a very wet ink and an absorbent stock like cardboard, the chunky raw, type design has a grunge quality that works well, all things considered.

Steven R. Gilmore was an independent designer of album jackets for Nettwerk Records; he has since relocated to Los Angeles, continuing to design for the music industry. I was impressed with his way of combining illustrative custom typography, script styles and meticulous letterspacing. He is passionate and obsessive about every detail (traits that all my design heroes possess, by the way), and pushes the boundaries of design when the opportunity allows. And he is self-taught. These business cards were created for the now well-known clothing boutique Aritizia. Before settling on the current logo design (which Gilmore also designed), Steven was experimenting with a variety of type treatments and I began collecting his cards whenever I passed by their downtown store. These examples demonstrate two- and three-color printing on different kinds of cardboard. Note the subtle use of white ink on the vertical card, which actually adds a nice quality to the end result, as well as the random dark and white flecks in the slightly heavier, stiffer horizontal card.

For those of you who live in the San Francisco-area and love your cats ’n’ dogs, you probably know about this shop. If not, George is one of the first hip and chic boutique pet stores in the U.S. Toys, collars, bowls, treats and even clothing — nothing in George is too good for our furry friends. The logomark (designed by Tom Bonauro) is used in a simple card design on very stiff, smooth cardboard. The stock is so smooth that the shiny black ink barely bleeds into the paper (an added varnish, perhaps?) … just as well, as a translucent yellow, applied inside the stick illustration, appears to be either printed or hand-drawn. A cost-saving measure or chosen for a subtle effect? Either way, it works.

Picked up during my college days as I attended various design conferences in California, the card above shows its age in design but not in printing technique. Linda Warren (who is currently operating as Warren Group | Studio Deluxe) kindly gave me two of her multicolored business cards for my emerging card collection. While one card was printed on a textured crème sheet, the cardboard one was much more interesting visually. I love how subtly the background shapes appear in the background of the front side. Yet I am more drawn to how the translucent yellow ink reacts on the back of the card, changing the color of the plum type to a warm brown shade.

Above is another great card, from Chicago photographer Michael Scarpelli. The selected stock is a smoothly textured, yet soft sheet. The logomark and contact information is letterpressed well, demonstrating how forgiving cardboard can be under these circumstances. Admittedly, there is no grand story behind this card, as I don’t exactly recall how I acquired it. Nevertheless, Michael’s card design is clean, considered and quite legible, with generously letterspaced typography (taking the indentation of type into consideration). There is a delicate attention to printing, especially demonstrated in the very thin lines of the logomark and small type sizes.

So what if you can’t bear to actually specify cardboard as your printing paper of choice? Have no fear, for there are papers from various fine paper mills that look like a warm kraft, but with a premium-quality surface. The card for Quoi de Neuf? (French for “what’s new?”) Communications relies on paper quality without sacrificing a particular graphic style. This card from a paper mill sampler demonstrates the use of black and white inks, while taking advantage of the random flecks of color in the background surface.

I picked up the card above on my travels in Seattle and liked how appropriate it was for such a friendly wine establishment. Whereas some specialty wine stores have an air of authority and prestige (not unlike visiting a high-end jewelry store), Best Cellars is more down to earth. It’s a place for people who love wine but don’t want to pay top dollar on a regular basis … or they simply want to try before they buy. The card design plays up the red wine-stain logomark with a fiber-like paper that evokes the sense of earthy colors typically found in the boxes, crates or wood of a wine cellar. How clever!

Walrus is another great independent store (yes, my city is full of cool stuff!) that specializes in beautifully designed wares for home, gifts or for design geeks like us who dig jewelry, cool pens, headphones that aren’t black, and designer kids books. Owners Caroline and Daniel are super nice and have a keen eye for what is unique, well designed, interesting and affordable. The tagline for the store is “a pleasant surprise,” and their business card design is no exception. Created by Toolbox Design, the front of the card is simple and understated, reflecting the all-white walls and shelves in the store. The back side is where the surprise comes in, with a sheet of smooth cardboard laminated to the other side, giving the card a slightly heavy yet utterly tasteful overall impression.

The final card in this feature is from Scott Boms at Butter Label in Toronto. I had the pleasure of meeting him at last year’s TypeCon conference in Los Angeles and was impressed with his approach to using cardboard. Where other cards in my collection have that typical ubiquitous shade of brown, this card was somewhat warmer, darker and stiff. There are also the tiny stray flecks of white on both sides of the card. It only made sense that if lithography or letterpress wasn’t an option to capture a good white ink on this tone of paper, then why not screenprint it? You can see how good the quality is in holding the fine detail of the thin sans serif type in the contact information, as well as the curved edges of the custom script type. Impressive and distinctive all at once.

Who knew there were so many variations of cardboard?! Now you know, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to give it a go in a future print project. In a future post, I’ll be sharing work from creative firms who like variation in card designs or want to let staff express their personalities beyond the company name. This one could potentially be a whopper of a feature, so bear with me if it takes a while to compile; trust me, it’ll be worth it! If anyone would like to send me creative cards for possible inclusion (sorry, they won’t be returned, and yes they must be real printed samples), please contact me.

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 communications. She has over 19 years of design experience with established firms, and her talents have been recognized by Communication Arts, Applied Arts, Lotus Awards, HOW and Identity.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by Nancy Wu on 05.30.11 at 1:17 pm

    Mystery solved on Michael Scarpelli’s business card. Through the magical world of Facebook, it was printed in 1999 by Rohner Letterpress in Chicago, Illnois. I suspect I obtained the printed sample from Rohner directly when researching printers on a previous design project. The card was designed by Jennifer Harrell @ Wyville USA. Thanks Rohner!

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