This is the most interesting conference badge I’ve worn

LAS VEGAS–I’ve spent the last two days wearing a circular circuit board topped with a slab of quartz, which is not just normal but required behavior to attend the DEF CON security conference here.

DEF CON 27 badgeI had heard upfront that DEF CON badges–available only for $300 in cash, no comped press admission available–were not like other conference badges. But I didn’t realize how much they differed until I popped the provided watch battery into my badge (of course, I put it in wrong side up on the first try), threaded the lanyard through the badge, and soon had other attendees asking if they could tap their badges against mine.

These badges designed by veteran hacker Joe Grand include their own wireless circuitry and embedded software that causes them to light up when held next to or close to other badges. As you do this with other attendees of various classes–from what I gathered, regular attendees have badges with white quartz, press with green, vendors with purple, and speakers with red–you will unlock other functions of the badge.

What other functions, I don’t know and won’t find out, as I’m now headed back from the event. That’s one way in which I’m a DEF CON n00b, the other being that I didn’t wear any other badges soldered together from circuit boards, LEDs and other electronic innards.

(Update: Saturday evening, Grand, aka “Kingpin,” posted detailed specifics about his creation, including source code and slides from a talk I’d missed.)

You might expect me to critique the unlabeled DEF CON badge for flunking at the core task of announcing your name to others, but forced disclosure is not what this event is about–hence the restriction to cash-only registration. And since I have mini business cards, this badge met another key conference-credential task quite well: The gap between the circuit board and the lanyard was just the right size to hold a stash of my own cards.

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Conference badge design best practices

I spend an unhealthy amount of my time walking around strange places with a piece of paper suspended from my neck by a lanyard, courtesy of all of the conferences on my schedule. A partial selection from the last 12 months: CES, CTIADemoGoogle I/O, IFA, Mobile World Congress, ONASXSW, Tech Policy Summit and TechCrunch Disrupt.

Conference badges

This experience bothers me more than it should, because almost everybody screws up the basic job of designing a conference badge. And it shouldn’t be that hard–these things only have to perform three functions:

  • Tell other people who we are.
  • Store relevant information we’d need to know throughout the event.
  • Give us a place to stash business cards.

And yet. At most conferences, you’ll immediately see people whose badges have anonymized their wearers by flipping around to show the reverse side. You can fix this by printing the same information on both sides of the badge (see, for instance, SXSW), but it’s easier to have the lanyard attach to both sides of the badge instead of leaving it dangling from the center (something Macworld badges got right).

The design of the front of the badge should also be easy to solve, but many events botch that job too: first name in large type, last name in smaller type, organizational affiliation. Adding your city and Twitter handle helps but isn’t always essential.

What about the back? Too many badges just leave this valuable real estate blank. At a minimum, it should list the event’s WiFi network and, if necessary, password. And if the schedule is compact enough to fit on one page, why not add that as well? But if that requires turning the badge into a booklet–like at last year’s I/O–you should think about just posting the schedule in a lot of places around the venue.

Some badges now embed NFC tags. At this year’s I/O, for instance, tapping mine with my Android phone opened up a link in the Play Store to Google’s I/O attendee app; when event staff did the same, their phones would bring up my registration information. That’s not a bad feature to have, but don’t make it mandatory to participate in some parts of the event.

Finally, what contains the badge? The multiple-pocket, wallet-esque badge holders some events provide are overkill–too big, too many spots to misplace a card or a receipt–and usually eliminate the informational utility of the reverse side. A simple clear vinyl holder should provide sufficient room to hold a bunch of business cards to hand out to other people.

Thank you for your attention to this, event planners of the world.