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How to Design a Business Card, Explained by a Master Stationer

And you thought Paul Allen’s business card was cool.

Sung Han

After a handshake and salutation, a meeting between businessmen ends with the exchange of cards. It’s a little antiquated; there are many other ways to find someone’s contact information in 2015. Yet, even today, a business card provides something that email, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram cannot: a tangible representation of a person’s business. They are also, as Ted Harrington, President of Terrapin Stationers, points out, an extension of someone’s personal style.

Terrapin Stationers has been making engraved stationary, note cards and letters for over 105 years. In 2014 they relocated from Manhattan to New Haven, Connecticut. Today, Harrington estimates they make 100,000 sets of business cards a year. It’s a number, he admits, that isn’t tremendous. But the business cards Terrapin makes are what Harrington calls luxury — for the “one percent of the one percent.”

In the back room of Terrapin’s manufacturing facility, Harrington empties a box of business cards on the table. He explains that when somebody is handed a business card, and even before reading it, the first thing that person does is feel it. They feel its weight, size and, most importantly, the different processes that went into making the card, of which there are three: traditional offset printed, engraved or blind embossed, and letterpress.

Offset Printed (black) and Blind Embossed (top)

An offset printed (also known as lithographed) business card is flat printed and doesn’t leave any impression on the card’s back. “It’s probably the most budget-friendly business card,” says Harrington. “They’re great for companies who are ordering a ton of business cards.” They’re simple, but when printed on a good card stock, Harrington says they make beautiful, clean cards.


An engraved business card has raised type. They’re made when a negative copper plate, which is etched and coated with ink, then stamped down on top of the business card, leaving a positive impression. The process, which has been around since the medieval era, involves meticulously hand etching typesets into copper plates.

But in the past 25 years, technology has brought about photo engraving, which has made engraving decidedly easier. “We’re able to just etch type into a copper plate in an acid bath,” says Harrington. “It’s made our life a lot easier. We can turn around business cards that used to take six weeks in six days.”

Engraved and blind-embossed business cards are made the same way, but blind embossing doesn’t use ink. Both types of cards leave an impression (or “bruise”) on the back of the card. More of a refined taste, Harrington says engraved business cards are appropriate for investment bankers, attorneys, architects and designers. They’re also commonly carried by luxury hotels and watchmakers.


Letterpress is the exact opposite of engraving. They use a positive magnesium plate to imprint into the paper, so the font is recessed or debossed. Cards can be printed on both sides, without leaving an impression on the other side. Harrington says he makes a lot of letterpress cards for younger people and younger brands.

But designing a business card isn’t as simple as choosing between letterpress, engraved and offset. Many of today’s cards combine a number of these processes into one. As an example Harrington points to his own card, which is blind embossed with “Terrapin” in its center, while his name and information are printed in offset.

Trends within the business card industry have changed over time. From the ’50s through the ’70s, Harrington says people wanted an extremely thin and lightweight card (most commonly on 60-pound card stock). Don Draper’s business card in Mad Men, which takes place in the ’60s, “was probably a 60-pound cover stock — very light,” he says.

In the ’80s, people preferred gray and textured card stock. In the ’90s people went back to classic and simple cards that were still fairly thin (between 90- and 100-pound card stock), which Harrington suggests may have been caused by economic recession. Afterward, there was a brief time when people thought they wouldn’t need business cards anymore, calling them “too old fashioned.” When the tech boom hit near the turn of the century, letterpress business cards came to the forefront.

“There was no such thing as a letterpress business card in ’91 and ’92,” says Harrington. Letterpress equipment was around, which was used to make raffle tickets, but nobody was ordering letterpress business cards. This is why Patrick Bateman in American Psycho would never have had a letterpress business card. (Harrington suggests that the writer probably didn’t know the difference between letterpress and engraved business cards.) Today, Harrington estimates that around 50 percent of his clients order letterpress business cards. And very few people are ordering them on thin (60 pound) card stock anymore.

What’s a Calling Card?


Calling cards are different from business cards. In fact they predate them. Instead of having any contact information, they just display a person’s name. In the 17th or 18th century, the idea was, “If I stopped by your home and you weren’t there, I would leave my calling card with your servant or on a little tray that would be by the front door. This is some old school shit,” says Harrington, “which I kind of love. People are like ‘How can I reach you?’ and you’re like ‘No man, I’ll contact you.’

The trend in the 2000s was moving toward very thick business cards (220 pound card stock). The biggest complaint about these thick business cards, Harrington says, is that people can only carry a few in their wallet at a time. For this reason, thick business cards weren’t, and still aren’t, practical for meeting new people at dinners and trade shows.

In 2015, business cards vary from person to person. There are so many stylistic choices — engraved, embossed, laminated, mounted, edged, weight of card stock, type of ink — that they all can look drastically different. In fact, because there are so many options, Harrington says people run the risk of over-designing their card. Which means it’ll cost more.

“Most people come with one idea of what they’re willing to spend,” says Harrington. “Then when they find out what something like that would cost.” A set of extravagantly designed business cards can cost upwards of $1,300. However, Harrington says, people can purchase beautiful business cards — “I’m talking about the best possible paper, engraved or letterpress” — for between $150 and $250. And when people find out what “their dream” cards cost, they usually opt for what Harrington originally recommends: “Something beautiful, simple and real.”

About Our Expert: Ted Harrington


Ted Harrington is the President of Terrapin Stationers, a division of GHP Media. Harrington’s father is a hand engraver who was trained by the original owners of Stationers Engraving. He subsequently helped train Harrington in the art of hand engraving as well. The father-son combo bought the company from the original owners in the early 90s, and renamed it Terrapin Stationers. The name comes from Harrington’s love for the Grateful Dead album, called Terrapin Station.

Staff Writer Tucker Bowe has been on Gear Patrol's editorial team since 2014.
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