Nametags at Conferences: Four Fails

Four errors conference organizers often make with nametags, and how to avoid them.

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Nametags at conferences have one main purpose, and one related subordinate purpose:

  • Make it easy for attendees to identify each other and each other's organizations.
  • Make it easy for attendees to pretend to remember people they've met, but whose names they've forgotten.

This yields four possible ways nametags can fail:

  1. The type is too small, often because the nametag focuses on things like the conference name—even though everyone knows what conference they are attending—rather than the participant's name.
  2. The type for the participant's name is large, but for the name of the participant's organization or department (when the conference brings together people from various groups) is small. That's bad, because knowing a stranger's organization can be a great icebreaker—"Oh, you're from the Judean People's Front; you must work with my old classmate Otto," or "You're the guys who work on sanitation, medicine, education, and wine; my colleagues and I just litigated a wine-related case in Anderson County, Texas …." (Related fail: Poor color contrast either for the participant's name or the participant's organization.)
  3. The nametag is hanging down on a lanyard by the participant's bellybutton, so one has to look there in order to pretend to recognize someone.
  4. The nametag is flipped around, which is especially common with those hanging-down-by-the-bellybutton nametags.

The solution to #3 and #4, of course, is to have the traditional clip-on nametags or things like them (some versions use magnets) and not the hanging nametags. If you want to offer both a clip and a hanging option, that's fine, and it might be helpful for the people whose clothes lack lapels, and who can't attach the nametag to the clothes' neckline. But absolutely have the clip as at least one of the options.

(I blogged about this three years ago, but I thought it was worth mentioning again.)

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  1. “Make it easy for attendees to pretend to remember people they’ve met, but whose names they’ve forgotten.”

    Professor Volokh, you’re still young and being a tiny bit harsh with “pretend”. When you get older you’ll find that it’s quite possible to remember someone very well – know their major publications, know where they work, know three different conference banquets where you ate together, perhaps even know their kids’ and spouse’s names, but somehow just not be able to get their name from your brain to your tongue.

    1. Good point (except for the part about “still young,” hard to say at 53).

      1. What if the attendee is a hot girl?

      2. Prof, V: When you reach 78, then 53 will seem “still young” — perhaps even “juvenile”.

      3. Whippersnapper!

      4. 53? That means, too late. You cannot change.

      5. 53 is still young, young man.

  2. Badges hanging by the lanyard are less of an issue when the lanyard is connected at the two top corners of the badge. It’s a lot harder for the badge to get flipped around in that configuration.

    1. I’ve not seen one like that, but even with that configuration, overly long lanyards would still be a problem.

  3. Another solution to #3 is just shorter lanyards. Why do they need to be so long the nametag hangs down by your belly button or worse, even lower?

    1. Some lanyards are adjustable, with a bead in the back that you can use to change how low the nametag hangs. A bit more expensive, but worth it.

    2. Because then when you sneak a peek at about half of the attendees, you’re likely to get a snide “Hey, my eyes are up here” comment.

  4. Hanging name tags should be printed on both sides so if they do get flipped around, it doesn’t matter.

    1. Chris Upchurch is absolutely right. I’ve gone to numbers of continuing legal education programs that were held live every year until the pandemic stopped that, where all attendees’ nametags hung from lanyards were printed identically on both sides. It didn’t matter which side was displayed. They worked either way.

      The worst-run programs had nametags printed on peel-off labels that were supposedly pasteable on one’s suit, shirt, blouse, dress, whatever. Those tags almost always would fall off quickly.

  5. even though everyone knows what conference they are attending

    This seems to me to be a wild exaggeration.

  6. I planned a conference once for consultants in my industry. We did not issue name tags for the expressed purpose of telling others to start their networking with a good old fashion introduction. (It also saved several hours worth of work). Reviews from that conference were overly positive, but one aspect that got the most “write ins” for what participants liked was the no-nametag-system.

    1. There’s another function for the name badges that hasn’t been mentioned. Separating registered conference attendees from party crashers.

  7. If the news included revelations that the Trump Justice Department seeking to obtain reporters’ records (and imposing gag orders), that a Republican White House Chief of Staff went directly to the Department of Justice requesting action on delusional and partisan ‘election fraud’ claims, of a state statute attempting to compel private entities to host (certain) speech, the natural course for a ‘free speech’ blog is to publish . . . a <a href="https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shell%20game"detailed analysis of name tag practices?

  8. Some conferences still use name tags with safety pins, which are prone to pricking the chest of those of us who like to cross our arms. I hate those.

  9. And if the name tag is pinned in the “traditional” position it can be declared sexist because you’re looking at the wrong portion of a woman’s anatomy?

    1. I was thinking about a comic from the dead tree era (Tank McNamara?) describing name tags as a socially acceptable excuse to stare at women’s breasts.

  10. Agree 100% with this post.

    I was taught to wear my nametag always on my right upper chest, in order that it be close, and easily visible, to someone to whom I was reaching out to shake hands. Perhaps that needs amendment to “reaching out to bump elbows,” but I still think it’s a good idea.

    Helping someone learn or remember your name by correctly displaying your name tag always starts your conversation with a silent, implied +2 (“Oh, that’s ___” is simultaneous with the elimination of “I hope I don’t embarrass myself by failing to recognize this person”), and it’s therefore worth your while to ensure.

  11. Just inkjet the “badge” onto the participants’ foreheads at the start of each day. That way others can appear to look into someone’s eyes as they are actually sneaking a peek at the name/organization.

    Although if bangs come back into style that could throw a wrench into this scheme and makeup could also be a problem.

    1. Tattoos are also effective.

    2. There is a class of brain teaser puzzles that I encountered as a kid. Typical example: N people are sitting around a table and each has a red or green dot on his(*) forehead. There are at least X but not more than Y green dots. Communication is prohibited except for announcing the color of your own dot. How does each of these people figure out the color of his own dot?

      (*) Women were smart or sober enough not to get involved in this sort of thing.

      The challenge for the conference goer is, by judging the reactions of people who meet you and without looking in a mirror, figure out by the end of the conference what is written on your forehead.

  12. “No, I’m not looking at your cleavage (and your neckline is inappropriately low), I’m looking at your name tag!”

    — unspoken words from thousands of men at hundreds of conventions, who really are just trying to read the f**king name tag on the woman they’re talking to

  13. As for the lapel thing, at our company Christmas parties, we use magnetic ID badges. (Not these, just an example.)

    Apparently the ones we use are pricey enough that the company collects them as you depart, unlike the usual badges, but you can basically place them anywhere and they’ll stay, lapels or no lapels.

    1. Magnetic badges are indeed both great and pricey. I’ve never seen them used for anything other than a daily-wear badge in an occupation that requires regular interaction with the public.

    2. We have those at work for times we go to events or interact with the public on behalf of the office. We don’t wear them ordinarily around the office, but they’re very useful in some circumstances.

  14. How about when the nametag identifies certain things about the person wearing it without their knowledge.

    I was 38 when I went back to college (2003). There was an orientation that all new students were required to attend in the Student Union. We were all issued name tags and told to wear them the first day of class. As I was going around some of the student groups were making some smart assed remarks to me. I ignored them. After I finished my first class I was called aside by the instructor. He said that he didn’t like the military and if I didn’t come back to class he would give me a “C”. If I came back he’d fail me. Turns out that the nametags were color coded. Mine was blue which meant that I was a Veteran. I went and had a little chat with the Dean of Students about that. I also aced that clown’s class.

    1. My mother went to grad school around age 50 at the same school where she was an undergrad. In those days grades were posted on the professor’s door on a sheet of paper. They were pseudonymous — all you could see was a student ID followed by a grade. The school assigned IDs sequentially and for life. Her number was not only lower than all the rest, it didn’t even have as many digits.

      I assume FERPA would allow one to object to such an arrangement. I remember when my school’s SMTP server dropped support for the EXPN command which showed members of a mailing list. The excuse, and maybe even the true reason, was that one could figure out who was taking which classes by viewing members of a class mailing list.

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