Tech Life Finding the unknown

Full of Interesting Strangers

In its second year, XOXO is a legitimate replacement for SXSW. Full of bleeding-edge makers of things, XOXO has a fascination with fuchsia and a great badge.

XOXO 2012

I can write this because over the years, I’ve developed a strong opinion regarding badges.

Stinking Badges

A Badge Connects You to the People

The following are my current beliefs regarding what makes a great badge. While this piece is also meant to inform conference organizers, I’m writing this for conference attendees, since there are a great many more of those than organizers.

First, let’s talk use case. Our hypothetical badge-worthy conference and attendee have the follow essential characteristics:

  • It’s 500+ folks. There are a great many interesting strangers and you are one of them.
  • It’s a multiple day affair. This is not a single-day conference. You are going to have ample time to mingle with many of these strangers.
  • You are actively and eagerly attending this conference. No hiding in your hotel room. You’re at a majority of the formal and informal events, and most importantly, you’re wearing your badge.

Your conference experience starts when you check in, and for very good reasons, conference organizers often provide you a shit ton of schwag. Take the badge, politely decline the schwag. You don’t want it. Trust me.

The badge is the only schwag you need because a badge connects you with the rest of the conference and its design quietly affects how much you’ll get out of the experience. The badge achieves this by providing as much social connection with as little social friction as possible.

Here are the rules:

A well-designed badge provides useful at-a-glance information. When you walk up to an interesting stranger, you don’t really want to spend more than a half a second staring at their badge. In half a second you’re only going to grok one piece of information, so badge crafters need to make that most important information ginormous.

It’s hard to predict the single correct piece of information to highlight, but it’s not their first name. It’s either their last name, their company, or perhaps their Twitter handle. Ideally, conference organizers would let attendees flag the single most important bit of information when they sign up, but they usually don’t so I’d go with a big bold last name, but include first name, company, and Twitter handle (or other social something) and that’s it. What’s their title? What do they do? This and other important information doesn’t belong on the badge: it belongs in the conversation facilitated by the badge. This is the point of the badge: to create a great many first conversations.

Here’s who is doing it right:

The Big Three

A badge needs to survive the conference. Three days, hanging around your neck all day and possibly all night (or getting shoved in a pocket when you hit the bar). After those three days, the lanyard needs to be intact and the badge needs to look like when you picked it up. Remember, the badge is likely the only object you’re going to need and keep. It’s the physical and long-lasting artifact that represents the conference, and if, after a day of use the badge looks crumpled and worn, my thought is, “They don’t give a shit about their conference and my experience is an afterthought.” Funconf, which during its three-year tenure has been in a terrific battle for best conference on the planet with Webstock, learned the durability lesson well:

All Funconf

After Year One’s half-hearted attempt, Funconf nailed it with their sturdy and readable Year Two badge. Look at it: it looks like I just checked in to the conference, and it’s been two years. Year Three was a laser-crafted work of art – attendee names layered into sanded Irish oak. It’s tough, it’s gorgeous, but it doesn’t fit in my pocket, which means I didn’t bring it. My definitive use case for sturdiness and usefulness: I need to be able to wind the lanyard around the badge and stuff it in my back pocket for a heavy night of drinking. The following morning the badge needs to still be in my back pocket and look like it hasn’t spent the night in that back pocket.

A badge is not a map nor a schedule. It’s you. I continue to have heated and drunken debates with my friend and fellow conference connoisseur John Gruber on proper badge design. One point we consistently agree upon is the printing of additional conference information on the badge. The rule we determined is that any information for the badge wearer should be printed upside-down for easy reading. Any information for other conference goers should be printed in the usual readable fashion. The iPhone rendered half of this argument irrelevant.

Let’s look at seven years of WWDC badges:


After a couple of misfires, the WWDC badge settled into a steady state semi-ginormous badge. The size was justified because one of the essential pieces of the badge was a conference schedule that you kept tucked in the back. In 2008 and 2009 the badge shrank – why? 2007 was when the iPhone arrived, which provided a far superior and dynamic platform for sharing conference information. I’m assuming conference organizers realized there were now only two use cases for the badge: identification and social connection. This is the form factor Apple continues to use through WWDC 2013, and I would call this one the current best functional design for a badge.

A badge has heart. I included the Waza badge above because of its heart. It’s not sturdy; their badge is comprised of three layers of paper and cardboard, which likely won’t survive in my back pocket, but look at that badge. You likely have no idea what the Waza conference is, but does the badge give you the impression that they care? If you could hold that badge in your hand, you’d feel the rice paper they used for the top layer of the badge as well their soft and silky lanyard. Waza’s badge has heart because Waza has heart.

As an attendee, I learn important information when a badge has heart. When it’s clear that someone has lost their mind on the details of the badge design, it’s likely they’ve lost their mind across the board. Each part of the conference has been thought through, and as an attendee or a speaker, that means I’m going to go out of my way to experience as many parts of this conference as possible. There is just no telling where it might be brilliant.

The Remaining Details

There is an important set of remaining details that is going to define a good badge, which I’ll touch on briefly:

  • Lanyard. I have nothing against advertising at a conference, but advertising on the lanyard is a visually noisy waste. First, can you remember a single advertiser from lanyard-based advertising? No. Second, did I sign up to provide advertising for free when I signed up for the conference? No.
  • The clip. After a careful examination of every single badge in my collection the definitive clip is the lack of a clip. The all-cloth looped lanyard sported by all three Webstock badges is the gold standard and breaks the mold in a world of cold, angry metal clips.

Webstock Lanyard

  • Two sides. A badge is hanging from your neck, you’re doing a great many things, and it’s flopping around, so the information on each side of the badge is equally valuable and should be the same.

  • Status. There are two pieces of status a badge needs to convey. First, am I, the interesting stranger, allowed into this part of the conference? A quick glance at the badge should give Random Joe at the door this information. Second, am I, the interesting stranger, also a speaker? Again, a clear but subtle indication that I’m a speaker needs to be on the badge for Random Joe, but it doesn’t need to be over the top. There’s no need for separate speaker badges. Mostly everyone will know who the speakers are because they speak.

The Badge is the Reminder of the Story

SXSW was my introduction to conferences and as such I thought they were the gold standard of badges as well, but after a few years of heading to Austin, I noticed something:


There are a couple of badge travesties here. On top of the typographic mess they include… a picture of me? Why? Probably as a means to identify that it’s my badge, but look at that minuscule smudgy black and white photo that they didn’t ask me to update for four years. It’s a waste of space. The combination of the flimsy plastic holder, the angry metal clip, and advertising adorned lanyard makes for an average badge. But that’s not the problem. The SXSW badge hasn’t evolved, and while I didn’t stop going because of the badge, the badge design and conference design shared the same boring flaw: exponentially more of the same.

It’s confusing: your badge is about you, but your badge is not for you. You know who you are and what you do, but no one else does. Yes, you choose the conference because of the speakers, the company, or the theme, but what will make a conference memorable are the random strangers you meet in the hallway.

As I’ve written, the defining moment for a conference is not seeing the people you know, it’s finding the unknown. What I want to remember on the flight home isn’t how a speaker slayed. It’s the reflection on the incredibly unlikely sequence of random events that I happened to meet a hero of mine at a party at a bar that I never planned to attend. A conference is full of thousands of these brief, unlikely moments of potential, and it’s your badge’s job to make sure that they have a chance to occur.

The badge isn’t the heart of the conference — it’s the people — but when the people are gone, the badge is a link to all of the stories, and this why I keep my badges.

This is where I met my best friend…

First SXSW

This is the coldest I’ve ever been in my life…

CUSEC 2011

And this is when I figured how much fun it is to get a thousand people to laugh…

First WWDC

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19 Responses

  1. Norton Chia 10 years ago

    Love a good badge. But any badge that has your details wrong or they forgot and had to quickly scribble one out – with poor penmanship, can be memorable for all the wrong reasons.

  2. Mario 10 years ago

    What about Electronics in badges? Like iBeacon or RFID? Any comments on that? My next badge experience will be the 30c3 badge. We shall see how it fairs.

  3. Mr. Bee 10 years ago

    All good except this:

    “It’s hard to predict the single correct piece of information to highlight, but IT’S NOT THEIR FIRST NAME. ” (emphasis added)

    It most definitely *is* their first name in every case where it cannot (for reasons of style/design) be their full name.

  4. I liked your post, and how you articulated that badges capture the moment of a conference and more. My Macworld badge from ’97 says and meant more than other years and all of that is in the badge. I admit in the past I stopped using my real name and have several adolescent “Clark Kent” occupation “Reporter” badges but the conversations and ice breaking (and handing out a business card) made meeting people more fun. And I didn’t want or get swag emailed or following me.

  5. Bruce 10 years ago

    The single sided badge with a single lanyard hook is ubiquitous and flipped backwards about 40% of the time. (Damn, it just flipped over AGAIN!)

    Your idea of a two-sided badge is wonderful. Otherwise, pass a world-wide law requiring either that or a badges with two lanyard hooks.

  6. Chris K 10 years ago

    Good article. I design badges for music camps and events where affiliation and contact info are secondary. Name is the most important.
    The biggest points in my designs are:
    1. First name is the largest thing on the badge – large, bold and centered. When one person greets another, it’s much easier and nicer to be able to say, “Hi there, Joe!”
    2. Print both sides identically. Badges flip and the wearer never need worry about whether others will know who they are.
    3. White badge with dark lettering, please! Make it easy for us older folks!

  7. I appreciated the whole post, but I felt you left out the one thing I wish all the many conferences I attend would aim for: biodegradable badges. I don’t keep my badges and don’t need to. The volume of detritus (“schwag”) that gets handed out, not to mention the reams of paper, barrels of ink, etc., which are wasted to print literature that could easily have been emailed or posted for download, makes me want to conserve the Earth a bit more. I come for the people and the content of the talks, not the badges. I’m sentimental about other things. Meanwhile, I have to throw away or recycle the junk, standard plastic sleeve, printed nametag insert and printed lanyard (that I’ll never wear again), and then the conference lapel pins. As a legislator I have accumulated enough lapel pins to open up a shop.

    Give me a badge that does everything you mention but that can be recycled, reused or thrown away with a net-positive environmental impact.

  8. Richard S. Russell 10 years ago

    (1) Of all the possible badge data that might be ballooned up to read-across-the-room size, the only one you emphatically denounce is the first name. Dead wrong! That’s the one piece of information you won’t be readily excused for forgetting from one year to the next, and it’s especially embarrassing when it’s somebody whose name you should have remembered.

    (2) Badge affixion should be designed so the badge is naturally placed somewhere up around a person’s face, not on a belt or handbag and certainly not dangling between a woman’s breasts.

    Also, Mr. Picky Grammarian sez:
     • shrank: Yay!
     • is comprised of: Boo!

  9. Alexandre Enkerli 10 years ago

    How about letting people bring their own badges? Sure, there might be an identification issue, but there are other ways to make that work.

    Any thoughts on the practice of reusing the lanyard and/or some part of the badge? It’s fairly frequent for shoestring operations to ask people to leave their badges so they can reuse the non-identifying part. Less wasteful.

    Was also surprised you dismissed the prominence of a first name, especially since your first name is quite salient in some of the positive examples you give.

    Glad you came to Montreal, though it‘s sad you didn’t enjoy the weather. Looking at the data from January 13–15, 2011, it sounds like it wasn’t that cold. But cold is relative.
    With both Bret Victor and you having spoken at Cusec, I feel like I should get into it (I teach at Concordia). Too bad I missed both of your talks. Victor’s has been on my mind since I watched it.

  10. hi-endian 10 years ago

    If I were to write a whole rant about badges, my major complaint would be how “doofus-y” and, frankly, unprofessional they make a person look. I absolutely refuse to wear those idiotic things around my neck. For some reason, “we” have collectively decided that whilst at one of these usually ultra-dull corporate affairs , in ultra-generic hotels, that it’s ok for us all to look like a bunch of nine-year-olds at summer camp. At the very least, give me the option to clip my badge to the front of my shirt or something. Seriously, I’d rather wear a pocket protector.

    I agree with Whitney that more plastic junk is the last thing that we need; and I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that Richard S Russel is right about the need for awareness of badge/cleavage interaction.

  11. Any badge vendor recommendations? I’m looking for a small event (~200 badges) in NYC next year.

  12. Adrian Meli 10 years ago

    Probably the first post I have read on badges. Good points-there is a shockingly high percentage of bad badges out there so bending the curve would be nice!

  13. Yay, Webstock!

    We hope you’ll come back soon to collect more badges!

  14. My solution to this problem is

    For badges hanging on a lanyard, I agree, double-sided is a must.

    For a one-day events (or shorter) then using sticky labels is fine, yes really, especially when they are printed with a Big first name.