One of the most famous scenes from the film version of Bret Easton Ellis's novel, American Psycho, sees Patrick Bateman, an investment banker, get into a sweat over his rivals' business cards. "Look at that subtle off-white colouring," he says to himself. "The tasteful thickness of it… Oh, my God. It even has a watermark."
This summed up the competitive one-upmanship of Wall Street in the 1980s, where everyone was struggling to stand out from the crowd of designer suits. Today, however, business-card envy is more likely to come from creative types and small-business owners, all struggling to stand out.
Forget the off-white and elegant colouring that sent Bateman into a rage, the modern card comes in any number of forms: curved corners, circular, textured, furry, woolly, stretchable, see-through, made of metal, fashioned from wood, pop-up, tied up in string, styled as an old-fashioned ticket, with detachable parts, able to be turned into origami, with a built-in bottle-opener, or even with a free toy.
Take, for example, the one used by car mechanics, Mr Lube, which features the sort of oil-can symbol seen in car panels and where the information card slides in and out (presumably with slippery ease). Black Astrum offers what it says are the most expensive cards in the world. Encrusted with diamonds and costing around £1,000 each, they (according to the website), "elegantly embody the holder's wealth, power and status in society". Even if you want to buy a set, the company says that you have to be invited to purchase them.
Despite our increasing reliance on digital communication and endless talks of "paperless" offices, reports suggest that the business-card market, perhaps helped by a growth in the number of small businesses, is one that continues to grow. One report quoted a rise of 20 per cent between 2008 and 2010.
One of those leading the way is Moo.com, an online site where users can create their own cards more quickly, cheaply and easily than would have been possible just a few years ago.
"The card has become an extension of people's marketing strategy," says Paul Lewis, Moo's head of marketing. "It's how you like to be viewed as a brand."
Indeed, many now will feature their company's motto or stated aims. And Lewis suggests it can be the first crucial step on the networking ladder, likening "a bad business card" to "a limp handshake", while a good one will become "a starting point for conversation when meeting people".
Technology has also helped this old-fashioned concept, reducing, for example, the cost of short print runs allowing people to personalise each individual card.
"We give people the ability to put a different image on every card," says Lewis. "Now an estate agent can give you a card, with a picture of a house or room you particularly liked."
And customers believe in their importance. The company commissioned research from Ipsos, which found that 42 per cent of small business owners polled thought that if they were to hand out 100 cards, "it would generate £5,000 a year or more in revenue".
Dawn Gibbins MBE, a millionaire entrepreneur and renowned business speaker, firmly believes in their power. When running the flooring company Flowcrete, she insisted that every employee would have their picture on their card, and that the card followed feng shui guidance on layout.
"You could call them connection cards or love cards," she says. "[They] play an enormous role in business.
"People are the greatest assets of any company, charity or organisation. And it is critical that when you are out networking to have a card that leaves a lasting impression on the people you meet."
But their importance shouldn't be overstated warns Steven D'Souza, the author of Brilliant Networking and an executive fellow at the IE Business school in Madrid.
"I see them as an essential tool in the exchange of information only," he says. "Often people think that if they exchanged business cards they've networked, but some people give them out like confetti." He also warns that the over-decorated cards, which are designed to impress can have a negative impact.
"It can be a distraction, when it's purely a means to exchange information. The medium can distract from the message you are trying to convey, if you are being too quirky."
"People forget that the person is the real message… One of the important things someone once told me was 'you are your own business card'."
Remarkably, despite the predictions that they would die out, business cards continue to thrive in the digital age. There have been some innovations – QR codes are seen on an increasing number of cards, while Moo has started putting NFC chips, which can be read by smartphones, into its products.
And even the modern methods of networking continue to rely on the old- fashioned methods. Earlier this year, Facebook announced it was to offer its users cards, while in 2011, fellow networking site LinkedIn acquired CardMunch, an app that takes pictures of business cards before transferring the information to the network.
"We still don't have one method of capturing information that's used by everyone," adds D'Souza. "Business cards are an important way to keep this information."Reuse content