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font magazine online Issue 004 - J. Berry

By John Berry  

At any planned gathering of a community that’s too large or far-flung for everyone to know everyone else by sight, the time-honored solution to the recognition problem is nametags. At a family gathering, these are probably plain white stick-on labels, with names handlettered by Aunt Frieda; at a conference, they’re usually preprinted and housed in plastic holders made for such an event. Nametags are a very local and specialized branch of information design, and, as such, they form part of the glue that binds together a community.

A motley collection of nametags from various events over many years suggests some of the possibilities — good, bad, and peculiar. How many could actually be read from six feet away?  

Nametags are utterly practical, or at least they should be they exist as labels, and nothing more. In a professional environment, where a hefty admission fee may be charged, they serve dual purposes: in addition to identifying the person, a nametag signifies that the wearer is a registered attendee of the conference, convention, or trade show. That aspect and the (sometimes casual, sometimes serious) attempts to prevent an outsider from counterfeiting a badge in order to get in can lead to baroquely elaborate badges, where the name of the attendee is relegated to a fairly minor position. To the professional event organizer, it may seem more important to identify each person as a member of the group; but to the individuals themselves, it’s more important to identify other individuals.


Allowing attendees to customize their nametags can help break the ice. At Typecon2004, FontShop’s stickers served as a catalyst for converstion.
Calliope Gazetas and Mike Parker

This is where the humble nametag enters the same realm as highway signage and wayfinding systems, as a kind of walking environmental design. The moment the design of nametags really matters is when one is stumbling about at an opening reception, trying to spot familiar names without rudely staring at people’s chests. That surreptitious sideways glance — trying to catch a glimpse of a person’s name without being too obvious — certainly has a better chance of being inconspicuous if the name on the tag is typeset in a large, clear typeface, in upper and lowercase letters against a background that doesn’t clash with the type. Even 24-point Helvetica Bold will do, if there’s nothing around it on the card; something like 40-point FF Meta Bold Condensed would be far better, or perhaps 36-point Medium. Given the distance at which these names will be read, a typeface that is normally reserved for use at very small text sizes could work well — Bell Centennial, for example. The idea is clarity, above all.