Conference nametags mostly suck

I’ve been to a lot of conferences, and at every single one I’ve been issued a nametag.  I don’t know how those nametags get designed, but I’m guessing it’s mostly an afterthought.  That’s because they’re mostly terrible.  If you think about it, that’s pretty astounding – because as easy ways to improve a conference go, better nametags are such low-hanging fruit they’re practically lying on the ground.

Here’s a good place to start: what’s a nametag for?  I hope we can agree that it’s for communicating your name (and maybe your institutional affiliation) to the people around you*.  That sounds trivial (because it is), but it sets up what should be the overarching design principle: make it easy for someone to read the name.  Everything else comes second.  So how can one do that?

  • Print the name in the simplest and biggest font you can. Look, I shouldn’t have to tell anyone this – except that apparently I do.  I’ve been at conferences where my nametag used 14 point Times Roman; where my first name was nice and big but my last name was (apparently) a state secret; where my name used less space than the name of the society or the conference’s (completely pointless) theme.  I want to read someone’s name without leaning in creepily, without squinting or adjusting my bifocals – and preferably, while still 10 feet away so I can see who they are before they’ve walked right past me.  There isn’t a font too big for the name. Let it fill the tag.  Use a line for first name and a line for last (in equally large font, because people who know me from my papers or from my book need my last name to figure that out).  If someone’s name is really long, their font may have to get a bit smaller – but that needn’t constrain everyone else’s font.  Toner is cheap.  Go big.
  • namebadge-esa-2016Use the real estate you’ve got for the most important information. The nametag at right isn’t horrible, but it uses up almost half the badge space (44%) on logos, banners, dates, and the like.  Really?  Were you worried we wouldn’t know the dates of the conference that we’re currently at?  And that logo is lovely, but we know all where we are, so save it for the conference totebag where it doesn’t interfere with function.  If you shrink or lose the useless ornamentation, you’ll have room for my name in a nice big font – plus maybe some other useful stuff, like my institutional affiliation, Twitter handle, or email address.
  • Make the nametag two-sided. Nametags get flipped over, and until I notice, I’m showing my colleagues a white rectangle devoid of any information at all. It’s trivially easy to print the same information on both sides of the nametag.
  • Provide both a lanyard and a pin. A nametag is intended to be looked at, so people will look at it – and as a consequence, their sight will graze whatever part of the wearer’s body the nametag ends up next to. Give the wearer as much choice as possible about which body part that is.  Some like a lanyard long, and some like it short; some like a tag pinned to a lapel – and it’s easy to accommodate all of these.

These first few points I’m pretty sure of, but I’ve got one more proposal that might not get universal approval.  This is it: do not give attendees an option to add a title.  One thing I like about the major conferences I go to is that they’re pretty egalitarian: old fogeys like me don’t get a special star in the program; grad students don’t have their names in parentheses**.  I was startled at the recent International Congress of Entomology to see nametags trumpeting “Professor X” and others apologetically coughing “Ms. Y” and “Mr. Z”.  I don’t think we need to give the silverbacks in our profession extra opportunities to reinforce their status.  (Fortunately, at ICE, everyone had the opportunity to use a title but only perhaps 5% did.)  Let’s all be just plain old “FirstName McLastName”, and maybe that will help us approach each other as partners in science – which, after all, is what we are.

Finally: all this seems like I’m blaming nametag designers for every shortcoming in nametag function.  That’s not actually true.  Nametag wearers have plenty of ability to make a bad nametag good, or a good nametag bad.  I’m always shocked how little of that ability gets harnessed.  More about that in a future post. (UPDATE: here’s that future post.)

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) October 24, 2016


*^At some conferences nametags have a secondary function: as a signal to security guards that you’re a registered attendee and should be allowed into the venue. Because people sneaking in off the street to attend talks they haven’t paid for is one of the big problems facing science today, am I right?

**^It’s increasingly and refreshingly common for invited symposia to make a point of career-stage balance, too.  These were once the last refuge of the late-career “running on momentum if not on fumes” bloviators, but I haven’t been trapped in the audience for a speaker list like that for a while now.  Thank goodness.  Mind you, we still seem to have work to do on speaker diversity in other ways.

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15 thoughts on “Conference nametags mostly suck

  1. Pavel Dodonov

    At some conferences I went to you receive an empty nametag and a pen or marker to write your name on it. I like it, as it gives a personal touch and also means less work for the organizers (in a low-budget event, grad and undergrad students may spend a few hours placing names on tags. Boooriiiing.)
    Then again, some people write their name in a really weak pink color that’s nigh impossible to read. So providing suggestions on how to write your name on your nametag would make sense at such events. And I liked especially the suggestion of two-sided name tags, I’ve never thought about it!

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  2. Elina Mäntylä

    Excellent points. One more: write the name of the person correct. I know my last name can be difficult for some people, but copy-paste is available. 😉 And no flags of countries are necessary. There are so many researchers working abroad that having a flag tells nothing extra.

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    1. Gavin Simpson

      If you have many thousands of registrants copy-paste is not an option, not, that is, if you wish to avoid introducing further random errors into the process. This needs to be automated and hence work well with character sets other than US ASCII.

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    2. Joacim Näslund

      I agree. It is always a downer when you see that the hefty conference fee was not enough to motivate the organizers to make sure your name was correclty spelled on the name tag. It is not a major issue, and you get used to it being wrong all the time – but it does make you feel less welcome at the conference. I always add my ¨ on the erroneous tags larger than needed, it looks ridiculous, but organizers will notice that I had to change it myself to make it right – and it is also a good conversation starter…

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  3. Colin Purrington

    Having those logos reminding everyone they are at conference is inane, and I agree with other commenters that one should just redo it using a blank card and a big letters (ideally not all caps). As for other modifications, I recommend: 1. add email address and cell number to back (along with your name, as suggested in post) … you can flash the back when people want to know either. 2. add a fun drawing and a few hastags or your research topic … great conversation starter in elevators and other awkward situations. If you’d like to see example of latter, see #10 in http://colinpurrington.com/2012/open-letter-to-poster-session-organizers/.

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  4. Peter Apps

    The need for some kind of recognisable logo for security purposes might depend on where you are – I shamelessly confess that during my student days I snuk into conferences (and other events) for the free food but there is slim chance of that now – no themed name tag and you don’t even get into the dining room. Also, in some parts of the world, where thievery is an accepted way of acquiring things, a conference full of naive foreigners can provide a rich harvest of unattended high tech gadgets.

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  5. Elizabeth Moon

    I agree names should be printed in a LARGE font, in black on white for maximum contrast. Yes, the last name should be as big as the first (or bigger) because the programs list panelists and speakers by last name. Yes, on the lanyard AND pin or clip option, too. I have a collection of badges from thirty years of convention-going (didn’t keep them all, though I do keep them three years for tax purposes, just in case the IRS doesn’t want to believe it was a business trip.)

    If a university or other affiliation is listed…it should be correct (as yours wasn’t.) Facilities should exist at every convention check-in to print a duplicate of the name or affiliation (or both) onto stickers that will cover the original incorrect one. And if they prefer you to change it yourself, they should provide markers to use that are compatible with the plastic of the badge itself. No smeary pale-colored markers: black that will write on anything, even over an oily thumb-print on the plastic.

    On the convention name/logo thing, though…there are security and space management issues. For popular conventions (SF, literary, Comicons, and the like) excluding intruders becomes important. Lots of people would like to get into the best known (DragonCon, San Diego ComicCon, GenCon) without paying admission. In large-volume situations, the door guards need to be able to recognize convention goers as legitimate without comparing drivers’ licenses/passports to a printed list. That means a need for a distinctive badge.

    I’ve also been in hotels and convention centers where two conventions overlapped (or with a private event or two–wedding, reunion, local sports teams annual dinner, etc.) and keeping them sorted into their respective parts of the space prevents problems. (If it’s a wedding, there’s always some groomsman who would rather be watching Rocky Horror Show for the umpteenth time than hanging around in a tux being polite to the families and guests.) If it’s a mundane organization–a church conference, a conference of politicians or law officers–the staring is hostile and interactions have sometimes escalated in unfortunate ways. Once a convention venue becomes used to conventions needing some security controls, those then affect all other conventions coming to that venue.

    There’s also the need occasionally to evict someone for bad behavior, and in that case taking away their badge ensures that they won’t be admitted to any of the convention/conference’s spaces. Thieves are not just a foreign phenomenon. Sexual harassment and assault occur, and though these are not often dealt with by tossing out the guilty party, that’s becoming more common. Persistent stalkers have had their badges confiscated.

    Some of our conventions use pre-printed badges with names already on them; others provide, at check-in, pre-printed stickers to affix to the plastic badge or slide into a slot of it. Those who are program participants often have another sticker with a list of their scheduled events they can stick on the backside (handy to turn up your badge and find out that yes, you DO have a 3 o’clock panel and had better not have that coffee with friends.) Much easier than digging into the tote for the program list, or having a scribbled note in your pocket. On the other hand, the idea of putting the name on both sides (because, on a lanyard, they invariably flip around and present the wrong side…) is excellent.

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  6. Mike Koontz

    I think it’s important to give conference attendees the opportunity to have their preferred name displayed on a pre-printed name tag, which may not exactly match with the name they use to officially register or pay for the conference.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Zen, that’s a good piece and in more detail than mine. Kind of nice to get backup from Henry Petroski! (For those wanting to read: it’s paywalled, but most university libraries will have access.)

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