Tips for Using Type on Business Cards: Part 1

When designing anything typography is often the most difficult element to get a handle on. And the very small canvas of a business card imposes its own limitations. It can be a frustrating exercise, especially if “graphic designer” is not the title that goes under your name on that card.

So here are some basic guidelines on how to handle type in that 3.5-inch by 2.5-inch space.

1. Choose (and purchase) a font that isn’t a default PC or Mac font.

Business cards are an important part of your identity system (for those unfamiliar with the term an identity system includes business card, letterhead, envelope and sometimes other pieces such as invoices and notepads). More people are probably going to see your business card than will ever see your letterhead so you should make it as clear a communication as possible about who you are and what you stand for.

The problem with using a default font is the subliminal message it puts out that your business is generic and lacks originality. Your identity should differentiate you and help your business stand out from the pack. As nice as Times and Palatino may be they are so familiar that they will make you fade into the background of the typographic landscape.

Some sources for purchasing fonts:

FontFont, Hoefler & Frere-Jones, ITCfonts.com, House Industries, Characters Font Foundry, Veer.com, Darden Studio and T26 Digital Type Foundry.

2. Choose a font with a big family to give you the most versatility.

Fonts with big families are those that have a wide range of weights (from light to regular or book, medium, bold and sometimes extra bold or black), styles (italic, small caps, sometimes swash italics), and widths (condensed to extended). Some “super families” even have serif and san serif versions of the same face. The advantage of a big family is that you can use the different weights, styles and widths to create a really clear hierarchy of information. And even if you set the name in bold, the title in light italic and the contact information in small caps it won’t look like a hodge podge because each typestyle will maintain the family resemblance making it all hang together cohesively in a more interesting way than two different sizes of Verdana.

Some great examples of big families:

  • Serif: Garamond, Caslon, Minion, Meta, Freight
  • Sans serif: Gill Sans, Din, Helvetica Neue, Knockout, Gotham
  • Super families: Seria + Seria Sans, Scala + Scala Sans, Stone sans + serif  + informal + humanist, Rotis sans + serif + semi-serif, Absara + Absara sans, Celeste + Celeste Sans

3. Don’t be afraid to think small.
Conventional wisdom has it that when setting type you don’t want to use a font below 10 point for easy reading. The thing is a business card really is a different beast than a book page, and there are plenty of places, even in books, where type is set below 10 point. Captions on photographs and footnotes tend to be smaller than the body copy and are still quite readable.

In a business card you need to use size hierarchy to your advantage. The name on the business card should be the most important variable piece of information. Depending on the font you use you should probably set a name no larger than 10 to12 point. You’ll want to take into consideration the longest name that will need to fit on the card and size it to accommodate that many characters with comfortable spacing on either side. This means all other information should be smaller than 10 point. Start at 9 point maybe and see how well it contrasts. If that seems too small, you can keep the point size the same and vary the weight from bold down to light or use small caps, which at identical point sizes look smaller.

Once you have the hierarchy reading the way you want it to, print it out. It’s always harder to accurately judge what it will look like on screen. Compare it to other business cards you have lying around that you like and that you think are easy to read. Go back and tweak and reprint until you’re happy.

3 Responses to Tips for Using Type on Business Cards: Part 1

  1. Peter May 16, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    Excellent advice. Type design is most definitely one of the most underrated aspects of design in general.

    Here’s an additional tip that almost always give type design a little something extra that makes it look more professional. Play with the spacing between each letter of type. Select an entire line of copy and either compress or stretch it with the appropriate tool that your software most certainly has.

    For a few other ideas, I just posted an article of my own on business card design at http://printplant.com/design-tip-less-is-more.

  2. Rosie May 18, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Thanks Peter,
    Type is definitely a boogy-man for non-designers. Bad typography is the fastest way to tell an amateur design from a professional one.

    I definitely track out my type in certain circumstances. When using all-caps or small caps I always add air in the word. But you should never track out script faces and probably shouldn’t track out upper & lower-case blocks of text—if anything those usually benefit from being tightened up a little.

    Thanks for adding the link to your article. That had some good advice too.

    -R

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  1. Tips for Using Type on Business Cards: Part 2 - May 24, 2011

    [...] time we talked about type on business cards in Part 1, the ideas were pretty basic.  Choose a distinctive font; use the different type styles from one [...]

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