Show Me Your Badge

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , critique

In one of the most famous lines in The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), the bandit known as Gold Hat (played by Alfonso Bedoya) tells the prospector Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) in a hammed-up Mexican accent, “We are Federales. You know, the mounted police.” To wit, the incredulous Dobbs responds, “If you're the police, where are your badges?” “Badges?” replies Gold Hat, angrily, “We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!”

Why is flashing a badge—a mere piece of embossed, debossed or engraved metal—the epitome of authority... and power?

Sheriff Marshall badge, photo by Flickr user 917press

U.S. Deputy Marshall badge. (photo by Flickr user 917press, under CC license 2.0)

What makes a tin star, as they were called in Westerns, or a nickel alloy shield, as worn by the NYPD, so charged with power? Long before they became synonymous with “checking in” on Foursquare, the concept of “badges” traces back to medieval times, if not earlier, when knights carried shields, wore armor and brandished swords in service of the king. Protectors of the monarch were, for all intents and purpose, the law. But those were simpler times. Shields with heraldic markings were limited to knights, not knaves.

These days, badges represent many kings, many laws and many different authorities. It is not enough to simply pin a chunk of metal over one's heart and claim authority; a badge must be sanctioned, and its design must fulfill many requirements.

Badge of the Denver Police Bureau

Badge of the Denver Police Department. (via

The Denver Police Department, for instance, invests its badge with considerable layers of symbolism, ritual and lore. “The American eagle on top of the badge symbolizes freedom and the police officer's readiness to defend individual rights. Each of the seven major points of the star represent a quality valued by all professional police officers: honesty, integrity, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope and charity. The remaining minor points illuminate the badge, a symbol of duty. The gold and silver colors denote purity and worth. The center is the corporate seal of the City and County of Denver, and is dominated by an American Eagle watching over industry, offices of state, and future expansion.”

Whew! Imagine a graphic designer being given a brief to get all that into one logo? I can hear the beleaguered designer negotiating with the client: “How about we just represent hope? Okay, we can do fortitude and hope, but charity will have to go.” Or “If you want honesty and faith, we'll have to charge more.”

Yet it goes without saying that a badge must symbolize all the virtues and values that are expected of the wearer (although that's not always the case). As the Denver description reveals, there is a language of badge design that has been fairly consistent for centuries. While every country has its own symbolic lexicon etched into the pliable metals the fundamental notion of power is constant. Add to this calculus of signs and symbols and tactility, a badge has to have a certain imposing form or shape.

The L.A. Police shield is perhaps the most famous oval. It also has various meanings:

1. Border design based on the fasces, or ancient Roman symbol of authority.
2. Designation of rank.
3. Rays of a setting sun represent a West Coast location.
4. Replica of City Hall with three symbolic characteristics: Tower's rising lines depict the untiring and unyielding spirit of the City's founders; the flanking wings represent the expansive growth from the first El Pueblo; the broad base signifies the City's firm foundation.
5. The City Seal depicts the City's history through Spanish, Mexican, autonomous and U.S. control; its site as a prolific garden spot; and the early influence of the mission padres.
6. Designation of city and department.
7. Oval shape, unique in badge design when adopted in 1940.
8. Badge number or symbol of rank.

LAPD Badge description (source:

LAPD Badge description. (via

Badges are born of tradition and history. The Pittsburgh Police badge was designed in 1873. According to the City of Pittsburgh's website: “The crest is from the Coat-of-Arms of William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham, and the man for whom Pittsburgh is named. The garter around the badge is linked to King George III, the last English ruler of the American colonies. The shield is a circular fighting shield used by 15th-century Greek foot soldiers. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the circular shield was used extensively in the British Isles, hence its appearance in Pittsburgh.”

There is a decidedly emotional connection to badges. “Badges are routinely handed down from father to child in police families,” wrote Ray Rivera in the New York Times in 2009. “But in New York, a city that has become almost synonymous with high security... some officers don't wear their badges on patrol. Instead, they wear fakes. Called 'dupes,' these phony badges are often just a trifle smaller than real ones but otherwise completely authentic. Officers use them because losing a real badge can mean paperwork and a heavy penalty, as much as 10 days' pay.”

These days wearing the word “Police” “FBI” or “DEA” in gothic caps on the back of a windbreaker carries some of the same authority as a badge. But it is not the same. Badges are official; T-shirts, baseball caps and other sporting apparel currently used to signify “the law” don't hold a candle to a badge—even the faux (i.e., rent-a-cop) varieties.

Array of badges from

An array of badges. (via

Speaking of quasi-official badge holders, although Federal law prohibits the sale or purchase of counterfeit police badges, that doesn't stop the trade in quasi-badges for non-governmental legal support professions. And the more loaded with signs and symbols, the better. Thomas Badge Company, a leading manufacturer, makes the following declarations in its catalog copy. Bodyguards, for example, should have the Executive Security badge, “distinctively crafted... in a gold finish. A Red and white enamel is used for the beautifully mastered center eagle emblem. This Executive Security badge is sure to please any professional Security personnel or Bodyguard. It will command attention from all who see it!” In addition, process servers get no respect, so they get a badge, too: “Our Process Server Badge ensures immediate recognition of the holder due to its large 2.5 inch size. This is a reasonably priced badge with very high quality. This is a heavy-duty flat-back quality badge with quality pinback. Its enameled black lettering with federal eagle center seal and rich gold finish ensures years of trouble-free use. Our Process Server Badge also comes with a heavy duty pin & safety clasp.” And even security guards should possess a “3-inch seven point Security Special Officer Star Badge [that] is both elegant and effective. With a non-interchangeable multicolored enameled center seal of Liberty and Justice, you will get a professional look with style. This Security Special Officer Badge is a must for your profession.”

“Badges!?” It is necessary to show those “stinkin' badges”—not only for the authority they possess but for the Pavlovian responses they trigger.

More badge inspiration

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more.