A Small Medium

Artists and designers are transforming the humble button badge into a vibrant communications medium

If you’ve never seen a badge being made, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the manufacturing process was a complex one, involving big, expensive machines housed on some industrial estate, perhaps. But the truth is that badge-making machines are small, portable, and extremely easy to use. And therein lies one of the reasons for the re-emergence of the humble button badge as a communications medium that is vital, eclectic and fun.

For corporations or charities looking to have thousands made up (badges remain effective at raising both revenue and awareness), then getting a specialist company to take care of a big order of say 100,000 badges is the obvious choice. But increasingly, artists and designers are making their own badges, in their own studios.

Websites such as Darren Firth’s Wearitwithpride.com (CR Jan 04), Dom Murphy’s Pinpops.com and also FL@33’s Stereohype.com have undoubtedly helped put the badge as a design medium firmly on the map. Both Firth and Murphy actively approach designers and illustrators they admire and ask them to produce badge designs which they can exclusively offer for sale through their sites. Stereohype’s By Invitation Only project functions similarly (it also runs regular badge design competitions). The likes of Build, Anthony Burrill, John Burgerman, Genevieve Gauckler, Vaughan Oliver and Supermundane have all contributed to these sites.

Of course budding badge designers don’t have to hope for a call from Stereohype or Pinpops. Do a search in MySpace for “badges” or “buttons” and a raft of individuals’ pages appear, set up primarily to advertise badges for sale and badge-making services. Another online destination, Prickie.com, invites all and sundry to submit designs. When you do, you can also suggest a price for your badges et voila, they will display your work on the site and will sell them on your behalf.

Or you can just get your own badge-making device. All you need is approximately £200 and about half an hour on Google to shop around for a badge machine that suits your needs, a circle cutter and enough bits to make a thousand badges. Once you’ve bagged one, knocking out badges of your own design is a doddle and indeed a joy.

“A badge machine gives you such power,” muses DJ, musician and designer Fred Deakin, who used to operate, by his own admission, “a very drunken badge stall” occasionally at the Meadows Festival whilst a student in Edinburgh. Deakin and pals would borrow the university badge machine of an evening to make up badges that they could then sell the next day for 20p each. Deakin now has a badge machine ensconced in his studio and recalls its arrival at Airside back in 2003: “It was like Christmas. And a flashback to those student days when I gave out badges at the clubs I ran. Badges are so much fun, you can make your fantasy band real; all it takes is one badge with their logo on your lapel and you’re competing with The Strokes.”

Like Deakin, James Joyce of studio One Fine Day started making badges to give out at a club night he produces flyers and artwork for. “Each month I make about a hundred badges and distribute them around the tables and on the bar in the club and each time they disappear within seconds: people love them. In a way, the badges are better than the flyers at actually promoting the night because people wear them, keep them and collect them.” Beyond his club night, Joyce has found himself using his badge machine more than he’d o

riginally envisaged. “It’s a great addition to the studio,” he claims. “I can make up high

quality badges for any project really easily a

nd it’s great to be able to produce badges for friends’ birthdays or special occasions.”

Twins John and Edward Harrison, who work together as illustrators and designers under the name What What, initially made badges to use as promotional items. “We thought it’d be much better to give away badges as opposed to flat and boring business cards,” John explains. “Whenever we go travelling and meet new people we give them a badge so that they remember us,” he adds. After handing out a thousand badges for free, the pair decided to start selling them in packs of three or four, initially on their website. Now What What badges can be found throughout the UK in shops such as Magma, Playlounge and the ICA store.

Badges can also be found in the shop of London’s Design Museum and also in the Tate Modern’s shop – which, in the first five years of business, sold nearly 21,000 badges designed by none other than Damian Hirst.

Meanwhile, artist Ian Wright has been creating large scale portraits using badges as pixels in order to build up the images. His portrait of Trevor Jackson, which he created for Darren Firth’s Two Faced book project (CR March 07), was made up of hundreds of badges – each made from an image cut out of a magazine. It recently sold for a cool £5000.

Yes, badges are small and cheap, throwaway, even. But, apply imagination, artistic sensibilities, political comment or a silly slogan and it’s not tricky to see why the badge is so appealing as a vehicle for expression embraced by the visually creative. As Fred Deakin rather neatly summarises: “Instant disposable art that makes you new friends – you gotta love badges!”


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