Stickers, A Love Story

When I was in elementary school, I won a science fair, and travelled to the far-off land of Moscow, Idaho for the state competition. While there, I spent some of my food money on the most magical sticker ever. It was a gleaming metallic unicorn with rainbow colored mane and tail. It brought me joy every time I saw it, and reminded me how hard I had worked and how exciting it was to travel to show off my experiment.

When laptop stickers started appearing, I felt the same way about them, a bit. They are reminders to us of things that we have done or accomplished, and they are signals to others about what we care about.

When I started at LaunchDarkly, I had one day in the office, and the thing I spent the most time on was talking with our (genius) designer Melissa about stickers and what we should do with them. We have just done a refresh of our Toggle character, and now they look like this:

So cute! So space-tastic!

In the last year, I even built a sticker lightning talk to address why I care so much about this, and I’m always charmed to look out at the audience and see the smiles and nods as people feel seen and understood.

Why do we care?

Why do/should tech companies and other companies care? What makes it worthwhile for me to carry around a few pounds of stickers and experience the delights of confusing the TSA?

In-group markers and identity

It is so important to people to be represented and known for themselves. Whenever I have stickers that relate to pronouns or sexual orientation, people make a delighted face and pick them up and hold them close.

And it’s not just the things about personality – a Go programmer is happy to find a gopher. Someone who does DevSecOps loves to find a sticker that describes their job.

I can spot the networking people, for example. They are the ones who think the Fastly 418 (I’m a teapot) the Target 127.0.0.1 Sweet 127.0.0.1 sticker are hilarious. Because they are jokes that relate to HTTP return codes and IP addresses.

Then we have another layer of delight when we can put them on a laptop and be seen and found by others in our in-group. If I have a sticker from a conference you’ve been to, we can talk about our experiences. If you see a sticker that indicates we share something, it’s much less intimidating to start a conversation.

For example, if you see this sticker, there’s a pretty good chance that the person has actually met me.

Similarly, if you have a sticker showing in a video or on your laptop, it could be a lead to something that people want to know about. I get a lot of questions about my OSMI stickers, which is about Open Source Mental Illness.

Branding, I guess

The exposure you get from a sticker is a small increment, but small increments add up. They can add up pretty quickly if your sticker is a prompt for someone to act as an advocate when they are asked about the sticker.

Matt (Brender) Broberg did a talk that included an analysis of the return on investment of stickers.

(the last bit is obscured, but it says “Sticker ROI is 5x to 76x”, I think.

People also have sentiment around stickers, in the technical marketing sense. Cute stickers make people feel like your product is fun or delightful to use. High-quality stickers make people feel like you have a high-quality product. Racist or sexist stickers? You’re alienating a lot of people silently.

Even people who don’t know what npm is will take npm stickers because they are SO DARN CUTE.

Surveying

One of the interesting parts of carrying my sticker bag around is that I can get a sense of what technologies are important to a community. It’s not always a 1-1 relationship with the technologies you would expect. Sometimes it is. Either way, I can see the level of interest around a company or technology.

For example, I can tell you that the Kubernetes project is interesting and popular and has a good visual brand and is not doing enough to meet the market demand for their stickers. PHP and Drupal crossover, and that’s not surprising, but so do Verizon and Elastic. One conference may have people who don’t recognize a Chef sticker, and another might wipe out everything I have that relates to automation. I can tell from the stickers that Target developers take that they build a lot of internal tools instead of buying them. It’s interesting!

Developer honeypot

It’s not true that developers are universally shy and anti-social. Some of them are, some of them aren’t. What is true is that it’s hard for a lot of us to strike up conversations with strangers. When I spread out my stickers and invite people to browse and take them, it gives both of us a way to talk about technology in a way that is low-key, not intimidating, and doesn’t even require eye contact. We have time to talk or not talk as we wish.

Design patterns and anti-patterns

I’ve been carrying around The Sticker Bag for about three years now, and in that time I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a sticker attractive to someone. Some of it is identity and branding, but those feelings can be enhanced or reduced by the design and form-factor of the sticker.

Size

Huge stickers are a mistake. I am almost never excited enough about about your product to dedicate 1/6th of my laptop space to it. I think 2 inches is about ideal – big enough to see and have impact, and small enough to fit in around other things.

Here’s what a set of huge stickers looks like:

But wait! You don’t have to think about it, because, my friends, there is a standard! Visit sticker.how to read it. Interoperability is not just for software and hardware anymore.

Shape

I favor the standard hexagon, because the tiling looks really awesome, but I am not against die-cut stickers that have unique shapes. Hexagon stickers started as an “open source thing”, but have utility for everyone who wants to work together for maximizing laptop space.

I have previously questioned round stickers, because they are not an efficient way to use space, but I think they’re ok as long as they’re smallish. Big circles somehow seem even bigger than big rectangles.

My laptop has a combination of sticker styles, but I don’t put anything on there if I don’t know the people or use the product.

You can see how the Fastly 418 sticker is round, but fits ok with others, and the Spoonflower round sticker is too big to fit harmoniously.

Utility

If you like it, you should put your name on it. Visual branding is hard to do, but it doesn’t do you any good to print awesome-looking, high-quality stickers if no one can tell who the sticker represents.

For example, this sticker was adorable, but for the first year it was out, you couldn’t tell it was from InfluxDB.

The next run of stickers had their name on it, thankfully!

Not for everyone

Not everyone uses tabs, or spaces, or emacs, or vim. Not everyone wants to put stickers on their laptop. They find it cluttery or distracting or unprofessional. That’s fine. There are all sorts of people in the world. Don’t be judgy.

However! Some people would like to be able to represent themselves with stickers, but can’t, because they have a work laptop that they aren’t supposed to stick stuff on. In those cases, consider these sticker hacks:

Sticker hacks

  • Put a lightweight case on your laptop and either put the stickers on the outside, or leave them on their backing and put them UNDER the case. I do this with a bright pink case from Speck.
  • Get one of those vinyl laptop skins that goes on your computer, and then put the stickers on that. I heard of one guy who got a skin made of the stickers that he had on the previous computer, and then put even more stickers on top of that. Truly next level.
  • Don’t put them on your computer! Other destinations I have heard about include: notebooks, water bottles, white boards, and beer fridges.

Resources

  • http://hexb.in/sticker.html
  • https://www.redbubble.com/shop/stickers
  • https://stickerapp.com/materials/holographic
  • https://www.moo.com/us/products/stickers-range.html
  • https://www.etsy.com/shop/DecalSpecialtiesBJ?ref=l2-shopheader-name&section_id=18018884

Conclusion

Stickers may seem like child’s play to some folks, but it’s an interesting insight in to the cultures, self-representation, and identity of people we’re around. And it’s not just technology – miners and construction workers sticker their hardhats. Musicians sticker their instrument cases. If we have a flat surface, a lot of us feel like adorning it is a satisfying activity.

Delight for less than a dollar? Seems like a great deal.

The sticker bag

I talked about this a little bit in Lady Speaker Small Talk , but let me expand.

I have a bag of stickers that I take to every conference I go to. This week, I leveled up my game from “gallon ziploc bag of significant antiquity” to “bespoke bag”. It only took me a little while to sew, but I’m super pleased with it, and it uses a fastener I got on my last trip to New York City’s garment district.

A black fabric envelope about the same size as a gallon ziploc bag of obvious age. Black envelope style bag with silver bias edging and a fancy silver buckle fastener.

I made the effort because the sticker bag is important to me — part personal brand, part conversation starter.

Array of various technology stickers More technology stickers spread on a table

I go to over 20 conferences a year, and at each one, I collect vendor and conference stickers, and I talk to the people who give them to me, and then I spread them out on a table at lunch or at the evening party and invite people to come poke through them and take away whatever they want.

This is the most genius spontaneous idea I’ve ever had, because what it gets me is:

  • Low-key, low-pressure opportunities to talk to even shy people
  • A way to talk about different technologies and what people are interested in and looking for
  • A way to gauge what a community of conference attendees is excited about
  • Memorability
  • An extremely keen understanding of the market demands and constraints around stickers

What stickers mean

I am the age to have been a Lisa Frank person growing up. I distinctly remember spending science fair reward money on freakin’ holographic unicorns. It turns out a lot of us have never entirely lost the joy of neat stickers. We put them on our computers, water bottles, notebooks, suitcases, beer fridges, whatever we can get to hold still.

We use them as affiliation identifiers. It may be an obscure sticker to everyone else, but if you care about Debian, you know when you see the Debian sticker on someone else’s gear. You know that they will probably talk to you about Debian. Now imagine leaving that kind of conversational hook twenty times over.

We use them as political statements. An EFF sticker means something, as does a sticker that says “Support your sisters, not just your cis-ters”. Rainbow/pride stickers fly out of my collection, because it’s so important to say “not everyone here is straight”.

Some people have rules about what kind of stickers they’ll use. “I only put stickers on for projects I pay money to.” or “I only use stickers from projects I use.” or “Only funny stickers” or “My laptop has a color theme.”

That all makes sense to me. In many ways, our laptops are a proxy for our faces, especially at conferences. We are hiding behind them physically or metaphorically. When we give a presentation, they peek up over the podium. When we are working in hallways, they identify our status.

Secret Sticker Rules

I think there are some generalizable rules about technology stickers. I feel so strongly about this that when I showed up for my one day in the LaunchDarkly office before I went out into the world, I spent 2 hours talking about stickers, and what I wanted to hand out.

My ideal stickers

  • Small – 2 inches is ideal. Unless you work for a company, you do not want to give them 1/6th of your available laptop space.
  • Tileable – circle stickers are selfish, because you can’t stack them or budge them against any other stickers. I prefer the hex shape, which is relatively standard, especially in open source projects, thanks to RedHat. PS – Heroku, right shape, slightly too big, and it breaks the tiling. I’m judging.
  • Funny – the Chef “sprinkle on some DevOps” stickers are hilarious, cute, and not insulting to anyone. They’re probably optimal. I also really like the Logstash stickers that were a log. With a mustache. And I begged a whole package of the “I ❤️ Pager 💩”. Because people find that hilarious. You don’t have to be funny. Other options are cute, completely straight, or your-logo-but-with-colors.
  • Have your name on them. I cannot tell you how sad it was for Influx Data when they had adorable animals with gems in them, but their name wasn’t anywhere on the stickers, and so I was like, uh, it’s a kiwi bird? From someone? Isn’t it cute? Put your name on the sticker unless you’re, like, Target or Apple.
  • Are not sexist, racist, or otherwise jerkish. I pulled out a bunch of stickers that said “UX-Men”, because while the pun was cute, the exclusion was not. I won’t put out Sumo Logic stickers, because I feel like it’s an ugly caricature. Basho was also right on that line.

I really loved the stickers the LaunchDarkly designer, Melissa came up with. Most of them are hexes, a couple are very small oblongs that fit almost anywhere, and the surprise best-moving sticker is unusually big, a representation of our astronaut, Toggle.

Parents love Toggle, love that Toggle is not gendered, and they take home a sticker for each of their kids.

Other handouts

As I’ve been going to conferences representing a company that isn’t just me, I have figured out some other things that work for me. Feature Management is a new enough market space that people don’t always know what I mean, or want something to take back to their team to explain it. Melissa and I worked together to create a small postcard that has some brand identity on the front and a couple paragraphs on the back explaining our business case. It’s small enough to shove in a pocket or conference bag, and when you get back to your desk, you may read it again to remember why you picked it up.

I also carry business cards, so that people have a way to contact me particularly. I serve as an information conduit between people thinking about how we could solve their problems, and the folks on my team who can definitively answer their questions. So if you say to me “Heidi, I’d love to do feature management, but does it respect semver?” I give you my card and you write me and then I find out yes, we have that coming in this quarter. Yay!

And, of course, I keep a few sets of LaunchDarkly stickers that are not mixed in with the general chaos of The Sticker Bag, so that I can hand them out to people as we are talking about LaunchDarkly in particular. For reasons that mystify me, while Moo has excellent card holders for their tiny cards and business cards, they don’t make ones for the postcards in either size, and looking on Amazon and Etsy was just a journey into despair and disambiguation.

So I expensed some materials and made my own, and as soon as I sort out my authentication with Instructables, I’ll post the process, but look, I made a card holder for all my cards!

Navy leather card holder in clutch size Card wallet interior, with postcards, stickers, and business cards.

The postcard side is gusseted so I can stack a few postcards in it, and the business card holder side can also hold stickers. And the whole thing is sized to fit in my hoodie pocket, because that’s what I’m wearing 95% of the time I’m on a conference floor.

What I Don’t Hand Out

T-shirts. Such a nightmare, because they’re bulky and sizing is variable, and I’m traveling light. If you want a t-shirt, write us and we will ship it to you. 😉

Socks. Because we don’t have any yet, but I continue to hope that we will get socks before the technology sock craze (Started by StitchFix, those cunning geniuses) dies out. I love tech socks. At last count, I have 22 pairs of tech socks, and my current favorite pair is from Sentry.io because they come in a version that has SCREAMING CORAL as the cuff color.

To Sum Up

When interacting with people, it’s nice to give them something tangible, but not burdensome, so they remember you fondly. Also, I’m glad I bought a sewing machine, even though it’s one of the three weeks a year a fat bike would be useful.