Back in October, Akvo hosted a small party in Washington DC. Our friend, American water PR supremo John Sauer, brought a few of his friends along.

One of John’s friends is Ian Moise, founder and CEO of a very interesting sustainability project called reuseconnection, which gathers information on how products and items can be reused as something else. So bottles turned into walls, at a basic level. But Ian’s plan is to go much further.

Anyway, we got on to the topic of business cards. I was complaining about the cost and general nuisance of running a fleet of business cards for a team growing fast, and now numbering over 30 people. You see, our litho-printed cards are expensive – and our initial cards were litho and a funny shape, so now I can’t swap to a lower quality approach, without some people having cards that don’t match.

And then Ian said something that floored me:

I think in future, people will have business cards that just have their name on them – nothing else.

This struck me as a great idea. My office desk, bag and study are littered with the business cards of people I can’t remember how I met. I look at them, feeling guilty that I ought to enter their contact details into my address book, and then in a flash of inspiration get in touch.

Just as annoying, business cards are quite restricting as a networking tool – a bit like trying to run your social life via Linkedin. There’s a tired etiquette about when to share and with whom. You can’t give a business card to the people you know at your local bar, or the corner shop, for fear of looking like someone a bit odd. So your networks stay quite narrow.

They also look awful, with their lots-of-lines of boring contact info – which seem to be multiplying right now as we add Twitter names and Skype handles.

Just a name, and two colours

So last month Linda Leunissen and I decided to give this a go. In about an hour, we laid out a set of cards for about a third of the Akvo staff – people who have built a distinct identity online, so if you search for them on Google, or Twitter, Linkedin or Facebook you only need their name and a chance to see a picture of them to know you’ve found your man or your woman. There are a few people whose names are too common, but this twelve work fine.

We gave out the cards at the end of my CharmerVision talk at our Amsterdam Team Week last month, where I’d talked about how social networks think they own us, but actually we own our identities and our friendships and our networks and they’re eminently portable. The buzz was great, as @leuteren tweeted, “creating excitement by having created Akvo business cards with just a name and nothing else on them”.

The entire batch cost £79 (100 cards x 12 boxes) from an online digital printer, so it was great value.

There’s no logo or Akvo name on the cards. But we used the Akvo colour palette and our standard Verdana typeface. Choosing colours was especially fun. Linda and I picked the combos for most people based on knowing them, and where we got stuck we simply asked people to tell us which of x or y colour they preferred and didn’t tell them anything else. Most people seemed pleased with the look of theirs.

They’re not laminated and are white on the back, so you can write on them (if someone says “so how do I reach you? you can note something on the back).

But of course with these cards “so how do I reach you?” becomes part of the challenge – part of the fun. Tell me honestly that if you had a card with just someone’s name on it, you’re not going to check them out online. How can you resist?

I don’t expect these to replace our conventional cards any time soon – we mix in environments that can be extremely formal. But I’m really interested to hear how people use the cards, and in whose hands they end up.

There’s a serious side to this from an Akvo perspective too. I want people to realise we trust them to be themselves online, and represent us. But they’re an individual too, not an automaton. Just like the social networks, we don’t own them either.

Neither should people feel slaves to technology. Fancy new gadgets sometimes distract us from the real digital revolution, which is about how the simplest thing – a card with your name on it – can suddenly become useful, in a whole new way. I’m sure Ian Moise would agree that often the old ideas are the best ideas.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder and communications director of Akvo, based in London.