My grandfather was a Scoutmaster back in the 1960s. Growing up, he would regale me with stories and photos of the Troop’s adventures in Kennedy-era America. My Uncle, predictably, went through the ranks and made Eagle, and while I fizzled out as a Webelo, I see now the influence that Scouting had on me and my future design career.

Boy Scout ranks
Boy Scout rank patches

Whether or not it’s popular to admit, the Scouts are based on the military. The ranks and rituals and uniforms associated with protecting a nation are distilled into a pint-sized, commodotised, mostly-harmless pastiche, minus the hazard pay. Militaries, since the time of the Romans, have guarded and controlled their own mythology. As my schoolmates were paying their dues in the world of Scouting, I admit that I was fascinated with the associated mythology they helped propagate. In creating the ranks, the Scouts create their own brand language. Achieving Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life, and Eagle — without falling to the temptations of teenage life — bolsters the mystique and exclusivity of this club. Seasoned Scouts can recite the Meaning of the Boy Scouts Law (A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, etc., etc.) without a second thought, bombarding the listener with a sequence of brand traits. Even the motto “Be Prepared” shows their core values of preparedness, training, diligence, and so forth. A quintessential lesson in brand strategy.

From a graphical point of view, nothing is more captivating than the Merit Badges. These earn-as-you-learn trinkets are essential for progressing in rank, but also create a backdrop to show dedication and aptitude within the Scouting society. There is some debate about the need for a Boy Scout to earn one of the more obscure badges such as Stamp Collecting, but you don’t need your Graphic Arts badge to see the beauty in the haphazard pattern they create when arranged side-by-side in neat little rows.

Merit Badges
Boy Scout Merit Badges, aren’t they pretty?

The Merit Badge system is more than a subtle influencer for one of the most popular online brands today, Foursquare. The location-based social network awards Badges to users who achieve a set number of reappearances at a certain location or who check in at a particular date and time. I recently earned the Gym Rat badge for returning to my local gym 10 times in a 30-day period (yay January) and won an Epic Swarm badge for being one of many checking in during Snowpocalypse 2011.

Foursquare badges
foursquare badges made actual patches (they’re usually just digital).

Foursquare badge: Gym Rat
well-earned Gym Rat badge

Similar to the Scouts, Foursquare uses the badges to reinforce their overall graphic style and lighthearted brand personality. While no single badge can be seen as a work of art, together they create something familiar and powerful.

Foursquare badges
foursquare badges made actual buttons.


Recently, the W3C, the folks who govern web design standards worldwide, released a branding system to serve as website badges for their new standard, HTML5. In building a site with this new technology, designers and webmasters can reward themselves by including one or more of the new icons. Here, a system of sub-brands support the main technology, allowing visitors to the page to see precisely how in-depth the developers went to bring the latest and greatest to this particular site.

HTML5 Badges with your various ranks
HTML5 with technology-specific sub-branding

Somewhat military in their execution, making use of shields and chevrons, this icon system shows us again how a logical set of related graphics can be a powerful tool for branding. A reason for this is that our own human nature used against us — the sudden desire to earn badges affects otherwise level-headed consumers. We want to join the tribe, to participate in the secret society, and be rewarded for our effort — with pixels if nothing else.

HTML5 Badges with your various ranks
closer look at technology-specific website badges

If your brand needs hopes to entice people to participation, try experimenting with a reward system like badges. Reward your tribe for interaction and contribution. Not only will they wear those badges with pride, showing off your brand in the process, but the scheme may ignite something within potential new consumers or clients. It’s worked for the Boy Scouts and for Foursquare, so why not for you?

Nerd Merit Badge for Inbox Zero
Inbox Zero

PS, don’t forget about Nerd Merit Badges, allowing us grown-ups to display our efficiency in maintaining a zero inbox, for example.