While we live in an internet-driven digital era, business cards and letterheads are still the most well traveled marketing tools you’ll ever have. We take a look at USA & Canada specific technical specs, printing considerations and a wide range of design layouts you can use.

As a business owner you probably know that having a business card at the ready is vital to drumming up new clientele through networking. Business cards are the printed version of foot soldiers for your startup or growing business, keeping your company name and contact info floating about potential clients and customers. They get passed around more than you’d think – many people will contact you simply because “so-and-so handed me your card and suggested I call” – and dollar-for-dollar are the most economical marketing investment you’ll ever make. Letterheads are arguably as important and like business cards, are often seen as a sign of entrepreneurial credibility – a “Kilroy Was Here” of the corporate world – while reinforcing your brand every time you send one out with a letter typed on it. Unfortunately, letterheads are often treated as an afterthought in the brand development process, when in actuality their design is quite important and not to be overlooked. There’s also a lot of misinformation about how stationery should be laid out, some misunderstood or confusing technical considerations, so with these in mind, I figured a detailed overview on business card and letterhead design – specifically for the USA & Canadian marketplaces – was in order.

Business card sizes – the basics.

USA & Canada trim size (H): 3.5″ x 2″ (88.9 mm x 50.8 mm)

Any design tutorial worth its salt begins with basics and the US & Canadian size of business cards seems like a pretty good place to start. There are exceptions to what we’ll talk about (there always are) but traditional business cards work out to 3.5 inches x 2 inches (horizontal format – vertical cards measure two inches by three and a half.) Business cards in rest of the world have a different size (thanks to metric and what not) but we’ll ignore that for the time being. Here’s what all this looks like visually:us-canadian-business-card-layoutsYou’ll notice there’s some verbiage in the middle of the cards – “Finished Size” – which is pretty on point to what it means. That’s the size of a typical business card after it’s been cut back from the larger sheet of card stock it’s been printed on. This comes into play when a business card layout involves something that bleeds (a colour area, graphic or photograph “hangs off the outside edge” of the card.) To make this happen, we need to assign this art what is known as “bleed” – a little bit of leeway that sees the colour, graphic or photograph extending outside the “finished size.” When business cards are subsequently cut back to the “finished size” everything should look just as we planned originally. A visual depiction of this:us-canadian-business-card-print-specsWe’ve added a new detail to this diagram – “Live Image Area” – which is pretty much the opposite of a bleed. When business card stock – particularly glossy – is being printed, it tends to slide around the press a little as it moves through. On larger paper sizes this isn’t very noticeable, but on with the smaller surface area of a business card, it can be more so as it’s a higher percentage of the overall size. If your cards are being trimmed back, the cutting blade has its own thickness, so tolerances aren’t micro-level exact. To compensate for these imperfections, we need to keep the important card details (known as “live art) away from the edge and inside a “safe zone” or “margin,” back from the trim lines. Safe zones can vary from printer to printer, but you can factor in anything from 1/8″ to a generous 1/4″. Accordingly, when we’re designing any business card, we need to keep details – logos and typography – tucked well inside this “live image area.” This is actually less complicated than it reads, and this visual example details the concepts quite nicely:business-card-print-setup-exampleWhen we set up our business card design (left) we keep every thing within the safe area (grey box.) Where the colour fields bleed, we gave them lots of room outside the trim lines. When the card is finally printed and finished (right) everything should be tickety boo.

Business card design. Possible design combos.

When it comes to actually designing a business card, there’s not really too much you can do with your logo except place it somewhere where it looks appealing. Where that is depends a lot on personal preference, the type of layout you want (vertical or horizontal) and the aspect ratio of the logo itself. In general, here’s the most common design layouts:us-canadian-business-card-logo-placementAn overly horizontal logo is problematic – especially when it comes to vertical cards and one of the main reasons we always suggest that clients aim for a version of their logo that’s leaning towards square (as a bonus, a square logo also comes in handy for social media avatars and icons.)

Business card design. Putting it all together.

Any variation of a business card design will most certainly contain a logo and contact information, a name and a title. That’s pretty much all you’ll have room for, placing those ingredients on our tiny 3.5″ x 2″ canvas. Further, the entire purpose of a business card is to distribute your contact info, not a detailed brochure about your company, services or latest special pricing. Technically business card design options are “infinite” in terms of tiny tweaks and placement changes, the overall layouts aren’t. Quite simply, there’s a finite number of combinations in which you can arrange a logo, contact info and some design eye candy into a piece of card that’s only three-and-a-half inches wide (or tall.) Here’s a handy chart to the 24 main layouts we were able to cobble together for this post using previous design projects at the studio:business-card-design-layout-options2Some people like to add a photograph to their card (not that it’s advisable, it probably isn’t) so we’ve added a few ways in which you can do that too. We can perform the same exercise for vertical cards too, as this diagram illustrates:vertical-business-card-design-layout-options1And there you have it – a primer on business cards, design and layout. Now that we’ve covered business card sizes and design, let’s take a look at branded letterheads – the design and layout of which employ a lot of the specifications and concepts we just talked about.

Letterhead sizes & layouts – the basics.

USA & Canadian trim size: 8.5″ x 11″ (215.9 mm x 279.4 mm)

The standard letterhead size for the US and Canada 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 with business cards, letterheads are a little different in the rest of the world and known as A4.) You’ll see the same basic concepts we just talked about with business cards – trim size, bleeds and live image area. You’ll also notice a new box – the “safe area” for consumer level desktop printers. The reason for this is pretty straight forward, though you might be surprised how many professional designers don’t factor it into their designs or file delivery – especially for clients who are only planning to use their own printers for limited mailings. Here’s the thing to keep in mind – many consumer level office and home printers do not actually print edge-to-edge – they need a untouched margin somewhere on the sheet – the bottom, both sides, one side or all four. This margin generally runs between 1/8″ to 1/4″ and won’t allow for the printing of true bleed artwork (it can also feature fuzzy edges which makes things look even worse.) As things stand currently – or unless your desktop printer literature or packaging specifically boasts “edge-to-edge printing” – it probably won’t and if we’re going to compensate for this in our letterhead design. We’ll need to keep ALL elements away from the edges. 1/4″ margins are a safe bet, but experiment with your own printer to view its tolerances on a printed sheet. If your stationery is going to be commercially printed BUT on “size as” 8.5″ x 11″ sheets (rather than larger sheets that are cut back) and as these sheets move around on the press just like out business cards, you’ll need to factor in a gutter too. If your letterhead is to feature bleed artwork,it’ll need to be printed on an over-sized sheet which is cut back and the rules about trim, bleed and live art that we discusses with business cards, will also apply here.

Letterhead design. Putting the design together.

When designing letterheads we can be a bit more flexible and flamboyant than when designing business cards – we have more room to play with – but most of the elements are similar with a few notable exceptions. Letterheads usually consist of a company logo, maybe a tagline and company contact info (typically, we don’t place personalized info on a letterhead – unless it’s personalizes stationery – letters are meant to represents the company as an entity while business cards represent employees in service of that entity.) Even still, we don’t want to clutter any letterhead up with too much eye candy – the important stuff is what’s typed on it – but we can add some subtle design elements into the mix, watermarks or ghosted artwork that sits in the background. 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. The most common:letterhead-design-layout-options1Some important caveats and provisos – while watermarks are nice and all, they can’t be too noticeable or they’ll interfere with the legibility of the correspondence printed on it. I wouldn’t make a watermark any more than 8% of the original solid colour, less if it’s being output on a consumer level printer (many of these off-the-shelf printers can’t handle the micro-level screens of watermarks at all, print them far darker than originally planned.)

Second sheet letterheads.

One thing than can be really nice is a second sheet letterhead – a copy of your original letterhead that ONLY features your logo, the contact info and any taglines removed. We do this because blank sheets aren’t branded, but repetitive letterheads can be jarring. A subtle second sheet can strike a nice balance between the two but keep this in mind, if getting your stationery printed commercially, a second sheet represents an entirely new cost, as much as, or only slightly less, than the first sheet.