Hacking Your Business Card

Professor Hacker Business Card Early in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, the sight of a colleague’s elegant new business card sends the narrator and sociopath Patrick Bateman into a panic attack. As his Wall Street buddies debate the merits of a Silian Rail font on bone-colored stock versus a Romalian typeface on eggshell, Bateman’s world closes in on him: “Suddenly the restaurant seems far away, hushed, the noise distant, a meaningless hum, compared to this card.”

Ellis’s novel is of course an unrelenting, purposefully over-the-top satire of the 1980s. At its heart, American Psycho is a novel of manners, basically Jane Austen with a chainsaw. You can’t imagine anybody getting so worked up over a business card these days, even a clincally self-absorbed monster like Patrick Bateman.

Nonetheless, business cards are a standard accouterment for academics, even in this world of Bump, texting, and direct messaging. We tend to give very little thought publicly to things as seemingly simple as business cards. They are a part of our academic habitus that, as Pierre Bourdieu would put it, go without saying, because they come without saying. But in fact there are many questions about business cards worth discussing openly and candidly, beginning with the simple question of whether you really need one in the first place.

Who Needs a Business Card?

Maybe you’re a full professor, a star in your field and a household name. Or maybe you’re a graduate student, entering your last year of coursework. Perhaps you’re somewhere in between, a junior level faculty approaching tenure. Or you might be adjuncting while you search for a more permanent position. You could be a librarian or an educational technologist. Or it could be that you’re pursuing an alternative academic career.

Which of these people need a business card?

I can’t pretend to answer this question for everyone, but I do have this advice:

If you’ve ever found yourself at a conference, meeting, party, or chance encounter, wishing you had a business card to hand out, then you probably need a business card.

This advice applies to anybody in academia, from graduate students to professors emeriti. If you think you need a business card, then you do need a business card. If you’re getting along fine without one, then don’t worry about it. But because it’s so easy to make your own, you might want to consider having at least a dozen or so on hand, just in case. You might feel funny—or even presumptuous—as a graduate student investing in business cards, but I’d argue that along with the professionalization of graduate school comes the professionalization of the tools of our trade, and that counts for business cards as much as it counts for professional-focused websites or blogs.

Official or Unofficial Business Cards?

Once you’ve figured out whether or not you need a business card, next you’ll have to decide whether you need officially printed cards or unofficial cards. I myself went several years as a new professor without official business cards. I hijacked my university’s logo from the school’s official visual identity guide and printed my own cards as needed, using Avery business card templates and a color inkjet printer. With a thick card stock and no telltale perforation marks, the cards were passably official-looking. I eventually used enough of them that I decided it made sense to have official cards (it helped that I discovered that my department would pay for cards).

Going the official route, I had to use the approved vendor and a standard format. The advantages of official cards, for me, were that I received a lot of them and the quality was better than my homemade cards. The disadvantage was that I had less control over the form and content of the cards (no Silian Rail font for me, sadly).

What Do You Include on Your Card?

If you do go with official cards, be sure to find out if there are restrictions regarding what can appear on the card. I’ve heard stories of professors having to destroy their business cards and buy new ones out of pocket for violating institutional standards. And if you’re printing your own cards and have complete freedom, keep in mind that your business card should maintain at least a veneer of businessness.

But even if your institution sharply defines what can and cannot appear on your card, you may still have some wiggle room. Your name, title, email and mailing address are likely the bare minimum of what should appear on your card. But what else should be there? Here’s my own official card, which contains two departures from my university’s standard template:

A wall  calendar full of information

Notice that I did not include my office phone number. I have one, but I am far more likely to be reached via other means, such as my email address or my mobile number, which I do include on the card. If you’re not comfortable distributing your cell number to strangers, this is a perfect place to utilize your Google Voice number.

The second departure from my school’s template is a link to my personal website and blog address, rather than some official university or department profile page. Such profile pages exist, but my own domain features much more rich content than I can offer on a standard university website, and I update it with much more regularity. In other words, I’ve included a link to a URL that I control, rather than a link to a page that is ultimately in somebody else’s control.

Adding Value to Your Business Card

Eagle-eyed readers will notice something missing from my business card that they might expect to find there: my Twitter username. I am still debating this question with myself, but I ultimately decided to exclude my Twitter account (or Facebook or LinkedIn accounts) from my business card. I don’t really have a good reason either way, but I’ve discovered that excluding this information has a surprising benefit: it gives me the opportunity to write something on the back of the business card before I give it away.

I’m not sure where I learned this trick, but I’ve found that people are more likely to remember me if I handwrite something—anything!—on the back of my business card before I hand it over. And I let the recipient see me write it, too. It’s at once added-value to the card and a personal touch. And something like my Twitter username is the perfect thing to write on the back of a card in absence of any other pressing information.

Repurposing Your Business Cards

Business cards aren’t just for business anymore. When you have a box of 250—more than you could possibly give away before the information on the card is out-of-date—you begin to get creative in how you use them. Business cards make great bookmarks, handy notepads, and even emergency coasters. What’s your favorite off-label use for your business card? And what other advice do you have about business cards? Do you agree that they can still be useful? What surprising information have you included or excluded from your own cards? Do you have other tips for adding value to your cards?

[Professor Hacker business card designed by Mark Sample, and shamelessly inspired by Wile E. Coyote's card. Also, Silian Rail does not exist.]

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