TRIED & TESTED: THE SMART CARD

Do you want to be remembered as a stylish professional or a used- car salesman? We pick the best business cards
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YOU NEVER get a second chance to make a first impression - and leaving a tacky, dog-eared, boring or overly-snazzy business card is one way to alienate potential clients, customers or associates. Handing over a smart, original card, on the other hand, may ensure that you're the one to be chosen for business at the crucial shuffle. So pick a card, any card ... but should it be blind- embossed, coloured, tooled, waxed, matt-laminated or plain old black-and- white?

THE PANEL

Philip Nelson, of London-based recruitment consultancy Hewitson-Walker, joined freelance designer Himesh Patel and architect Beccy Taylor on the panel. Ron Birkett, who runs his own printing business, Polstead Press, added an expert critique.

THE TEST

The look and feel of the card was paramount; it had to stand out, but for the right reasons. We asked the panel to consider which profession each card might suit and what impression it might create. Testers also commented on how easy it was to order and whether it was value for money.

*GOLD HOLOGRAM CARD

pounds 160 plus VAT for 500

Being made of plastic was both the salvation and downfall of this card, which takes a week to order and which, Himesh Patel complained, would drive him mad. "I'd get it mixed up with my credit cards, and that's the last thing you want. Although, because it's plastic, it forces you to hang on to it unlike paper or card." He thought the hologram "corporate and eye-catching", but added: "The format is selected for you and it's stale and sterile. It has no personality." Ron Birkett added: "I'm left with the question `What's it saying and selling?' It's an okay price, but it has limited application." Beccy Taylor judged it a suitable card for someone "with a big, chunky, gold watch". "It tries to be a gold card, but fails dismally." Philip Nelson was dismissive: "Gold cards are going down in status anyway. Everybody has them, and even mailshots use holograms."

*HAND-DESIGNED COLOUR FLEXIBLE CARD

Around pounds 250 for 500

Panellists decided that this plastic card, which can be produced to your own brief within a fortnight, was too flimsy to seriously impress - it might even reflect badly on you, said Philip Nelson. "It could be for a housewife with a part-time job working from home. It needs a logo." Himesh Patel thought: "It looks and feels cheap and nasty. It's not a personal artefact. In fact, it looks like a sticker you'd put in an album." Beccy Taylor was not much kinder: "I thought it was quite naff - like something you'd stick up in a phone box." Ron Birkett, while commending the "excellent" design, added: "It should have been laminated with a much thicker film and on thicker card."

***KALL KWIK BLACK-AND-WHITE STANDARD CARD

pounds 75 plus VAT for 500

Reliable, simple and unobtrusive - but a little boring. That was the verdict on this card, which can be ordered quickly (within four working days) and relatively cheaply. Philip Nelson said it was plain but smart, and Himesh Patel thought it better than the machine version. "It's probably for a person who doesn't have to sell himself through his card and gives a card just for his phone number. A doctor's or dentist's card maybe." Ron Birkett felt the layout was poor and the price high: "It's just a bog-standard business card." Beccy Taylor, meanwhile, thought it offered good value and found it professional-looking, but "rather boring".

***DESIGN-YOUR-OWN BLACK AND WHITE CARD

pounds 3 for 50, or pounds 30 for 500

The panel gave this amazingly cheap card a provisional thumbs-up for price and convenience. Simply put your coins in the machine, use a template and graphics to "design" it, and print out batches of 50. "It's very basic but it gets to the point. It's a simple, practical and effective solution," reported Himesh Patel, who thought it suitable for a self-employed person "who's down-to-earth and not trying to show off". But testers said it looked too amateurish for professionals. "It's not the kind of thing that would impress," said Beccy Taylor. Philip Nelson added: "It looks cheap, a bit like the small ads in a freebie newspaper. You'd probably throw it away." Ron Birkett's only comment was: "Ugh. It doesn't do anything for me. I'm not even sure it's value for money."

***MATT LAMINATED HALF-TONE CARD

pounds 190 plus VAT for 500

Most of the panellists did not feel that the look and waxy softness of this cream-and-red card justified its price. Beccy Taylor liked its "wipeability" and decided it might suit a florist. Himesh Patel said it was more of a printer's card: "It's nothing special, apart from its great texture." Ron Birkett put this card in his top three. "It's got a lot going for it. I like the design, and you wouldn't get fingermarks on it, but it is expensive." This card takes around a week to arrive, and is available in a cheaper non-laminated version. Philip Nelson, however, didn't find the price excessive: "I quite liked it: it's to the point, and would be good for a local business."

***METAL GRAPHICALLY TOOLED CARD

pounds 354 plus VAT for 500, including one-off pounds 85 charge for tooling

This unusual-looking card, which takes a fortnight to arrive and can be produced to your own design, left a good impression with testers, although the cost was steep. "The price is horrendous, but it gives a fab image - it's a super-looking thing," said Ron Birkett. Beccy Taylor said the fine print was tricky to read, and added: "At nearly a quid each, you wouldn't throw these around. But it's original, cool and slick, especially if you're in a specialised profession. You'd certainly remember it." Himesh Patel liked the potential for design opportunities: "It has loads of textures and elements, and a novel feel. You'd want to keep the card, just to show your friends. It's not for your casual bloke on the street - more for a power freak who wants to make a great impression." Philip Nelson said he wouldn't feel comfortable keeping it in his Filofax. "It's a bit too much like a large razor blade."

****EMBOSSED AND THERMOGRAPHED COLOUR CARD

pounds 176 plus VAT for up to 1,000 (pounds 152 plus VAT if typesetting on disc or bromide supplied)

This finely embossed card, printed in grey and blue, was the hands-down winner - partly for style, partly for price. "I love this one: the quality is beautiful - loads of texture and cleanly embossed," raved Himesh Patel. "There's no conflict of design, it's elegant and simple, and shows professionalism. Someone choosing a card like this knows what he's talking about and what he wants." It was slightly longer than the others, a factor which Beccy Taylor liked, along with the muted colours. "It might not fit so easily in your wallet but it's got direction to it. If I was setting up my own practice, I'd go for something like this." Philip Nelson liked the clear layout, while Ron Birkett commented: "It's not overly ostentatious and the price is pretty smack-on." Delivery takes 10 days.

***FIVE-COLOUR WHITE PLASTIC CARD

pounds 208 plus VAT for 500

Opinions were mixed on this cheerful-looking and eminently flickable specimen, which Beccy Taylor described as looking "like an RAC breakdown card". "But it is wipeable, hard-wearing and reasonably functional," she conceded. But she felt that by resembling a credit card, it might, like the Hologram card, become "really annoying" in your wallet. Himesh Patel found it "boring and sterile - I would feel tempted to sack any person who gave me this card." "It would be better used as an ice-scraper for your windscreen", said Ron Birkett, "The price is about right, but the design is awful." But Philip Nelson stuck up for the card, which takes up to 10 days to print: "It's bright, goes straight to the point and gets the message across. It tells you exactly what they're about."

STOCKISTS

Metal card from Chemical Milling, 01480 475831; hand-designed flexible card, from designer Karina Capitman, 01865 513973; design-your-own card machines in public places nationwide; matt laminated card from Hanway Print Centre, 0800 163 841; embossed card from Crossgate Press, 0181 539 5304; Kall Kwik card from branches nationwide, 0171 935 1551; gold hologram card and five-colour plastic card from Regal Hot Foil, 0181 805 7140. !

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