In today’s digital-dominated climate of cell phones and social networking, it’s easy to dismiss the basic rectangular business card as a casualty of the era. Yet many business observers and designers say the card is still as relevant today as it was in the 17th Century, when it was widely used as a promotional tool among European aristocrats and trade merchants.

It’s just getting a 21st-century makeover.

Today, business cards can mean much more than the familiar paper rectangles that were once traded furiously at networking events or tucked into the backs of wallets. Everyone from large corporations to freelancers are getting creative with calling cards by using unique designs, textures and even laminated beef jerky and plastic figurines to promote their brands.

“It’s the digital age, but people are still yearning for authentic connections,” noted Stephanie Shore, vice president of global marketing for Moo, an online printing company specializing in high-quality paper and designs.

Luckow card

Alan Luckow designs cosmetic-grade stainless steel cards sharp enough to cut a steak.

Moo has designed cards for a content management system that included unique discount codes on one side, allowing the client to track the event or conference at which the card was distributed and, therefore, better tailor its marketing efforts.

Another non-traditional option in Moo's portfolio are mini-cards, Shore said, which are half the size of standard 3.5-by-2-inch cards and can be fashioned out of multiple layers of superfine paper and a color seam through the middle. "They always get a reaction," she said.

Other designers are disregarding paper altogether and going for metal, plastic or even edible stock in an effort to stand out. 

Chris Thompson started, a Philadelphia-based company that creates laser-etched beef jerky business cards, after brainstorming with some friends about what to order for their next sets of business cards. 

The idea of edible cards came up. “The next day, I put some jerky in a laser engraver at work," Thompson said. "The laser etching left a mark, and meat cards were born,” he said, though he stresses that they are not edible.

Rethink, a Canadian advertising agency, created laser-etched beef jerky (edible for up to a year) calling cards for BC Adventure, an outdoor adventure company. For a baby clothing retailer, they came up with rounded-edge cards protected by soft "baby-proofed" corners to express the company's mission with a hint of cheekiness.

Start-ups are not the only businesses thinking outside the box, however. At the Lego Group, executives distribute personalized mini-figurines with their contact information. Kevin Hinkle, a senior community coordinator for Lego, described on a company blog that receiving the box of mini-figure cards was like joining "the cool kids club."

hip baby card

Hip Baby, a clothing retailer, distributes rounded-edge cards protected by soft 'baby-proofed' corners.

Another widely publicized non-paper card belongs to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The card's designer, Alan Luckow, recalls how back in 2006 Wozniak asked him for a special business card and he came up with a cosmetic-grade stainless steel card sharp enough to cut a steak. The mogul trotted it out as a conversational piece during an interview on the Colbert Report, and one of the cards even sold on eBay for $560.

As Luckow recalls, "I mentioned metal to him and he loved the idea, so I designed this card with an additional feature that allowed him to shoot a laser through the tiny logo at the top and project an image."

Now, Luckow said, metal cards are more common. Plasma Design, the U.K. designer that made Wozniak's original cards, has clients that include mortgage specialists, lawyers, a motor yacht maker, and Gold's Gym.

Demand for business cards has also spread beyond the corporate universe. Vistaprint, an online provider of business cards and other products, has seen more orders for "mommy cards," which let parents exchange contact, emergency and even allergy information on the playground or at school, said Adam Depelteau, a product marketing specialist at the company. Also in demand are cards that double as raffle tickets, bookmarks and punch cards for customer loyalty programs, he said.

Others believe the business card, in any form, is on its way to becoming as obsolete as a VHS tape.

"With the access to social media profiles and all the tools online to find people, there are just so many options," said Justin Nowak, chief operating officer of the Canadian Cloud Council, a nonprofit group promoting the use of cloud technology among businesses in North America. "I would rather have someone tweet me or look me up on LinkedIn, as that is more permanent and I don't have to worry about filing it."

Born of Sound card

Born of Sound creates custom art from sound forms like a child's laugh or favorite song.

Yet despite the trend toward a paperless world, it's hard to beat the feel or look of a good-looking calling card, said Jenelle Mohan, owner of Born of Sound, an online shop that creates custom art from sound forms like a child's laugh or favorite song.

Born of Sound's business cards, which were designed by Moo and feature different sound formson one side, are "critical" to its business and marketing strategy, she said.

"Instead of challenging (clients) to think about what sound looks like, we can show them," explained Mohan. "We often lay out a number of cards for people to look at and let them choose their favorite. This invites them to engage with the card in a deeper way than just adding it to their collection in a drawer."

Whatever the size or look, there's a sense of pride when handing someone your business card that isn’t going away, Depelteau added.

"The physical, disruptive nature of a business card is important," he said. "In today’s world full of digital clutter, being handed a business card does not allow the opportunity to simply hit 'delete.'"