It’s time once again to engage in my quixotic quest for short-run personal business cards. I’ve used xeroxed cards in the past to meet this need. This time, the burgeoning development of direct-to-plate offset printing and the corresponding flowering of online quickprint with uploads or online layout tools led me to investigate color-based options as well.

Googling on the subject presents a nearly impenetrable thicket of search-engine optimization spam links, which mostly direct the user toward one of two online providers, VistaPrint and VistaPrint offers an intriguing promo: 250 business cards “free,” plus shipping. Naturally, the completed order is directed through a maze of upsells (faster shipping, remove the backside advertising) such that you’re likelier to spend about $20 on the cards there than not. Having just received one such card from a new acquaintance, I can report that at least the backside advertising is not obtrusive or in poor taste – just a simple logo and line of small black type on the back of the card. Unfortunately, that makes the backside of the card more graphically effective, and in better taste, than the front of the card.

Additionally, the basic layouts that are available are less than optimal and certainly do not offer a satisfactory range of control over the design. For $20 one would expect to do better.

Selecting a ‘premium’ card order does open up the range of possible layouts somewhat but this is accomplished primarily by increasing the number of ill-advised photographic background choices available. The ability to work with type on the card remains very limited – one cannot move the type blocks around, change the size or color of the type either globally, line-by-line, or by block.

Noting this, I was happy to see that VistaPrint does offer direct uploading of card designs in standard graphic formats, including professional ones; but that functionality is only available under IE on Windows, so I’m not even going to spend more time looking into the option.

Pricing for premium cards on a run of $250 is $9.99 (plus the same shipping upsell), so in theory one should be able to execute a run for a total outlay of under $20 – only the failure to provide a Mac option turns me away from at least experimenting.

Looking elsewhere, the presence of VistaPrint’s “free” run of 250 cards makes finding a provider who will even take an order for less than 500 cards somewhat challenging. offers what appears to be competitively priced cards in short runs with a much greater degree of flexibility over the card design – type lines and blocks can be resized, colored, and moved around on the page in increments as small as 1/64 of an inch. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine if you’ve accurately aligned baselines in this manner.

Small, in-line graphics can be uploaded to include in the design and layout of the card as well – unfortunately, these graphics are limited to a bitmap format (such as a tiff or a jpeg) and to two colors or to grayscale. Multicolored images are converted to greyscale. The placed graphic, however, may be assigned a spot color, from a very limited sixteen color swatch book. No Pantone equivalents for the colors are specified, so it’s a crapshoot.

Here is a jpeg of the design I’m working with currently, and here is a version of it I assembled in iPrint’s online layout tool.

from Illustrator


from iPrint

While close, one may note that the ‘MW’ graphic (a design element I may drop or replace with something else, or nothing) is smaller on the iPrint version, and that one simply has to hope for the best in the matter of type treatment and color. The other point to consider is that while iPrint’s online tools offer a high degree of flexibility, each layout change is executed as a form submission from your web browser – and the layout seen here is nothing like any of the layouts used as a starting point. I’d estimate that it took me about an hour and a half to get the online version of the card to the point seen here, while the Illustrator-based version probably took about 20 minutes or so to develop.

So, given that one of my goals in this experiment is 250 cards for under $20, what would the iPrint version run? iPrint’s price list specifies $19.99 for 250 as a base, but invokes add-on charges such as $3.00 for a graphic, and another bump if more colors than black or used – so the base for this design on a run of 250 would be $27.99, before shipping or any taxes (probably not applicable in this instance).

Hm, thirty bones for a rough approximation of what I want? Bad choice.

A bit more digging yeilded Overnight Prints, which does offer a direct upload tool. The tool also evaluates the file uploaded and will provide semi-cryptic error information if your file is not appropriately configured. In this case, proper is an EPS with only spot colors. I find this an odd choice given that short run and on-demand printing is inherently dependent on four-color direct-to-plate printing. So how much would it run here?

A 250-card run is $29.95 plus shipping (calculated at the time the order is placed) – so $35 to $37 is a probable estimate. The next break above 250 is 1000 for a base cost of $39.95, which puts one back in the fifty-dollar range for a long run – exactly what I don’t want. I am interested in the short runs for the specific purpose of indulging in the pleasure of redesigning the card at frequent intervals – and so I find myself aground, I think. In a couple of weeks I may experiment with the upload option at VistaPrint from a Windows computer.

In the meantime, I am beginning an assiduous search for an in-city letterpress. I think there’s something highly interesting in the idea of Helvetica and seventeenth-century swash lettering meeting on the bed of a ninteenth-century press.

It seems that the School of Visual Concepts was offering letterpress classes in the winter of 2003, and it looks like they still are. $195 for a day’s seminar, taught by one Amy Redmond? Hm, if I can get my 250 cards out of it – might be worth a look. I see, however, that I just missed that exact class: “Letterpress Business Card Workshop,” $225, ran on May 15 and 16, darn it.

Once, there was an active letterpress shop, The Living Museum of Letterpress Printing, at 2017 2nd Ave downtown, but I believe it’s now evaporated. I’ve already bemoaned the fact that one cannot order materials from the Williamsburg printshop online; I wonder, are there any manual presses that also conduct biz over the web? I recognize that cost may simply prove prohibitive if I choose to move in this direction, but the physical act of setting type – letters on a composing stick, or rubber stamps on a toy hand-cranked drum press – is the first thing that awakend my interest in visual creation.

eBay offers at least one tabletop press at the moment. As a child, I had a version of the Cub toy printing press. The version seen behind the eBay link is considerably older than mine – but the principle is the same. I had more or less completely forgotten about this toy until I started writing about it here.

3 thoughts on “Pressing Letters

  1. By all means, get the tabletop press. If you do, I’ll pay you for a short run of cards for myself to offset the cost. A press in your hands, I expect, may produce some cool results.

  2. Your business card is way cool!!

    I’d second the vote for acquiring the press . . But beware: all forms of the book arts — printing, type, binding — are addictive. (You could do worse than an addiction to paper, however.)

  3. Wet blanket here…iprint has done my business cards for the tiny bidness, and I’m very happy. Their on-screen graphics look like crap, but the final product was exactly what I hoped for. Of course, if you’d be happier with your own printing press, who am I to say?

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