Membership Badge Issues and Fannish Community Spirit
Originally published in Argentus #6 (2006), reprinted in Argentus Special Edition 2 (2009). Revised for Salon Futura #12 (2019).
Most SF conventions issue each member a badge when they register for the convention. Those badges often end up annoying at least some of the members. Sometimes, something about the badges becomes a major issue affecting the members’ enjoyment of the event. Westercon became so excited about badges that it wrote badge specifications into its bylaws. Worldcon came within a few votes of doing the same thing, and to this day has a standing committee of the Worldcon Business Meeting whose tasks include reminding Worldcons how to design their membership badges. How can something so superficially simple cause so much trouble?
An issue related to badges is the practice of using a pseudonym, known as a “badge name,” on one’s membership badge. Some conventions routinely allow this, while others prohibit it and others have variations that print the “badge name” in large type while printing the “real name” in small type or on the back of the badge. While the original subject of this article was just going to be about badge names, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are a bunch of unstated assumptions almost anytime the subject comes up, and that it would be better to address those assumptions about badges first. Therefore, I am going to consider what the purposes of a membership badge are, and then later come back to badge names.
Note that by “SF convention,” you should assume, unless I make it clear explicitly or in context, that this includes science fiction and all of the “fellow traveler” related conventions, including fantasy, horror, comics, gaming, and anime. In my opinion, all these conventions share a common heritage, even when the people organizing them are unaware of it. I am by inclination an inclusive sort of person, which is why I’m fond of Worldcons and other “big tent” affairs, but a discussion of the distinctions between the different types of event is a subject best left to a different article.
Purposes of Membership Badges
I said at the start that most SF conventions issue badges or some other sort of token that confirms that the person is a member of the convention. I think that most conventions do not give enough thought to the purposes this token (I’ll call it a badge hereafter, but it can take other forms) serves, and that most of the bad membership experiences or dissatisfaction with their badges stems from this lack of thought.
What are the purposes of a membership badge? Broadly speaking, the purposes of a membership badge include:
- Identity: Identifying the person to the other members of the convention.
- Ticket: Serving as an admission token proving that the person has the right to be present at the event.
- Memorabilia: Acting as a collectable item or memento of the event.
- Utility: Assisting the member in some way not directly related to the other purposes.
I think that the order in which a convention committee prioritizes these four factors will determine a lot about the convention and how it is perceived by its members. I’ll declare my own biases up front by telling you that I’ve arranged these factors in the order I think they should be prioritized. Let’s examine them in order.
Conventions are usually gatherings of people with a common interest who have gathered to socialize with each other. In many cases, this includes socializing with people whom you know by correspondence (through letters, e-mail, fanzines, web sites, social media, etc.) but whom you may never have met. It is generally much easier to do this socializing if you can see the person’s name. Ideally, you should be able to read this name without having to invade the person’s “personal space.”
Badges should include the member’s name in large, legible, clear type, visible from a reasonable distance so that two people standing talking to each other can read each others’ names without having to stick their noses into each others’ chests. The very fact that this phrase is often a standing joke about people using “I couldn’t read your badge” as a (bad) excuse to invade someone’s personal space – for example, a man poking his nose into a woman’s cleavage – is a sign that failing to meet this design criteria is an all too common failure of membership badge designers.
Badges that do not include members’ names damage our sense of community. Instead of making conventions a place where we can easily meet and talk to people whom we may not know already, they act as a barrier to communication, and send the wrong message about what kind of event we’re holding.
Incidentally, I prefer that membership badges also have members’ city/state/country on them, although generally not in quite as large a typeface as the name. When I designed the badges for SMOFCon 17 (SMOFCon being the annual gathering of SF convention organizers; the 17th such convention was held in New Orleans in 1999), I printed the members’ names in 44-point bold type, and their city/state/country in 24-point non-bold condensed type.
Not so incidentally, badges need to be displayed in a way that makes it possible for other people to read them. For example, if you want to use badge lanyards, never use single-point badge connections because the badge will simply spin around and be invisible half the time. Some folks say “just print the same information on both sides of the badge”, but I prefer simply avoiding the issue by using two-point lanyard connections (if I must use a lanyard). If you have the resources, I suggest giving people the options of two-point lanyards, pin-back connections, or clips. They all have different utility, and people have a lot of different feelings about them.
Generally speaking, our events are not open to just anyone. You must have a membership to attend. We therefore need some sort of way of determining who has a membership (right to attend) and who does not. A membership badge is one way, but not necessarily the only way, to do this. Some conventions, especially “gate shows,” use hand-stamps or actual tickets. The 1976 Worldcon, MidAmeriCon, issued hospital-style plastic wristbands as right-to-attend tokens, a move that was widely criticized at the time and that I think would be similarly criticized today if anyone tried it, at least at a Worldcon.
Because the membership badge is a ticket-to-attend, many conventions spend a lot of effort making it difficult to counterfeit them. This is not necessarily a bad idea; after all, with a Worldcon membership costing in excess of $200, making a badge that you can duplicate with a simple photocopier and a plastic holder you can buy at any office supply store is just asking for someone to go into the badge-making business for themselves. However, it is important to remember that it is impossible to make a badge completely fool-proof. You can raise badge security to any arbitrary level of copy-proofing, but you can never make it perfect. Conventions should strive to achieve the level of copy-proofing that makes it difficult to copy the badge without spending more resources on the copy-proofing than they would lose on “pirate” memberships. It is, unfortunately, a fannish (in its negative sense) trait to pour vast amounts of resource into anti-counterfeiting measures – far more than the convention might lose if a handful of badges are copied by some relatively determined badge pirates.
Some badges include the membership number, but that tends to assume that the convention has assigned the member a unique identifier. This is such an obvious assumption that it can be very jarring when a convention does not do so. Westercon 44 (Vancouver BC, 1991) did not issue membership numbers until just before the convention, which led to a minor constitutional crisis because it technically invalidated mailed-in site selection ballots. The convention side-stepped the constitutional issue (I was the administrator; frankly, I ignored the technical reading of the rule because it led to a nonsensical conclusion) and passed a bylaw amendment mandating that conventions issue membership numbers in a timely manner and inform members of their membership numbers. This issue with numbers is rather important with conventions like Worldcon and Westercon that use the membership number as part of their site selection process. It is probably less important for conventions that do not need to make a one-person-one-vote kind of administrative decision during the convention.
Many people collect their membership badges. I had a display of most of my Worldcon membership badges in my Fan Guest of Honor exhibit at CascadiaCon, the 2005 NASFiC in Seattle. I have seen some fans with sashes containing past convention badges. I once saw Keith Lynch had strung his Worldcon badges together to make a super-badge that by stretched from around his neck to the floor. The badge should be something that members treasure as a memento of the event. If possible, it should contain artwork that is attractive, but such artwork should not detract from the more-important purposes of the badge. If the artwork makes is impossible to read the member’s name, I contend that it has failed as a useful object.
Membership badges may serve other purposes than simply identifying the member and proving that they have the right to attend. It is common to hand out stickers at convention parties and to put those on people’s badges, and some people like there being additional space on the badge to hold those stickers. Ribbons added to badges have become even more popular than stickers since the first version of this article appeared in 2006. In those cases, having enough clear space on the back of the badge (if you’re printing anything on the back) for ribbons to attach is a consideration. Some conventions have issued elaborate badge-holders that included accessory space to hold additional items. While some members appreciate these utilities, others dislike having the extra bulk that this entails.
Another use of badges that has become increasingly common is to provide program participants with a list of their engagements that can be stuck on the back of the badge.
Dublin 2019 had their own innovation in badge design (at least for Worldcons). They provided a space on the badge for a pronoun sticker, and a variety of options that you could choose to add to your badge. It wasn’t a requirement, thus appeasing those who don’t see the need for such things. And the options included a blank sticker on which you could write your own pronouns.
Getting Your Priorities Straight
I think one of the worst failings of membership badge design is that they put function 2 (Ticket) ahead of function 1 (Identity). That is, whoever designed the badge considered the admission-token purpose the most important purpose of the badge. All too often, conventions assume the only purpose of the badge is to serve as an admission token, and they consequently end up with a badge that fails all three of the other criteria. Such a badge, if it doesn’t actively annoy the members, will at the very least degrade a sense of community. Most conventions I attend are run by fans for fans. These are gatherings for our friends, including friends we haven’t met yet. I think that it’s much easier to meet someone when you can easily see their name.
While it seems obvious to me that you should be able to read your fellow-members’ names on their badges, conventions continue to issue badges with names in unreadable small type. I cannot believe that convention committees consciously sit down and say, “What can we do to cause our members grief? I know! Let’s print their names in eight-point type and run them vertically instead of horizontally!” What I think must happen most of the time is that badge design tends by default to be left to whoever is doing convention registration, and that person’s priorities are likely not going to be focused on what is best for the members or for the convention, but what is most convenient for Registration to provide. This can lead to badges being printed, for example, with names in tiny type because there happens to be one member with a huge long name, and to fit that 50-character name onto his badge, everyone else gets 8-point type. Or it may be even more thoughtless, with the database person simply taking the default generated by the database program without realizing how bad it is from most members’ point of view.
I once attended a convention whose badges, as far as I can tell, failed every one of the criteria. The 2006 World Horror Convention in San Francisco had large portrait-orientation clip-held laminated plastic badges with members’ names printed in fairly small type near the bottom and most of the badge taken up with a fairly uninteresting piece of artwork and convention logo. It was difficult to read other members’ names at any reasonable distance (failed Identity). It would have been trivially easily to duplicate the badge with material available at any well-stocked copy shop (failed Ticket, which is ironic considering that the convention was stricter than most about checking for badges everywhere you went). It has little collectible value except as an example of poor design (failed Memorabilia). It had no use other than as a large hunk of plastic catching the breeze when you went outside (failed Utility). It would have been difficult, although not impossible, to design a worse badge for a convention.
Other conventions deliberately design their badges to put item 3 (Memorabilia) ahead of all of the others. The FanimeCons that I attended, for instance, appeared to want all of their badges to be considered collectable items, and went to considerable effort to produce memorable artwork for those badges. On these badges, the members’ names were an afterthought, squeezed into the margins in tiny type.
I used to attend FanimeCon before it moved to the same weekend at BayCon and when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I’ll never forget the answer I got from another member — as I recall, it was not a committee member, just some random attendee with whom I was discussing this while I sat behind a sales table trying fruitlessly to promote ConJosé, the 2002 Worldcon. This person, who had never attended anything other than FanimeCon, said to me, “Why would you want to know other members’ names?” To him, the Collectable and Ticket aspects of the badge were the only things for which he thought you’d use a badge. His badge got him into the event and was a neat piece of artwork, and he would never socialize with anyone at the convention whom he didn’t already know by sight, so why would he care if you can’t read his badge?
That “why would I want to know anyone else’s name” attitude made me want to cry, since it is anathema to the social aspects of science fiction conventions with which I am most familiar. The FanimeCon badge also failed the “Ticket” criteria. One year, just to see what would happen, Lisa Hayes wore her previous year’s FanimeCon badge over the top of her current year’s badge, completely concealing the current badge. Not once was she stopped or questioned at any badge-control point.
Lest you blow off this example as simply “not our kind of con,” and assume that this kind of bone-headed mistake wouldn’t be made at a “real SF” convention, I point to Westercon 50, held 1997 in Seattle. Now I have many friends in Seattle fandom, including the chair of that Westercon, and I’m sorry if I’m offending them, but that convention’s badges were terrible. Rumor had it that the badges were modeled after Boeing employee badges. They hung from a lanyard going through a hole in one corner of the badge so that no matter what you did, the name was going to be at an angle. Even if it had been in sufficiently large type, which it was not, you were going to have difficulty reading it.
Westercon’s Business Meeting got so fed up with badges containing tiny type that they passed the (now infamous) “24-point rule,” which orders Westercons to print names on membership badges in no less than 24-point bold type. Fannish nitpickers and typography geeks have repeatedly jumped on this provision because of course you could pick an unreadable typeface. Such hair-splitting aside, at least half of the Westercons held since this rule passed have simply ignored it, and some committees, when they have been reminded that they were supposed to do this, have shrugged and said, more or less, “Who cares?” or “It was too difficult,” or otherwise blown off the reply. This is, in my opinion, at least as bad an attitude as the person who assumed the only point of the badge was as a ticket and collectable.
One of the best membership badges I have ever seen was the membership badge for Noreascon 3, the 1989 Worldcon in Boston. N3’s badges were larger than what had been traditional up until that time, and they used a significant portion of the badge space to print members’ names in a very large, clear, sans serif bold condensed type. (I’ve been told that the font was custom-designed by a member of the committee who was into such things.) There is only one other Worldcon that, in my opinion, did a better job, and that may well be due to my own personal bias, but I’ll come back to this later. Worldcons (and other conventions) that followed N3 kept the oversized badges, but they seemed to forget that the reason for the large badge was to print names in large type, and they mostly took members’ names back down to small type and filled up the badge with a bunch of artwork or anti-counterfeiting measures.
The nadir of this trend of “big badge, small type” trend may have been The Millennium Philcon, the 2001 Worldcon in Philadelphia, where the WSFS Business Meeting considered a variation of Westercon’s 24-point rule. I drafted the original proposal, at the request of Bruce Pelz and Mike Glyer, who were grousing about the hard-to-read badges with me at the convention’s Opening Ceremonies. Despite ample evidence with Westercon’s attempts to micromanage committee design decisions by legislation, the WSFS Business Meeting came very close to passing this bylaw amendment but pulled back at the last minute. Instead, they issued standing orders to the Nitpicking and Flyspecking Committee (a small committee of people who try to stay on top of the complexities of WSFS rules, and to whom WSFS tends to refer rules questions) “to remind each future Worldcon, early and often, that the WSFS Business Meeting believes that membership badges be readable, with members’ names printed in no less than 24 point type.”
Since then the MPC periodically sends e-mail reminders to Worldcon committees nagging them about this standing request. Has it helped? I’m not sure, but I know I thought the 2002 Worldcon’s badge was the best balancing of the four factors, and I did not even design it. (Yes, I co-chaired ConJosé, so of course I’m biased, but the badge design came from Elaine Brennan and the Registration department.)
Even if you did not attend ConJosé, if you’ve gone to many conventions, particularly Worldcons, since 2002, you may have seen its badge, or at least the badge holder. ConJosé issued badges in a small pouch that went around the wearer’s neck on an adjustable lanyard. This pouch was 5 inches high by 4 ½ inches wide and had a clear plastic pocket on the front and two zipper pockets in the back. The convention name was printed on the pouch, and a printed card with the member’s name, city/state/country/member number, and convention logo and artwork fit into the plastic front pocket. To this day, I continue to see people wearing that badge pouch, often putting the badge of the convention they are currently attending into the clear plastic front pocket.
These badges were not perfect — it is practically impossible to design a badge that doesn’t annoy someone, particularly at a Worldcon — and some members complained that it was too large, too bulky, and that they disliked lanyard-type holders (as opposed to clip or pin type holders). Nevertheless, I think the ConJosé membership badge was a superb balance of prioritizing the factors: It was easy to read (unless you ignored the instructions on how to wear it, in which case it tended to flop wrong-side round), it was difficult to duplicate (getting such pouches on short notice and imprinting them would not have been impossible, just difficult), and it was both collectable and useful, as evidenced by the people still using them today.
More Than Just Registration’s Responsibility
It appears to be common to leave all of badge design to a convention’s Registration department. Indeed, Registration may become testy when other parts of the convention, including the top management, try to get involved in badge design. They raise the cry of “micromanagement!” and object to being told anything about how the badge should be designed. This assumes that the only priority for the badge is how easy is it for Registration to produce it (not one of the four priorities I mentioned above, but a consideration nonetheless). What the Registration department needs to realize is that a membership badge is something every member will carry with him/her throughout the convention. More than any other single object, including the convention’s publications, the membership badge says who we are. I think that every committee should look at the four functions cited in this article (Identity, Ticket, Memorabilia, and Utility), and think about how they want to prioritize them, and why. Only once they have done this should they actually design their badge.
This matter is sufficiently important to me that when talking to the person who volunteered to run Registration for Westercon 74 in Tonopah (which I’m chairing), I made it a condition up from that she knew that I intended to insert myself into the badge process, and that she shouldn’t take the position if that was unacceptable to her.
When I wrote the first version of this article for Argentus #6, I destroyed the projected word count for this article and only now reached the subject on which I originally intended to write, which is the practice of printing pseudonyms (“badge names”) on membership badges. Practice here varies considerably. Some conventions refuse to do so; others do so without including the members “real name,” while others print both, with lots of variations.
The increasing popularity of online communities where people are known by their “handles” has led to an increase in the use of badge names, and even to some conventions reserving specific space on the badge for the member’s LiveJournal or Twitter handle. But there are plenty of other reasons for people using them, some of which are good and reasonable and others of which are far less defensible.
What’s a “Real Name?”
Typically, when a convention starts discussing whether they will allow alternative names, a lot of words get tossed around about trying to define what a “badge name” or “real name” is. Much is made about nicknames and common abbreviations, and usually much hair-splitting happens, when in my opinion, a little common sense should apply. People who over-simplify by saying, “Only the name that’s on your Official Government ID is your Real Name” are missing the point. Conventions aren’t the government, and our committees are not and should not be in the business of enforcing any form of government identity rules.
If your legal name on your birth certificate and government-issued identity documents reads “Robert Quincy Smith IV,” is it okay to print “Bob Smith” on your badge even if the con has a policy of “real names only”? My answer is “yes, the ‘nickname’ goes on the badge, because that is the name by which the person is most commonly known to their fellow members and to which they will answer.” Your “real name” is not necessarily the “legal name” or “name you appear in government records” or “name that is on your driver’s license/ID card/passport,” but is in my opinion “the name by which you expect to be known to your fellow fans.”
What does annoy me are people who hide behind a badge name and won’t answer to it. If you want your badge to call you “Xyopwzt the Bold,” then unless you’re including a pronunciation guide with your badge, I think you would be showing a bit of respect to your fellow members by including a name by which we can reasonably address you and to which you will answer. Remember, a convention is a gathering of mutual friends, not all of whom know each other. We are all here, or should be here, because of a shared interest, and socializing with each other is a good thing. Hiding behind a badge name and assuming this anonymity gives you license to engage in anti-social behavior is wrong.
It’s quite difficult to draw a hard-and-fast line about when to allow badge names and when to require something else. There are people who have real concerns about their “mundane world” identity being known. I understand that, especially in the UK, some fans are afraid that if their employers knew they attended SF conventions, they would be fired or at least downgraded or disgraced. That’s an incredibly stupid attitude for the employer to take, but it is apparently quite real. There are also people who are concerned about “stalkers” or other unfortunate real-world issues. These are not easy cases, and Registration people need to have some discretion in dealing with them.
Some conventions compromise on the “fan name” issue by printing the badge name in large type but the real name in small type. In most cases, this is not much of a problem, especially if SPACE TWINKIE doesn’t mind you printing their real name in smaller type underneath. This, in fact, may be a good way to deal with electronic “handles” for people who want their (say) LiveJournal user names to be more prominent than their given names, but still want people to be able to read their given names.
The “print both” case has its own difficult situations. Suppose the person attending the convention really is a different persona than the person’s “real world” identity. To give a highly plausible scenario, imagine some Joseph Phanboy who attends conventions as a woman named Jane Fangirl. It could be that Jane is in the process of transitioning gender, but maybe Joe just likes dressing up as Jane for convention-attending purposes. This person wants a badge that reads Jane, will answer to that name, and is not requesting this for any fraudulent purposes; however, Jane does not want Joe’s name displayed on the membership badge at all. Would I grant this request? Almost certainly I would. Would other people do so? I think some would not. And if they would grant this gender-crossing request, would they grant one that we see in Furry Fandom, where the person wants to present themselves as their furry persona for the weekend and does not want their given “real world” name displayed for all to see? I recognize that these cases are difficult, and I present them to make people think about what they are trying to achieve.
“What problem are you trying to solve?” was the theme of the Chicago SMOFCon of 2003, and that seems as good a place as any to end this article. Before charging off into designing your convention’s membership badge and registration materials, put some thought into what your design goals are with your membership badges and how you plan to handle complicated cases. If you do that first, then it will be much easier to answer specific design and individual questions when they arise.
Design your membership badges well and they may go unnoticed but will serve as a social lubricant that improves your convention. Set your priorities wrong, and your badges will act as sand in the social gears. Save yourself grief in the long run by spending some time at the beginning thinking about what you expect to accomplish with that piece of paper or plastic that every single member has in common with each other.