Name badges, the unsung conference heroes

The name badge design can make or break your conference.

You might think I’m exaggerating and yeah, this is internet. Of course I’m exaggerating. But while talks, venue, code of conduct, and food are the obvious levers organizers can pull to make their conference or meet-up amazing, badges get a short shrift.

And yet a good, thoughtfully designed name tag can not only make things easier for people who are good at connecting. It can also make conversations possible for everyone else who struggles with “mingling.” The badge can be the social lubricant your event needs instead of alcohol; a series of prompts, entry points, openers to conversations.

This is one badge Brian Fitzpatrick (Fitz) and I put together for an unconference called ORD Camp. Almost everything you see on it is designed to help people get to know each other:

So, let’s talk about the big picture of badge design, some fun details, and eventually arrive at a set of InDesign scripts that you can use yourself!

Part 1: The big picture

Most of what I learned about badges came from Fitz. He reviews badges on Twitter and just started a bona fide badge review website.

Fitz spent a lot of time thinking of the size of the badge (4"×8" or 4"×6"/A6), how to attach the lanyard (in two corners so that the badge won’t awkwardly rotate), what to put on it, and what to avoid at all costs (QR codes, all caps). He summarized it all in a list of ten badge commandments. It’s fun. You should read it.

In 2017, Fitz asked me to help come up with new badge design for ORD Camp, and in 2018 he suggested trying to see if we can make the badges smaller. This is the result:

The front of ORD Camp badges shows all these:

  • First name, in big letters.
  • Last name, for disambiguation and recognition.
  • Personal pronouns (if you specify them).
  • Three interests to spark a conversation and connect people.
  • A symbol designating whether you’re a newcomer or a conference veteran, as a way for those who have done it before to help out those who haven’t.
  • Neighbourhood stamp, an ORD Camp idea that groups people into smaller units for orientation and help.
  • Sponsors, for obvious reasons.

What you won’t find on it is as important: no big conference logo or even any conference logo (you know where you are!), no QR code, no awkward URLs, no tiny fonts. At some events, I could imagine a person’s Twitter handle, or their affiliation to be an important inclusion — but like any other time you’re a designer, for everything added, you need to question what could be removed.

And if the front of the badge is for others, the back is just for its wearer. For ORD Camp, we dedicated it to a map (which included a clear, loud indicator of the other important thing, the agenda):

Part 2: Design details

People’s names are different, and their interests can be anything from three words to three longish sentences. One font size wouldn’t fit all, but I didn’t want to rely on a naïve resize-to-scale algorithm. Instead, I came up with a few size variants—for example, the first name could be 75/65/55/45/30 points but nothing else — and then wrote a script that would try to find the best fit. This way, I could accommodate all sorts of options while still creating a coherent visual universe.

Here’s an example of a few badges with different sizes:

(The end result is horizontally and vertically centered. The last part is a bit weird when seeing badges side by side, but not worrisome in actual use.)

The badges were also chock-full of details and easter eggs, including quite a few references to 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, remixed to celebrate ORD Camp’s tenth anniversary:

(The logo, typography, colour palette, and visual elements were also perpetuated on printed signage, in presentations, &c.)

Part 3: The manufacturing process

The badges were prepared in InDesign using its Data Merge feature (so that no one had to make hundreds of badges by hand), and scripted with JavaScript to make it better (so that it didn’t feel like they all came from a machine, or to add features Data Merge didn’t have). The input was a Google Spreadsheet of people’s names, interests, and so on. The output: a print-ready PDF with 4¼"×6" badges.

However, working in InDesign was also an absolute nightmare. This is typical of Adobe applications these days, and it’s hard for me to fathom how bad they’ve become. Illustrator routinely makes my entire computer hang. Photoshop just takes over the entire Mac OS UI in some sort of interface version of manspreading. InDesign crashes and then reliably crashes again while reopening. And scripting InDesign in JavaScript is even worse; the environment is programmer-hostile, with little in terms of convenience (not even console.log), unfixed bugs filed almost a decade ago, and obsolete documentation. Your day basically looks like this…

…and that’s before you realize the tiny community can’t offer much help and the sadness gets more acute.

I don’t know if any other tool is appropriate for printing (Sketch, perhaps?), so for the time being, InDesign it is. But I’m uneasy recommending it, since it feels so cumbersome. Please let me know if you’re automating printing in a better way, or have smarter ideas that I had.

Whether you want to actually grab this as a starting point for your conference or event, or just play with it and tell me what I did wrong, head over here to GitHub to download the source files, instructions on how to integrate your spreadsheet data, and the JavaScript code that polishes the badges and makes them look nice. And then tell me how you felt about using all of it.

(Just pray none of your conference attendees uses emoji. You’ll see why.)

Send me your feedback! Plus, thank you to Brian Fitzpatrick for reviewing this article.

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