In a darkened bar in midtown Manhattan last week, eagle-eye Anthony glimpses the business card his friend Peter has just handed someone. The two men - unemployed for several months - occupy a similar niche on the buy side.
"Hey, give me one of those cards," Anthony tells Peter.
The card looks strangely familiar, even to me. His design is an exact clone of Anthony's, which I'd first seen a week earlier.
Anthony works gamely to manage his displeasure at seeing his personal brand diluted this way. "I've been giving these out for two months," he protests. "I love you man, but this isn't cool, using the same design I'm using."
Peter, looking sheepish, tries to placate his buddy with a variant of the "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" gambit. Anthony isn't buying it. Finally he asks, "How much did you pay for those?"
"If I give you 39 bucks, will you throw them away and get yourself a new design?"
Having worked past this little glitch in their relationship, the two friends return to the business at hand - in-person networking at Amalia on West 55th Street.
Once, an unemployed job-seeker's only worry with business cards was to make certain the design wouldn't turn off an employer. Now you have to think about not offending your friends. With so many laid-off professionals no longer having an employer's card format to rely on, this component of personal branding is becoming a bit crowded. So even a tasteful design might pose a problem if you end up copying a close associate's, knowingly or not.
To avoid such worries, stick close to plain-vanilla. And if someone hands you a card whose design impresses you, informally ask their permission before adopting it for yourself.