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Metaphors we sticker by

How I realised the value of mission badge-style stickers for teams… and how your team can make your own.

I’ve had a mixed history with stickers. I loved them as a kid. But as an adult I stopped. It might have been my training in the industrial design school of ‘form follows function’. Just like I resisted laptop covers, I resisted stickers on my laptop.

Mission patches, as featured in Greenway, Terrett, Bracken and Loosemore’s “Digital Transformation at Scale”

This continued when I started working in government. I saw the Government Digital Service (GDS) mission badges, but didn’t get them at first. They seemed cutesy, hipster.

I helped a colleague in my department make one for his team. And a friend in a different government department do one as a parting gift to her team when she left. It was fun to do illustration. But I still didn’t get it.

Then I switched projects.

The service I was working on had been in private beta (the stage where there are invited users only) for over a year. The date that we could do the service assessment to go into public beta extended. And extended. And then… we met the standard! Not that we had time to rest. It was straight on to doing public beta.

It was at that point that I realised how a badge actually wasn’t just a cutesy and fun thing. It was actually a chance for a team to celebrate success, and recognise their efforts. This was particularly important if they had to quickly move on to the next phase of work rather than recover.

Since that initial revelation, I’ve made them for several service teams. Some have been for teams I’ve been a member of, and other for teams where I’ve been in a more advisory role.

I’ve also had a chance to develop ways for co-designing the meaning of the badges. While the GDS mission patch stickers (which were inspired by NASA) are generally spirit animals, they don’t have to be. What’s most important is that they’re a symbol that represents something the service team believes in. I’ve found that name storming (a technique Tom Hewitson developed for naming a government service and also well workshopped by Rebekah Barry) works best in letting the teams create something that they believe in.

When to decide on a mission badge

I’ve found that the best time to do the first mission badge session is around the start of alpha. This works for two reasons:

  1. the service is defined having gone through discovery
  2. the team know each other well enough to come up with ideas about what the mission badge could be

If it’s an existing team, it’s a nice activity to do either after a milestone (for example, after an assessment), or a little while after a team change and people know each other well.

Running a ‘sticker storming’ session to decide a mission patch symbol

My steps for choosing a mission patch are as follows:

At least one day before the session

Give the team warning that they’ll be doing a session where they decide on a metaphor for the team. It can be either the service, or something about the team. I’ve found that it’s good to give people warning since not everyone regularly thinks in metaphors.

The session

You’ll need 30 minutes to an hour for this. I’ve had this rolled into retro sessions.

The rules

Explain the rules to people beforehand.

  1. the idea has to be a metaphor. It can be an animal but doesn’t have to be — I’ve done one for the the god of Mercury!
  2. there has to be a story behind the idea. “Cos it’s cool” won’t cut it. The story could be about:
    the service (one team dealing with Scottish legislation chose a highland cow), or
    the team (one team chose an owl because they were wise owls starting with content)
  3. the story has to be stakeholder friendly — or have a version of the story that’s stakeholder friendly at least. I’ve done badges where the team had a team-only story and a stakeholder one!
  4. the idea must not done by another team. This becomes more of a thing if you have lots of teams doing them.


Then, give people 10 minutes to write down their ideas and rationale — one idea and rationale per post-it.

Disqualification round

Then together, do a check of the ideas. I read each one out, if needed get more context from the person who did it, and then ask the team, ‘does it meet the rules?’. If it doesn’t, it’s moved to the side.


Now that the suggestions left meet the rules, it’s time to vote. If any are the same or very similar, group them together. Check that everyone understands the concepts before voting starts. I give people three dot votes with the option to spread them or vote for one three times. If you don’t have dots, then they can tick the entries.

There’s a winner!

Example board of ideas from a session. There were a lot of rule-breaking ideas, mostly on point 3, that are cropped out of this picture. Also note the extra rule ‘no sloths’ as one team member really liked sloths!

If you can’t do this in person

Some communities have done this remotely by collecting ideas by google survey, choosing finalists and then doing one or more rounds of voting by survey. It’s slower, but works too.

Making the mission badge

Doing the design

As much as there’s a ‘GDS style’ for doing badges (simple look, black border), in reality there is no style. For example, some designers have changed the borders to white. I used the GDS look and also the Ministry of Justice examples as references. I’m also keen to play with using clear backgrounds.

Eddie Shannon’s stickers done for MOJ Digital

One arbitrarily started with 60mm but it could realistically be any size. (I accidentally early on made one 70mm when I couldn’t find a ruler and made a bad call on sizes. It was comically big — which I tried to justify because the service was also huge).

When it comes to software, I use Affinity Designer. I used these sticker projects as a chance to try the software out — I wanted to legally use software that was cheap enough that I could pay for it with my own money for hobby purposes (I used to use Adobe Illustrator as a student but couldn’t justify the licence fees for a hobby project). It’s worked beautifully in this respect. I know that other people making stickers use programs like Adobe Illustrator and other vector programs.

I usually start with reference photos, do initial sketches, and make the final stickers based on the sketches.

The highland cow of this service team’s mission badge changed over time. (The live sticker looks slightly different from the others as the department had brought in a graphic designer who’d started to create a different aesthetic for visuals like stickers).

[EDIT JULY 2019: for those with no designers around to make a design, if your team chooses a metaphor that already has an emoji for it, you may be able to outsource your designing and printing to a site called I haven’t used it but apparently at least one government department has!]


People in GDS who make stickers turned me on to using Diginate for printing. There’s no minimum order and you can pick any size. I usually go for gloss 60mm circle, but love the look of the clear ones. (One tip — I was put off by the ‘instant quote’ generator, but you don’t have to put your email in to see the cost) . As of September 2018, 24 x 60mm diameter stickers were less than £20 including postage. When it comes to funding the stickers, usually the teams do a collection of £1 per person to cover them, though sometimes a (very nice!) senior team member will foot the sticker cost.

Various stickers I’ve made in the wild, some with different styles

I am considering the 38mm Moo round stickers for some top up ones as they let you have up to 52 different designer in the pack of 52.

Other tips

Don’t fall foul of your departments comms restrictions

As much as agile can be about asking forgiveness rather than permission, this isn’t always the case when it comes to messing with a department’s brand. Departmental comms teams are understandably very careful about how their brand is used. In this respect, mission patch stickers have generally been done as grass-roots activities that mean they could be done quickly with minimal sign off. This means intentionally not relating it to a department and its brand unless it will go through an official comms sign off (which could take a while). In practice, this means:

  • including the phase to make it clear that this is about celebrating success
  • not having the name of your department unless you’re given explicit permission to do so
  • not overtly using departmental colours
  • being mindful of the team/service name you put on the sticker

I know of some communities of practice rather than service teams making stickers. This may be more likely to need comms sign off as it aligns to departmental structure so seems like a sub-group of your department. Continue with care.

There are other types of stickers

If you do want to make practice-based stickers (or more generally play around with stickers), there are other types of stickers being made in govdesign. The most prominent other type is the “mission statement” badge. These are sticker versions of the design principles or other key messages. These also serve a purpose in reminding people of govdesign values.

Whilst I have many of these on my laptop (I love “doing the hard work to make things simple”, “make things open, it makes things better”, and “be bold”), I’ve not tried creating one … yet.

Example of a ‘mission statement’ badge as featured on the govdesign tumblr

[EDIT JULY 2019: I made some as a leaving gift when I changed departments. The ‘celebrate success’ and ‘what does good look like?’ badges are below.]

‘Celebrate success’ and ‘What does good look like?’ stickers — which were pretty much an excuse to print stuff with gold and transparent backgrounds.

Make it sticker

Part of the reason I’ve wanted to write about this is that as people have seen the stickers appearing on people’s laptops, they’ve started asking me how to “get a sticker for their team” so they could “be like GDS”. I hope that this empowers teams to make their own.

I’m currently investigating ways to iterate on creating a metaphor by using techniques from Clean Language (for example “when you’re at your best, you’re like what?”). I’d love to hear feedback on how people iterate on the processes for deciding on badges and making them.



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Vicky Teinaki

Vicky Teinaki

Doing design’s unsexy middle bits. I work in government and read a lot.