Archive for May 26th, 2007

VA Software and the Open Source Technology Group, for whom I do most of my writing, are changing their name to SourceForge after their most successful web page. As part of the change, we’re getting new business cards – even the long-term contractors like me. The news has got me thinking about the whole idea of business cards, and my experience with them.

I suppose that business cards evolved out of the calling cards used in polite society in the nineteenth century. But where calling cards have fallen out of use, business cards continue to thrive, even in these days of the Internet. Attempts to replace them with mini-CDs for people with portfolios have never really caught on, although in some geek circles, such as the Debian Project, people sign each others’ public encryption keys instead of exchanging cards.

In Japan, I hear secondhand, there is an elaborate etiquette to giving and receiving cards, and even in North America, the exchange is ritualistic. I call it the business equivalent of two dogs sniffing each other’s butts – an analogy that, all humor aside, is not too far off, since both are greeting rituals. The cultures and customs are different, that’s all (It’s just as well that they are: wool and linen, the usual stuff of suits, preserve body odors even from a couple of meters away. You don’t really want to get that close to a lot of people).

Moreover, just as meeting dogs are evaluating each other’s status, a business card tells what level of access to a company you represent. People want to know if you have the power to make a deal, influence hiring decisions, or whatever else they might want from you. That’s why, at the startups I’ve been at, business cards suddenly start appearing as the company creeps out of stealth mode and starts interacting with other companies.

Of course, the appearance of business cards can also herald a rush for the status of grandiose titles in a company. Just getting a card is a sign of belonging, but, often, the ambitious want more.

I admit that I had some ego gratification when, after six months at a company, I suddenly found that I was director of marketing and communication, but, often, these titles mean remarkably little. In practice, I rather admire those who undermine the tradition, like the webmaster who liked to use Zope and had “Zopista” on his card, or the owner of a small company who listed himself as “CEO and Janitor.” I suppose that people who find these deviations annoying have a point, since not playing the game can obscure your level of clout, which is what people really want to know. However, at the same time, creative titles can be a talking point to strike up a conversation at a networking event, so they are more than just whimsy.

Business cards also create a first impression, which makes the frequent poorly designed ones out there all the more puzzling. The lowest levels of mediocrity are those printed from a template in a word processor on to a label sheet. Often, you can still see the perforations, and the designs are always uninspiring. But plenty of large companies issue cards that are almost as unimaginative. Perhaps that’s a subtle form of boasting, suggesting that a company doesn’t need a memorable card because it’s memorable in itself, like the mediocre advertising from megacorporations like McDonalds and Microsoft.

I’ve always preferred cards that have a dash to them, on the grounds that, if they are memorable, I’m more likely to be. I’ve designed a number of them, both for me and other people, and they always represent an interesting challenge in design, since they require standard information in a limited space that leaves little room for originality. My approach has always been to minimalize the information, and to add a checklist on the back, so that people can remember why they took a card and if they’re promised any followup action.

Since I started working chiefly as a journalist a couple of years ago, I haven’t bothered with a card. Most of the time, I’m contacting people via email or telephone rather than in person, and, if they want to know me, at any given time, they can find somewhere between fifty and one hundred thousand entries for me in a search engine. I had thought, though,of doing up a card to look like a bar code as a comment on the whole idea of business cards and their all-too common blandness. Now, it looks like I won’t have to bother.

The only thing that worries me is that, in the past, I’ve always moved on within a year after I received cards. Not that I am superstitious (he says, rapping his computer desk), but I hope that doesn’t happen with SourceForge.

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