Digital Badge Artwork: The power of first impressions

We live in a visual world where people make snap judgments about quality based solely on aesthetics. This means that the first impression formed on the quality of your digital badge program may likely be based on your badge’s artwork. It’s hard to imagine that this small digital artifact could have such influence, but it does. The risk is that vague, overly simplistic, or poorly colored badge art can project a false impression of poorly designed content.

The use of digital badges for credentialing is a relatively new emerging technology; as with any new technology, there is a learning curve. Badging came to mainstream attention in 2011 when the foundational paper, “An Open Badge System Framework,” was published by Peer 2 Peer University and The Mozilla Foundation. Two years later, in 2013, former President Clinton created the Clinton Global Initiative to expand the use of open badges “to help employers and universities across the country incorporate Open Badges in hiring, promotions, admissions, and credit” (check out this blog post from The MacArthur Foundation). In 2014, Dr. Daniel Hickey of Indiana University published “Design Principles,” a two-year comprehensive study of the successes and failures of 29 different badge systems across the United States. And while instructional designers and subject matter experts continue to investigate what makes a successful badging system, as a graphic designer, I have begun to focus on one aspect—the digital badge artwork.

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As a visual communicator, my aim is to help establish design criteria that developers can use when making design decisions. My intent is not to ridicule or talk negatively about any existing badge artwork. I’ve seen digital badges that project a very positive, clear message, and I’ve seen artwork that did not reflect the quality of material presented within. And, as mentioned, in the beginning of any new product rollout, there is always going to be a learning curve with design mistakes along the way. What is important is to learn from those mistakes to improve the overall design process.

Before designing your badge, your best chance of a successful badge initiative is to ensure your content already exists. According to Dr. Hickey in “Where Badges Work Better,” “The nine ‘responsive’ projects that started with content and then built badges and technology were generally most successful.” It is essential to remember that content is king. Badge art is important, but it should never be the focus of a badging initiative. At his DevLearn 2015 conference presentation, Dr. Hickey cautioned about one badge initiative that failed because the developers focused more on the badge design than the actual content. Good artwork cannot save poor content; but good content can survive poor artwork.

So what does a developer need to know about badge artwork? What criteria do developers use to judge artwork’s effectiveness to communicate? In the article, “10 Lessons Learned from an Award-Winning Digital Badging Program,” author Sondra R. Smith, Director of Special Projects at Educause, writes, “Digital badges should at the minimum convey a descriptive title and/or artwork that communicates the achievement, and that identifies the issuing agency.” This is good advice, and I will expand on this below. Even if you can’t draw a straight line, you can use this information to critique and direct your design.

Designing an effective badge

There are four main design elements to consider when creating badge art. There are no rules stating that all four must be used within your design, but maximizing the potential of all four will increase your chances of an effective communication and create a positive first impression.

The first design element is image. According to the cognitive theory of image superiority, our eyes focus on images first. As Smith mentions above, artwork should communicate the achievement earned in the badge. When choosing an image, you should consider the symbolism associated with your subject matter. If your training deals with microbiology, try to find a related image, such as a microscope. Try to avoid overly stereotypical images; remember, you want your badge to be noticed. You can select from a diverse range of art styles, ranging from the minimalist iconic style of The Noun Project clipart to more complex artwork using color and gradients.

When multiple badges are being designed, you’ll want to keep the artwork visually consistent, or have each badge look like part of the group. In some badge ecosystems, earners can progress vertically to a higher level. You need to consider how your artwork will reflect this progressive achievement.

The second design element is text. It’s important that the viewer understands what the badge represents and, if possible, who issued the badge. The cognitive theory of dual encoding states that comprehension is strongest when the message is communicated using both text and images. You should strategically choose your amount of text to display. Space is limited. You should also choose a font that is readable, especially in small sizes.


The third design element is the badge’s background shape. This is the framing device that holds your image and text. Whether you choose a circle, square, octagon, or other shape, you should always think about getting the best use out of your overall 600 x 600 pixel digital real estate.


The fourth, and final, design element is color. Color attracts the eye and enlivens your design. Color also sets your communicative tone. For example, bright colors project a more youthful approach, while more somber colors like black and grays project a sophisticated, formal tone. Some organizations have specific branding style guides, and you should ensure that your color choices follow these guidelines. Avoid colors that clash. If you’re not good at picking colors, ask an art person to help. There are online tools, such as Adobe Kuler, to help you build your color palette.

You’ll notice in the example below how color was used not only to create a sophisticated look, but it also was used to distinguish levels within the hierarchy.


In this brief article, my goal has been to share four common design elements necessary to creating an badge that clearly communicates what the earner has achieved and who issued the badge. Whether you design the badge, or hire someone else, you as the developer can still direct the effort and make informed design decisions. Projecting a positive first impression that reflects the quality of your learning material is important.

If you have a design question about creating dynamic badge artwork, email me.


Carl Nestor
Carl Nestor owns Nestor Education, a design company specializing in design of educational material. Carl has designed badging artwork for clients, such as Cuyahoga Community College, Colorado Mesa University, and Kent State University.