Badge System Design: standardization, formalization & uniqueness

This post continues the conversation about Open Badges, the Open Badge Infrastructure and badge system design. It’s one post in a series of thoughts-in-process that will culminate in a white paper about badge system design. Your thoughts and comments are welcomed: not only do they help mould the conversation but they help to shape its arc as well. Jump in!

“How do I create a badge system?”
I’ve felt some conflict about codifying badge system design due to the oft repeated desire I hear for a simple formula. A formula sounds like it ought to be the most appropriate approach. Yet this seemingly rational desire is precisely the point where most design systems go wrong.

Standardization & formalization
A formula seems to point toward having a complete understanding that the parts of the system are standard and that the variables are unchanging. This is not the case with digital badges or really anything involving human assessment. (Keep in mind Donella Meadow’s paradigm about paradigms.) Therefore as we progress through some basics precepts of badge system design, note that these comments are suggestions, pointers, and recommendations. They do not represent the sole badge system design methodology nor do they indicate a complete taxonomy. There are many pathways on the journey, many Yogi Berra-esque forks in the road to designing a useful or valuable or successful badge system. (And yes, I think it might be important to distinguish between usefulness, value and success—but that’s for another post.)

How badges relate to badge system design
Badges exist as visual representations—distillations if you will—of meaning. They’re a sort of shorthand for content. They can act as formalized recognitions of associations, achievements, skills and competencies, endeavors, values, etc. And on the other hand they can act as fun, playful reminders of past experiences, in-jokes, and community membership. An organization’s values help to determine its badge system goals—goals that can be inherent to the organization, can arise from its instantiation, or that can be co-created with it—occasionally with all of these things occurring at once. Consequently, badge system design can branch off in many directions. So, where to start?

A system of turtles
Your early choices will help to define the evolution of your badge system. Start at any point—a single badge, a group of twenty-one, or right at the system level—but recognize that starting at the badge level may affect your ability to grow your system categorically. Regardless of where you start, it’s more than likely you’ll end up somewhere other than your intended destination. That’s okay. Systems are living things, and your badge system by needs must be flexible. You must embrace a bit of chaos in its design.

That chaos stems from its genesis: an Open Badge system is more than a series of simple documents indicating learning. Instead it’s a rich and varied representation of journeys, experiences and learned processes. It’s a series of verbs encased in an active noun. The badges that constitute your system are living things, too. In the best sense, it’s turtles all the way down.

This sense of dynamic infinite regression resident within an Open Badge system provides many varied opportunities for representation, not the least of which is uniqueness. Let me counterbalance that assertion by noting that perception of uniqueness depends at the very least upon comparativity, and distance from the perceived object plays no small part. In other words, the roots of context are based in perception. Charles and Ray Eames‘ short film, “Powers of Ten,” places context, well, in context. If you’re unfamiliar with its message take a minute or two to watch it. This should help to orient you to the potential inherent in context. Distance is one type of context, time another, ideology yet another: in other words, more turtles standing on other turtles. Aside from these few, there are many more contextual variables. If you have a moment, start a list. No doubt you’ll find quite a few not listed here. There are hundreds, possibly thousands. All of them feed into context and so into perception.

When context disappears
Surprisingly enough, we also become inured to noticing when things actually are unique. If we are exposed repeatedly to something within a certain context our ability to distinguish it as unusual diminishes. So, we’re blind to some of the complexities of our own surroundings.

Anthropologists call this the naturalization of categories or objects. The more at home you are in a community of practice, the more you forget the strange and contingent nature of its categories seen from the outside (Bowker & Star, 1999, pp. 294-295).

So, as they say, there’s that. So much to consider and we’ve barely scratched the surface.

- – -

I’ll stop here for now. Much more soon.

Bowker, G., & Star, S. (1999). Sorting things out: classification and its consequences. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
Meadows, D. (1999). Leverage points: places to intervene in a system. World, 91(7), 21. POINT. Retrieved from 

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One thought on “Badge System Design: standardization, formalization & uniqueness

  1. Pingback: Open Badges Lexicon: Earners and Issuers « Persona

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