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A tale of three nametags

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In the course of less than a month this summer, I attended three major events, each of which had a nametag that attendees were supposed to wear. The first, in Dublin, was this year’s World Science Fiction Convention, which was being held in Ireland for the first time. The second, a week later in Belfast, was the Eurocon, or European Science Fiction Convention, which moves around among European countries and was hosted by the organizers of Titancon, an annual Belfast science fiction convention; holding it in Northern Ireland the week after the worldcon made it easy for people visiting from other countries to attend both conventions on their trip. The third event was ATypI 2019, the annual conference of the Association Typographique Internationale, in Tokyo – ATypI’s second time in Asia, as it happens.

Aside from dueling jetlags (I was only home in Seattle for five days between the two trips), this juxtaposition provided a classic opportunity to compare approaches to designing the nametags or badges for such an event. I’ve written about this before, in an article about nametags published in FontShop’s Font magazine: “The moment when the design of nametags really matters is when you’re stumbling about at an opening reception, trying to spot familiar names without rudely staring at people’s chests.” Although the organizers might consider the first purpose of a nametag or badge to be labeling someone as a paying (or non-paying) official attendee of the event, for the attendees themselves the purpose is to be able to identify individual people by name. And the distance at which you want to be able to read the name is about three meters (ten feet), well before you find yourself face to face with that person whose name you know you ought to recall.

So how well did the badge-designers for these three 2019 events do?

Close-up of three nametags

Well, the Dublin nametag does make the name fairly large, though not large enough to be read at any distance. Fully three-quarters of the area of the nametag is taken up with artwork, which incorporates the name of the convention. Not too bad, but not ideal.

The nametag for Eurocon/TitanCon seems perfunctory. It’s quite small, and the largest visual element is the label “Adult Attending.” The typeface used for the name is a pretty good choice – clear, condensed, bold, and set in upper- and lowercase – but it’s tiny. You can barely read it even if you’re peering at it up close. The same name set ten times larger would have been effective; and there’s plenty of white space to accommodate a much bigger name. The TitanCon nametag is basically not functional.

On the nametag for ATypI, which is the largest of the three, the attendee’s name is both big and bold, clearly set within a large white square. It might have accommodated longer names better with a somewhat condensed typeface (which would also let shorter names be set larger), but overall my only complaint is that the name isn’t set in black; instead, it’s set in a pale second color, which tends to drop back, visually. (The color varied depending on the status of the attendee.) But it was generally readable as you approached someone in the corridor, so it was doing its job.

I don’t understand why this is so difficult. It should be thought of as information design, not just branding. Combine the typeface and color of the TitanCon names and the size and placement of the ATypI names, and you’d have a near-perfect nametag. Yet year after year, organizers of conventions and conferences, even ones devoted to graphic design, reinvent the wheel. And they sometimes get it flat.

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  1. Jerry Kaufman says:

    As you know J/i/m John, I also attended Dublin 2019 and Titancon. In my opinion, aside from one’s name, the badge should also show one’s home city and state/province/country – this would be useful in knowing people who might be located where one lives.

    The line on the Titancon badge that says, on your badge, “Adult Attending,” said different things on other people’s badges, like “Program Participant,” or “Charter Trip.” As this information was included inconsistently, it probably added confusion rather than clarity. In my case, both myself and my spouse signed up for the charter bus trip, but only one of our badges showed this. It took me some time and effort to confirm the convention had reservations for both of us.

  2. Lisa Deutsch Harrigan says:

    Part of the Worldcon badge is the prominent art work, done by the Artist GOH, or some other prominent artist, it is a souvenir of the con. So a large but not huge name is on the badge. If you can read this badge, you are close enough to establish a relationship. In other words, you can’t read it from across the room, but you can from a few feet.
    There is no excuse for Titancon.
    That last badge is obviously printed completely in one print pass. Nice one color graphic and name. The name should have been in black (color printers have black cartridges for a reason), but they may have gone super cheap on their printer. It is obvious they are not concerned with the artwork or even any souvenir value. Use it and toss it.
    So YMMV. I like #1 myself, I do keep con badges with art work.

  3. DMcCunney says:

    I’ve been complaining about this for decades. I’ve been helping to run literary SF cons for 40 years. Because I have in the past been a designer and print production guy, one of the hats I’ve worn has been Publications, fighting an uphill battle to produce con publications that actually look good as well as read well. (Most folks producing con publications are competent writers and editors with no clue about design.) Even cons where I’ve had input into the the process struggle to get it right.

    Part of the problem is name tags intended to showcase the Art GoHs work. Another is the increasing tendency to provide badge holders strung from a lanyard the attendees wears around their necks. It makes it clear they are registered attendees, but often result in badges not visible because the holder has turned to have them facing the person’s body, or the badge is visible, but reading the person’s name requires apparently staring at their crotch. When I have to deal with the latter, I contrive a way to pin it to a lapel so my name is easily visible, and in some cases use a mailing label placed over the space provided for the name and calligraph mine in something like a readable form.

    I agree on your suggestion about what should have been done. Dublin’s has the “We must show off the GoH’s art” issue. Eurocon gets the name too small. TYPO-L gets the name right, but I fear I don’t find the overall design all that compelling.

    (And as far as branding, a job I’ve really *wanted* at a con has been Design Director, in overall charge of what material produced by the con *looks* like. Others can write and edit the copy. What it looks like would be my call. But each thing produced by the con – souvenir book, progress report, pocket program, flyers, name tags – tends to be done by different hands who will squawk at meddling in their work. I dream of a proper corporate ID program for a con, but have yet to do more than approximate it. Someday.)

    >Dennis

  4. DB says:

    Having worked on a few science fiction conventions which either had, or narrowly avoided getting, tiny nametag fonts, I think I know how this happens. The organizers are seated at a table, with the proposed design printed out in front of them, and they look down on it and say, “It looks fine to me.”

    If I’m at the meeting, I say what you’d say, “Let’s hold it up ten feet away and see how it looks then.”

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