Sunday, July 10, 2011

How to Make Your Own Custom Business Cards for About $10

As a freelance designer, you need business cards, right? But what if you're on an extremely tight budget or need your cards within a day or two (as opposed to a week or more)? Let's explore a few options for the budget/time-conscious. First I'll discuss how I chose my final business design and printing method, which meets my budget requirements and still has a cool factor that makes other designers closely examine them with curiosity.

My current business cards are printed on snappy, sparkly, iridescent pink paper. They're girl-ish, but subtle. For a long time I didn't hand them out because I though people might think the paper was weird because it's a little thinner than normal cardstock. But recently, I handed a couple of them out and gotten very positive responses from both men and women alike. One person even asked me, "Did you have these done in San Diego?" To be truthful, I made them. In my home office. And they were free.

So, how does one go about making your own free/cheap business cards? Well, let's find out! But first, let's discuss a few different printing options that I explored before settling on the final paper choice and printing method.

Letterpress Printing
Since I first discovered letterpress printing, I've wanted to purchase my own letterpress business cards. However, seeing as I work from home, and hand out approximately 10 (ten) business cards per year, it seems a bit excessive to spend several hundred dollars on fancy letterpress business cards.

Online Business Card Websites
Online printers, such as,, and offer very affordable pricing because they will gang up your business cards with dozens of other orders, and print them all on the same paper stock, at the same time. While you will get 4-color offset printing, your paper choice is somewhat limited. These large-online print shops often offer gloss UV coating or a lamination. Adding a glossy UV-cured coating means that the business cards are dry immediately. That in turn means that the print shop can speed up production and pump out even more business cards, even faster (making them more affordable).

Some of the online printers, such as, even let you choose different background images for each and every one of your business cards. Many of these online printers will even offer "free" business cards. All you have to pay for is shipping and handling. However, "free" typically means that their company logo or URL is somewhere on the card. If that's not a big deal to you, then these "Free" cards may be a good way to go.

Local Print Shop
Offset Printing
Local print shops will print offset and digital, which means you can get your custom Pantone colors and use whatever paper you like. However, since your job is custom, they'll have to print your job all by itself, and not gang-up any other projects with it. In turn, that means that your job has to be profitable for them all by itself. It's not uncommon for print shops to have a 1000 card minimum order for offset printing. 1000 business cards would last me approximately 200 years.

Digital Printing
Digital printing is often mistakenly referred to as "color copying" (which is not technically correct). There's no copying taking place. Each page is printed from the original digital file. With digital printing, there is no make-ready for the press. There are many other differences as well, but the most important one for the sake of this project is that you can print as few as one page and as many pages as you want. Digital printing offers the quantity that I'm looking for.

Local print shops (especially smaller copy shops) typically have a rack of paper stock in the back of the shop. They'll have a selection of something like Classic Crest Linen and Laid paper. The paper is already cut down to 8.5x11 and they use it to run business cards and stationary packages. This paper, though it is more interesting than the standard 80# white cardstock, is still pretty everyday-ish and doesn't really offer the wow factor that I'm looking for.

And while local print shops do have a decent selection of stationary paper, if you want something that they don't have in stock, they'll have to order it for you. Local print shops buy paper by the ream, and often in whole cartons. So if you want fancy paper from a print shop, you're going to have to buy a lot of it.

So we need to find a place that sells beautiful, unusual paper by the sheet.

Paper By The Sheet
I wondered for several years how to find cool paper by the sheet. There are a couple of places that I know of.

Retail Paper Supply Store
The first is a paper supply store, like Xpedx (think "Dunder Mifflin" in a retail storefront). Paper vendors are the suppliers from which printers purchase their paper. If you can ever manage to take a trip down to one of the paper vendor retail storefronts, I highly recommend it. I was in the printing industry for about 8 years before I finally went to one. I wish I had visited there back when I was first starting out! It was awesome. They'll likely have the same types of paper that you'll find at a local printer, only a lot more of it. They might have 100 different types of invitation envelopes alone. Plus they'll have all the matching paper in cardstock and text weight...and you can buy all of it by the sheet, or by the box. They also have lots of other cool stuff like rulers, artist's tape, and raffle tickets. If you're a paper junkie, you'll have tons of fun there.

But as much paper as they have, they tend to only keep in stock the common papers (the type of paper that small print shops would use for stationary packages and general office use). So how do you go about finding really cool paper by the sheet?

Scrapbook Store
One evening, I was out walking my dogs in our small town, and I saw a new business that had just opened: it was a scrapbook store.

In case you've never been to a scrapbook store (men, this is for you), they sell all kinds of interesting stuff. Besides really cool paper and cardstock, they sell envelopes, scoring and folding tools, stickers, ribbons, tiny little rivets, embossing dies, stamps, different kinds of glue, shiny stuff, sparkly stuff, textured stuff... Visiting the scrapbook store is like sensory overload, but in a good way. Great scrapbookers are great designers. Only instead of software programs, they use stamps and glue and heat guns. Did you know that scrapbooking stores sell equipment and supplies that will let you make your own 1-off raised thermography designs? Neato!

So, if you've never been to a scrapbooking store, I encourage you to take a field trip to one. And hey, while you're there, pick up a few sheets of cool paper and follow along as we create the 8-up business  file in InDesign.

Okay, just kidding, I've already prepped the 8-up file. All you need to do is take your design and place it into the file I've made. But first you need to choose your template.

Using the Business Card Template
I keep several business card templates, for various designs and paper sizes.
  • 8-up, on 8.5 x 11", for business cards with bleed.
  • 10-up, on 8.5 x 11", for business cards without bleed.
  • 15-up, on 12 x 12", with bleed
  • 15-up on 12x12", without bleed
8-up, on 8.5x11", with bleed

10-up, on 8.5x11", without bleed

15-up, on 12x12", without bleed

15-up, on 12x12", with bleed

For you, my beloved readers, I have decided to make my templates available for download. Both the 8.5x11" templates are in one file, and the 12x12" templates are in a second file. I have CS3, CS4, and CS5 files, but for those you you who still have CS2, I've also provided a CS2 inx file. (And for those of you who haven't upgraded, did you know that by joining an InDesign User Group (which is free to join), you qualify for Adobe software discounts?)

Working With A Local Printer
If you've already got a good relationship with a local printer, you've already accomplished the most difficult aspect of this project. If you don't already have a relationship with a local printer, try to develop one. Different printers have different specialties, and you should choose your printer according to the size and specs of your print job.

Some printers specialize in high-quantity, offset press work. Others are geared more towards small business owners and digital printing. These smaller print shops are the type you'd find in a retail storefront. This business card project would be better suited for one of the independent print shops located in a retail storefront.

Hopefully, your local printer will already be familiar with using odd sized paper. Bring in a few extra sheets in case they have any problems with the paper. They shouldn't, since paper from scrapbooking stores is generally laser-compatible. But since this is a special, short-run job, go out your way to make the project easy for your printer. Bring extra sheets. Give them a few extra days. And I've found that bringing them high quality chocolate or homemade cookies never hurts, either.

Many small printers will charge a "digital download fee" for opening your file. This fee can range from $2 - 20. Generally, it's around $10. In my experience, if they charge this fee, they'll charge it whether you send them press-ready PDF, or natives file that will require them to unzip, install fonts, preflight and relink. So it may be a good idea to ask them if they charge a digital download fee.

Impose your 1-up design
I'm intentionally brief on this, because I'm assuming that you have already designed your business card, and you already know how to place images into InDesign. If not, check here. Then come back.

Trim your cards
For the business cards without bleed, I place the cards all next to each other in the template, to make for fewer cuts. Cutting isn't a big deal when you have a hydraulic chop-cutter, but when cutting at home using an X-acto knife, the fewer the cuts, the better.

But first, put in a new X-acto blade in your knife. You've got fancy paper and a beautiful design, so don't ruin it by using a dull blade.

Celebrate Being Frugal!
So you've bought paper, imposed your design, found a printer, got your cards printed, and trimmed them. And it's probably cost you about $10. So how did I get mine for free? Well, I was making some custom notecards for someone,  using the aforementioned sparkly paper, and there was extra room at the bottom of each sheet. So I filled it with my business cards.

Granted, this whole process did take a few hours of time, but when you're short on money and have a little time to spare, there is still a way to have really cool attention-grabbing business cards.

Author edit: 8-8-13: Check out another business card article I wrote over at InDesign Secrets: "Use Place and Link to Impose Documents in a Printing Workflow." That article shows you how to set up a business card template with crop marks, and then use Place and Link so that you can keep your 1-up design and your 10-up imposed layout in the same document and the cards will magically impose and auto-update.

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