Creating business cards with OpenOffice.org Writer

Exchanging business cards is a rudimentary form of networking (the people, not the server kind). However, to get the most out of the exchange, you need a card that attracts attention and reflects the image or values you want to project.

Unfortunately, OpenOffice.org Writer's tool for producing business cards does such a poor job of realizing both these goals that it is better avoided. However, if you know where to look, Writer also includes other tools that make designing business cards as easy as possible.

When you first click File -> New -> Business Cards, you may have a flash of hope that most of your work will be done for. However, click the Business Cards tab, and disappointment sets in. The five templates offered include only text and a few dingbats, and are as about exciting and distinguished as prime time television. Use any of them, and the image that you'll project will be unprofessional. Besides, unless you work for a company that's so big that you have no need to worry about image, like Macdonald's or IBM, you want your card to stand out -- and using a template from any off-the-net piece of software isn't going to help you do that. Even using the AutoText options isn't going to help.

Preparing to design

My suggestion is to avoid the Business Cards selection altogether, and click instead on File -> New -> Labels. You won't really miss the business cards' use of fields, or their format options, and can avoid the irritation of working around them.

In the Labels tab in the Labels window, make sure that the format is set to Sheet, then choose the Brand and Type for the sheet layout. This choice is usually hit or miss unless you have a particular brand on hand, but Avery Letter Size 5371 and Avery A4 L7413 are your best choices. Note that you are not necessarily going to use the designated sheet for printing your business cards -- it's just a template so that you can print multiple cards from the same page.

Then go to the Options tab, and make sure that Synchronize contents is selected. This option will allow you to add the design to only one card on the sheet, then populate the rest of the cards with the design.

When you are finished, click the New Document button. You'll see a Synchronize Labels button floating in the window, but ignore it for now.

Go to Tools -> Options -> OpenOffice.org Writer -> Grid, and select Visible Grid to give you guidelines for your design. You should also adjust the horizontal and vertical grid to 1-4 points, so that the grid is useful in the small space of a business card. Finally, select View -> Toolbars -> Drawing so that you can add graphical text, which will be easier to use than regular text in your design.

As you will soon find, you are limited to adding material only to the first card in the upper left corner of the document. For this reason, you can select View -> Zoom to get a larger view of the first card until you are ready to populate the other cards with your design.

Design considerations

Business card layouts are an exercise in minimalist design. With only six square inches in which to work, you have no space to waste.

For this reason, I suggest keeping the text on the front of the card to the minimum: your name, your company's name, and your main email address and telephone, and, perhaps, a company or personal slogan. If people really need more, you can always put it on the back of the card (see below).

In this minimalist setting, you'll find that the basic principles of design really come to your attention. You'll want contrast between your text and its background -- that is, dark text on a light background, or light text on a dark background. Possibly, you will have room for a third main color -- but not more. Your selection of colors may be determined by your company's, but if your company's colors were professionally selected, they probably provide a ready made contrast anyway. You can apply the background by placing a rectangle of the proper color over the entire card.

You'll want to place related items close together, which means that the card will have one to three blocks of text: all the information together; your name and company in one block and your contact information in another, and possibly a third for a slogan. Chances are, you'll also want to give related text the same alignment, providing a visual clue for readers of your cards.

In your limited space, you also want to keep the design simple, using only one typeface, or possibly two. If your company doesn't already have a specific font that it uses in its advertising, a sans serif or slab serif will generally maximize readability on the card. Whatever font you use, make sure that its size is at least 8 points, and 10 or 12 if possible. Remember, too, that, the smaller the font size, the more space you need between lines for readability.

These are simple principles, but they are regularly ignored by beginning designers. A surprising number of amateurs, for instance, think that putting one piece of contact information in each corner of the card is stylish. The truth is, such a design is only cluttered and hard to read.

For visual content, an already-designed company logo, or one of your digital photos are good choices -- either ensures originality and avoids any potential licensing problems. Another alternative is the Open Clip Art Library, or perhaps free-licensed photos from Flickr or another photo-sharing site. If you have trouble deciding on an image, a texture -- a closeup of rock or fabric, for example, often gives an interesting background. If necessary, you can use either OpenOffice.org Draw or the GIMP to edit the visual to suit.

Nowadays, an increasing number of cards are two-sided. This practice has the advantage of allowing the front to focus on creating a visual impression with a minimum of text. The back can be a reversal of the front's foreground and background, and contain more detailed contact information than the front. Another use of the back can be a form that allows recipients to quickly record where they met you and any actions they promised to undertake as the result of the meeting. Create a separate page for the back, using the same technique as for the front.

These are the basic considerations for designing your card. The rest is a matter of trial and error, of adding elements to the card and resizing and moving them about. When you have added the lines in each text block using the Text tool on the Draw toolbar, you can select Format -> Group -> Group to move all the lines of the block around together.

Don't be surprised if getting a satisfactory design takes all evening, or even a couple of days of work. Any design, especially a minimalist one, is more effort than it looks.

Producing your cards

When you are finished the design, click the floating Synchronize Labels button. In a few seconds, the design on the first card will be replicated on all the others.

Whether you should print your cards yourself depends on the hardware you have on hand. The ideal tools are a color laser print with duplex (two-sided) printing, although you might get by with an inkjet and -- assuming your blood pressure is healthy enough to withstand some frustrations -- manually feeding sheets of cards back into the printer for two-sided jobs.

For paper, avoid the actual sheets of cards sold by label makers. If you compare these sheets with professional cards, they are far too thin to look professional even for a moment. They also tend to show perforations on their edges. Invest in a heavier card stock instead.

If you can afford to spend a couple of hundred dollars for printing, then consider using a professional printer. To prepare your work for the printer, select File -> Export as PDF.

As you can see, even though Writer's Business Card leaves a lot to be desired, you can sidestep its limitations to produce professional cards. The hardest part is the design -- and, even there, Writer has the tools to complement your ingenuity and effort.

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