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.
- Use 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.