Saturday, September 26, 2009

Business Cards and a Photo Lesson

    Todays' article is inspired by a question in one of the Etsy forums about the feasability of making one's own business cards.  There was mixed feedback in the forum, some people vehemently against the idea, claiming that self-made cards are "unprofessional," others saying it would be ok to design, but then send them off for printing.

    This article is aimed at making your own cards, from design start to finished product, right at home.  There are a couple of things to keep in mind when doing so, and right from the gate, I am going to tell you that you need to have (or be able to borrow) a laser printer. 

    A dot-matrix printer will not give you the professional quality card you are after.  The images do not come out quite as sharp, but the worst feature of the dot-matrix printer is that the inks will smear and blur in the presence of any moisture (including someone's sweaty hand).  That alone will make you look very unprofessional, indeed. 

    It is just not very confidence-inspiring to hand someone a card, and say, "Here's my card...don't let it get wet, or the ink will run."  WOW!  (I speak from sad experience, believe me, it is true.)  So, we bit the budget bullet and invested in a color laser printer.  The price has come down considerably from where it used to be, but they are still not cheap-cheap machines.  Ours is pretty much a bottom-of-the-line model, and it was in the $400. range.  That was about 2 years ago, however; the prices may have dropped further by now.

    Next, please consider it an investment in your business, and purchase actual business-card stock.  It is now available with "micro-perfs" and make a very clean edge, (not "fuzzed" like the older type used to be).  They look very professional.  I strongly recommend that you do not use plain card stock and try to cut them apart with scissors or a paper cutter into individual cards.  First, is is not easy to make them absolutely uniform, and size variance is very unprofessional.  Sure, if you are handing out one at a time, from your purse or pocket, no one will know--but if you have a table at a craft show, and a stack of cards out...the 'handmade/hand-cut' look will be painfully obvious.  My advice:  don't do it. In any event, it takes a lot of extra time that you could be spending working on your craft or otherwise promoting your business. 

    And now, on to the nuts-and-bolts of the how-to's.

   First and foremost, decide on what information you want and need to put in your card.  As obvious as this sounds, it is amazing how many people overlook important items such as their telephone number, e-mail, fax number, or any other such contact-important bits of data.  Proofread, proofread, proofread!  If you have any grammar or spelling errors, you are hurting your business image.  If spelling and grammar are not your strong suit, ask for help with this.

   Next, focus on your design:  Are you going to use a simple logo?  Clip art images?  A photo of one of your products?  (Clip art is easy, much free clip art is available online, and available from simplistic to elaborate.  That said, however,  public domain clip art is also the least professional in appearance.  I would stay away from that option.)  If you have a logo already designed, that would be the way to go.  If not, it is also a great idea to use a photo of one of your products.

   Be sure the product photo you wish to use was taken at high resolution, and is an absolutely clear and crisp image. This will be the first impression people will form of your goods.

    In my opinion, using a photo image as an entire background might tend to make the card difficult to read, because there are bound to be different colors within the image, and it is nearly impossible to select a font color that will have sufficient contrast with the background at any and all points of the image. (Think about how sometimes you're watching something on TV, and they put up a text graphic, and you can read some of it, but some of the text also blends with the background color making it very hard to read.)

   A better option would be to go with a fair-sized image off to one side or the other of the card, making sure that the photo in question was taken on a plain-colored background (white is probably best, in this case, unless your item is white....), showing nothing but the product. That way, it is easy to 'grab' the photo without having to worry about trying to edit out any distractions. 

    As far as card stock goes, the image will show up best on crisp bright white cards, and in that case, will not  look unprofessional for not being on glossy stock. (How many glossy photo-business cards do you actually see, "out there" anyway...some, but not all that many.) On white stock, your image, when taken on a white ground, will not have a sphere (or square) of any other color--the white background will blend in to the white card, and your product will really 'pop.'   I will explain how to create this 'floating image,' known as a 'zero-horizon background' at the end of this article.

   You could also use light gray, or maybe ivory. But Obviously, to make your image show to best advantage, you don't want any darker colors.  Keep in mind that if any part of your product is transparent or translucent, the background color of the card will show through this part of the photo image, thereby 'coloring' that part of your product.

   No matter how you proceed, it is important to be sure you are using some kind of actual business card template--whether downloaded to work with MS Word, or using an actual design program, such as Print Shop, (what I use), or any of many other graphic-design template-available programs.  When  you have finished your design to the point of wanting to see it on paper, print out a test print.  Many business card packages include a pre-printed template for this purpose.  Make several photocopies, (so you don't use up the only one), and print directly on this for an easy way to determine proper fit and layout appearance. 

    If your package does not have such a trial-template page, when you have your design roughed in, print it out on plain paper, selecting the option for the full sheet of actual business cards.  Then, take a sheet of the business card stock, and hold the paper printout in front of it, against a window or other bright light.  Check for proper alignment and fit within the cards, and make any necessary adjustments. 

   One thing you want to scrutinize very carefully is legibility.  It is easy to get fooled into thinking you can crowd all kinds of information onto your card while working on your computer--it looks great on the monitor--usually defaulted to "fit to window" view.   Surprise!  You print out your masterpiece, only to find you need a magnifying glass to read it.  I made this mistake once, by being in a hurry, and found that I could barely read the font size even with my glasses on!  UGH!!  Waste of stock, ink and time!    Lessons learned the hard way stick the hardest, however.    I'll never make that goof agin... I now always re-size the computer screen view to "actual size" so I know what I'm going to end up with.

   Single or double-sided cards?   Personally, I don't like double-sided cards.  Many people like to be able to use the back side to make a note to themselves about what the specific product they liked was, or at what craft fair the vendor was found, any verbal offers or information the vendor gave them.  If included with an online purchase, the same applies--the buyer is able to record the specific item they bought.  It is also amazing how many people will never turn a card over to see what, if anything, is on the back.  I even notice this  (scarily) when paying with a credit card--they don't turn it over to see that I've not signed it, and instead written, "ask for I.D.")

Your Photo Lesson of the Day

   This section presumes that you have at least basic photo-editing software available to you.  You want to minimize the time spent 'messing about' with edits, but you still must be able to cut/copy/paste and adjust size (downward), and possibly white balance, if you have not done so in your camera when doing the shoot.

    First, if you already have a great photo of the product you want to feature on your cards, you're in good shape.  But look at it closely:  is it sharp to the 'nth degree'?  Clear color definition?  Best angle?  Free of distracting shadows or irrelevant items?  Background same color as your card stock?  If so, great, you're ready to go.   If any of these items are lacking, though, you are better off to re-shoot the item with specifics for business card use in mind.

  To create a free-floating image that can be easily cut/pasted into your card design with no lines or borders showing around the image, you need to have a background that is virtually the exact same color as the card stock you want to use for your business cards.  White or ivory are best first choices, with light gray bringing up the rear.  It is easy to find white or ivory cloth; the right shade of gray is less easy to come by.

   For this to work, it must be cloth;  a hard surface colored board will not work because you will have a line of demarcation between the vertical and horizontal sections of your set.  The elimination of this line is what creates your 'zero horizon.'  The cloth must also be opaque, and matte finish.  filmy, gauzy fabric will defeat the purpose, and shiny fabrics will cause light glare at awkward places. Nothing must show through from behind.  Bedsheets are actually excellent choices.  They are readily available, and if you do not already have any in plain, unpatterned colors, they may be had fairly cheaply; twin size is more than big enough.
   Take your cloth, being sure it is large enough to cover whatever else is behind the area.  Tack or tape the top of the cloth to the wall along its entire width.  Next, pull the cloth smoothly down and forward, and let it drape into a smooth curve as it falls to the floor or table, or whatever you are using for your level surface for your product.  If necessary, iron the cloth first...and be sure you have taped/tacked it don't want wrinkles; it must also be spotlessly clean. 

   If cloth is unavailable, you can also use paper, but it must be paper that comes in a roll, and wide enough to cover the area.  (Although paper is trickier to work with--it smudges and tears easily.)  You don't want folds or crease marks (or rips) any more than you want wrinkles in the cloth.  An absolutely smooth, seamless background is your goal.  Here are a couple of examples from my own Etsy shop taken with this is actually how I do 99% of my product photos.  That way, I can put them to any use without further editing.

    Put your camera on a tripod or other solid surface, set it for the highest resolution possible (refer to your owner's manual).  This is important because it will give you the best quality image to import into your card project.  You can always reduce it down, but you cannot increase.  Trying to increase the size or resolution of a photo taken at too low a resolution will only result in a very fuzzy, blurry, grainy look, and ruin your chances of appearing professional.   

    Take several shots from slightly different angles.  That way, you have options from which to choose, and if you don't like one, you already have others, without having to re-set the entire photo shoot.

   Use good lighting...bright, but indirect.  As with all your other product photos, avoid using flash.   Side-lighting--high from both sides works well--just be sure none of the light glares back into the camera lens.  (For further photography-specific and lighting tips, please refer back to my earliest articles in this blog.)

   And there you have it.  It sounds complicated, but it really is not.  There is a lot to read, but it always takes more words to explain how to do something than it does effort in just doing it.  Don't panic.  Read each step, and refer back as you progress through the stages.

Below is an example of one of my own business cards (my telephone number is deliberately obscured here for privacy reasons.. it is my home number.)

  Best wishes in all your ventures, online and off!    

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