Even in this digital era, business cards and letterheads remain the most traveled business documents you’ll ever have. Here’s a look at technical specs and the various design layouts you’ll probably use in their design.

Not going to waste your time extolling the virtues of good business cards and letterheads. As a business owner you’ll already know. If you’re a designer reading this, you do too. Business cards are the little foot soldiers of any marketing efforts, keeping your brand name and more importantly, your contact info, floating about. They get passed around – you’d be surprised how many people will contact you out of the blue because “so-and-so gave me your card” – and pound-for-pound are the cheapest marketing investment you’ll make. Letterheads are almost equally important and like their business card compatriots, are a sign of entrepreneurial legitimacy – a “Kilroy Was Here” of the business world – and reinforce your brand every time you mail one out. Sadly, they’re often treated as an afterthought of brand development, when their design is actually quite important and shouldn’t be overlooked. There’s also a lot of misinformation about the layout of stationery, some misunderstood technical design stuff, and it’s with these in mind, I figured a soup-to-nuts post on business cards and letterheads was in order.

Business card sizes – the basics

North America trim size (H): 3.5″ x 2″
International trim size (H): 85 mm x 55 mm (3.346″ x 2.165″)

A good design tutorial always begins with the basics and the size of business cards seems like a pretty good place to start. There are exceptions (there always are) but the traditional common garden business card is 3.5 inches x 2 inches (that’s in a horizontal format – turn it on its side and it becomes two inches by three and a half.) Business cards in the UK have a different setup in the size department (thanks to metric and such) and their sizes are 3.346” (85 mm) by 2.165” (55 mm) in vertical formats. Here’s what that all looks like:  standard-international-business-card-sizeYou’ll notice there’s a bit of copy in the middle of all the cards – called “Finished Size” – which literally means what is says. That’s the size of a business card when it’s been trimmed back from the original, and larger, sheet it’s been printed on. This is very important when a business card features something that bleeds (when a color field, graphic or photograph “hangs off the edge” of the card.) In order to get this to happen, we have to give that area what is known as “bleed” – a little bit of leeway that sees the color, graphic, whatever, extending past the “finished size.” When our business cards are cut back to the “finished size” everything should be honky-dory. This is what that looks like: business-card-sizes-print-specificationsWe’ve added a new section in this illustration – “Live Image Area” – which is almost the opposite of bleed. When something is being printed, it tends to slide around the press a bit. On larger pieces of paper this usually isn’t too noticeable, but on a smaller bit of card – a business card in this case – it can be far more noticeable because it’s a higher fraction of the total. If your cards are being cut, the blade also has a thickness of its own, so the tolerances aren’t micro level exacting. In order to compensate for all this, we need to keep any important stuff (we refer to this as “live art) away from the edge a tad and we need a “safe zone” or “margins” from the trim lines. This safe zone can vary from printer to printer, but it’s anything from 1/8″ to a whopping 1/4″ (for slap-dash printing.) Accordingly, when we’re setting up the business card, we want to keep details – logos and copy – nicely tucked inside this “live image area.” This is less complicated than it reads, so let’s go ahead and look at a sample:business-card-print-setup-exampleWhen we set up the card (left) we keep every thing within the safe area (grey box.) When the color fields needed to bleed, we gave them a lot of room outside the trim area. When the card is printed and cut (right) everything should look as it should.

Business card design – the nuts & bolts

There’s not really too much you can do with your logo save slap it somewhere on the business card. Where you do depends on preference, the layout you want (vertical or horizontal) and the aspect ratio of your logo itself. Here’s the most common:logo-placement-on-business-cardsAs you can see, an overly horizontal logo is problematic – especially when it comes to vertical cards. One of the reasons we always suggest that clients go for a version of their logo that’s squarish (it also comes in handy for social media avatars and icons.)

Business card design – putting it all together

Any variation of a business card layout will almost certainly contain a logo, some contact information, an address perhaps. That’s pretty much all you have room for, these ingredients having to fit on a 3.5″ x 2″ canvas. More and it’s the stationery design version of “ten pounds of sugar in a ten pound bag.” Besides, the point of a business card is to scatter your contact info about, not write War and Peace about your company or your services. While technically the design options are “infinite” in terms of micro-nudges and tweaks, the overall layouts aren’t. That’s not to say you don’t have options, you do, but there’s a finite number of ways you can arrange a logo, some contact info and some design flair into a piece of card that’s only three-and-a-half inches by two. We took a look at some previous projects at the shop and here’s a handy reference chart to the 24 main layouts we were able to cobble together for this post:business-card-design-layout-optionsSome people like to add a photograph or other imagery to their card (not that it’s advisable) and we’ve tossed in a few ways you can do that too. Keep in mind bleeds (and adequate image resolution if you opt for a picture on your card.) We can perform the same exercise for vertical cards as well:vertical-business-card-design-layout-optionsAnd there you have it – a primer on business cards, design and layout. If you want to download a PDF template for your own layouts, here you go. No nicely branded stationery package is complete with a matching letterhead, so let’s take a look at that too – using a lot of the concepts and technical terms we’ve learned from business card layouts.

Letterhead sizes & layouts – the basics

North America trim size: 8.5″ x 11″
International trim size (A4): 210 mm x 297 mm (8.27″ x 11.69″)

The standard North American letterhead size is 8.5″ x 11″ – that’s either “trim size” if we’re going to bleed artwork, or overall if we’re talking about sheet feed presses or your own desktop printer.letterhead-size-print-specificationsAs with business cards, letterheads are a little different in the rest of the world. Known as A4, their overall sizes are 210 mm x 297 mm (8.27″ x 11.69″) – a little taller and skinnier than their US counterparts.a4-letterhead-size-print-specificationsYou’ll notice the same basic concepts – trim size, bleed and image area as the stuff we just referred to with business cards. You’ll also notice the addition of a new box – that’s the “safe area” for desktop printers. There’s a reason for that and it’s pretty rudimentary, though you’d be surprised how many designers don’t factor it into their layouts – especially for clients who are fond of DIY printing using their own printers. Many office and home printers do not print true edge-to-edge – they need a margin somewhere on the sheet. It can be at the bottom. It can be at both sides, one side or all four. It generally ranges between 1/8″ to 1/4″ and won’t allow you to print true bleed artwork (it can also have soft edges which makes things look worse.) Bottom line – and as things stand currently – unless your desktop printer literature or packaging mentions “edge-to-edge printing” specifically, it probably doesn’t and if we’re going to design letterheads with desktop printing in mind, we’ll have to keep ALL elements away from the edges. 1/4″ is a safe bet, but you can experiment with your own printer to see what its tolerances are. This is also a good “rule of thumb” if your stationery is going to be commercially printed BUT on “size as” 8.5″ x 11″ sheets (rather than larger sheets that are trimmed back) as these sheets tend to move around on the press a tad. If you want to bleed artwork off the edge of your letterhead, you’ll need to have it printed on an over-sized sheet which is cut back, so the same rules about trim, bleed and live art that we talked about with business cards will apply.

Letterhead design – putting it all together

When putting letterhead layouts together we can be a bit more flexible than when designing business cards, simply because we have more room to play with but most of the elements are the same. Letterheads usually consist of a company logo, maybe a tagline, contact information (we usually don’t put personalized info on a letterhead – it represents the company as an entity while business cards represent the employees of that entity.) Even still, we don’t want to clutter it up with too much visual candy, but we can add some subtle design elements into the mix – usually in the form of watermarks or ghosted artwork that sits in the background of your letters. Unless we’re trying to be different, the logo and contact information will be at the top. The tagline can be there too, or we can drop it to the bottom in a footer. Once again, and micro-tweaks aside, there are a finite number of ways we can arrange these elements on an 8.5″ x 11″ canvas. Here’s the most common:
letterhead-design-layout-optionsSome important caveats and provisos to mention here – while watermarks can be nice, they can’t be too noticeable or they’ll make reading a letter (the entire point of a letterhead in the first place) difficult. I wouldn’t make a ghosted watermark any more than 8% of the original, even less if it’s headed for a desktop printer (in fact, many consumer printers can’t handle the micro-level tolerances of watermarks at all and tend to print them far too dark.)

Second sheet letterheads

One thing than can be really nice is a second sheet letterhead – that’s a copy of your original letterhead that ONLY features your logo with the contact info and any taglines removed. We do this because blank sheets are boring, but repetitive letterheads can be off-putting. A subtle second sheet can strike a nice balance between the two but keep in mind, it’s an additional expense if you’re getting your stationery printed commercially.