Lessons from a 15 year old business card

The infamous business card

I’ve designed many things over the years, but nothing’s made an impact quite like my growing business card.

Conceived when I was a student, the card was designed to sprout alfalfa when exposed to water and sunlight. The big idea was for potential employers to keep my business card on their desk and not in their pocket. It was a fun little project that opened a few doors (cleaners would often throw them out prompting a flurry of apologetic emails), but on getting my first job and updating my portfolio I consigned the project to archives.

However, 15 years later I’m still fielding enquires about it.

Every month I’m asked the same three questions: “how was it built?” (Two slabs of plastic, alfalfa seeds, and an absorbent core.) “Did it actually work?” (Most of the time with gentle persuasion.) And my favourite, “how much would it be to order X of them?” (A recent email from a European government requested 10,000.)

Just add water!

So why is this ancient project still so popular? Well for me, I think the answer lies in its format.

You see, everyone gets business cards — that’s to say, they completely understand the construct. They know business cards need to display contact information and be small enough to fit in your wallet — that’s it. If they do anything else, that’s a bonus. Consequently, any business card that plays with these tenants (in this case, a card that’s designed to stay on someone’s desk) is effectively a joke that everyone gets.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I’d created something that would be irresistible to social media and it’s eventual thirst for instant gratification. My growing business card was effectively a setup and punchline rolled into a single image — a dopamine hit for social feeds, timelines and “20 Amazing Business Cards” posts.

So if there’s one thing to learn from my business card it’s that people don’t want to think to much. Remove the work they have to do to get an idea and it’s likely to go viral — something the best content creators know only too well.

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