Daily Archives: May 18, 2012

Badge System Design: beyond a binary approval system

For those who labor long and hard to craft good and just standards, as well as those who have suffered from their absence. On the one hand, the fight against the tyranny of structurelessness. On the other, the fallacy of one size fits all  (Lampland & Starr, 2009).

This book dedication found in Standards and Their Stories captures the inherent paradox of badge system design. By seeking to standardize the process we risk the introduction of systemic rigidity. And yet by developing badges without a plan we risk the possibility of ideological entropy. In my writing about this topic I’m attempting to walk the middle path: somewhere in between fanatical dictums and a mad free-for-all. I wish I could say that it was easier than this, but then I’d be lying.

The status quo
Even while we’re in the midst of talking about a potentially reconstructive idea like Mozilla Open Badges, I still rather rotely refer to my own typically conventional educational route with “my undergrad degree this” or “my grad degree that.” Perhaps this is to be expected. It certainly hearkens to one of the issues that the open badges in the wild will have to confront: the seeming intractability of the status quo. In the Open Badges world this desire for stability echoes within the repeated request for a standard method of validation; it’s mated to a deep concern about badge quality. In unfamiliar situations such as these we tend to rely on current cultural understandings and touchstones. In this case, degrees and certificates, accreditation systems and educational rankings.

The status quo of our formal academic system has transmogrified into a sort of binary approval system. You pass or you fail. You go to a respected school or you go to a second-tier school. You graduate or you don’t. It all seems pretty inexorable. We gravitate toward that which is customary. The familiar often appears to be less threatening than the entirely unknown. Indeed, there is a robust academic research field that studies this tendency, especially with regards to our proclivities toward risk and reward: behavioral economics. (For a deep and delightful dive on this read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational.)

I’m hoping that some day people will refer to not only their formal schooling but their non-traditional learned experiences as well (hopefully badged in the open way) without speaking of one of them as second-rate or less than the other. That noted, I’ll return to my rather classical undergraduate education to make a point. I double-majored in graphic design and writing. The classes I took in design inform a significant amount of the way that I think. This is not to say that every design class I took made sense or built on every preceding design class so that one day I had taken enough of them to—ta-dah!—be called a designer. On the contrary, I gleaned information from a variety of sources. My deep learning occurred in many different venues, a bit of it very much outside the realm of what typically would be called design. Nevertheless, some aspects of design that I learned in those college classes continue to reverberate within me.

One of the most resonant aspects of those years pertains to users and audiences and owners and consumers and interested parties and even uninterested parties. The idea of multiple audiences pulses within me at the root. Akin to that concept, another: juxtaposition. What is there versus what is not there; what has been asked versus what has not been asked; the solid versus the void. Good designers are problem solvers, not stylists or skinners. They interrogate situations and ask why? They poke around in seemingly unrelated categories. They consider the complicating factors of temporality and fickle end users while acknowledging that a problem owner requires resolutions. They know that solutions can have many audiences and that things that seem simple and straightforward can be damn complex. (Massimo Vignelli has spoken eloquently on this subject in Massimo Vignelli on Rational Design.” Actually, read all the interviews on Steven Heller’s Design Dialogues site.)

Hard questions
Why do I mention all of this? Because as you begin the process of badge system design, you, too, will be delving into these areas. You, too, will be learning to act as a designer. You’ll be gathering information from many sources—no doubt a few of them entirely unexpected. And most likely you’ll find yourself asking deep and sometimes existential questions. I encourage you to remain open to the idea that periodically, like the question, the answer will prove to be both complex and difficult and very much not binary. Sometimes you will have to try something to know if it works because there will be no answer until you do. Accept this. Your badge system will benefit from this sideways approach. That is, believe it or not, the middle path.

- – -

Much more soon.

Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably Irrational. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Lampland, M. & Starr, S. L. (2009). Standards and their stories. (p. dedication). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Vignelli, M. (1998). Massimo Vignelli on Rational Design. In Heller, S. (Ed.), Design dialogues (pp. 3-8). New York, NY: Allworth Press.