For graphic designers whose work exists primarily in digital or 2D environments, finding innovative, tangible ways to reach new audiences can be difficult. Sure, designs translate well onto T-shirts or posters, even tote bags; but really, how many tote bags can one person own before things start to feel like an episode of Hoarders: Design Merch Edition? That’s why a new trend has led many designers to think small and get in the #pingame.
If you’re familiar with this hashtag, you know it’s the key to navigating online collections of candy-colored enamel pins designers and illustrators are currently selling. And like your favorite confection, it’s pretty hard to buy just one. Designs range from cute and kitschy to surreal and somber, and with a price point of around $10, it’s a guilt-free way to indulge in your favorite artist’s work that might not otherwise fit your budget. But is low cost really the only reason pins are suddenly in demand?
Enamel pins have always been a part of fashion and pop culture. For those of us who grew up collecting and trading Disney pins, Pokemon cards, or even Pogs for a hot minute, they tap into the current wave of nostalgia for all things ’90s. Artist and pin designer Penelope Gazin says she’s watched them grow in popularity over the past year. “Urban Outfitters just started selling them, and I can’t believe it took them this long to hop on the trend,” she says. “Pins are not only affordable art but they’re perfect for our current generation that celebrates individuality and customization.” Of her idiosyncratic designs, Gazin says, “They’re a very personal present you can give to someone, i.e. ‘I got you this pin of a bouquet of roses in a bong because I know what a romantic stoner you are.’” Aww, how sweet.
This level of specificity is part of what makes pins so attractive. There’s a design that will appeal to almost every taste and subculture. Looking for somethings that’s Easy Rider-meets-slumber-party? Tuesday Bassen’s got you covered. Can’t decide between your favorite designers? Sign up for a monthly subscription with Brat Box and you’ll receive curated collections of artist pins and patches based on themes like Adventure, Space Stuff, or Decay. Founder Brock Cady says, “The pin and patch game is such a broad market; we wanted to create an experience that helps build a community that supports independent artists, and gives them another distribution channel.”
Some designers are more focused on the long-term business benefits, and see pins as a creative alternative to the standard business card. Brian Stowell and Charlie Wagers of Lost Lust Supply say pins are a great way for designers to get their work into the hands of potential clients. “It’s a perfect, bite-size physical token that can elevate your branding and send to your customers to turn into walking conversation pieces.”
From a semiotic perspective, pins hold a considerable amount of symbolic weight. Look no further than Obama’s 2008 run for presidency, when the media lost its mind over his decision to stop wearing a flag pin on his lapel, deeming his actions unpatriotic.
Today, because so much of our cultural conversations exist within the context of social media and internet memes, pins serve as mini time capsules or wearable cultural snapshots. But it’s not just about collecting cute or funny artwork that’s referential to this week’s version of #PizzaRat. Brock Cady says, “If you like an artist’s work, you want to show it off, and it kind of becomes a part of your own ethos as a human being.”
We assign meaning to these tiny design objects, wearing them as signifiers of our personal beliefs, or just our personas. Parisian designer Juliette Mallet says her favorite design from her brand Coucou Suzette is a Blue Eye pin that she wears almost everyday as a lucky charm. Brian Stowell says his father-in-law described their the Steelhead Salmon pin as “magical” after he wore it on a fishing trip and caught a 2-½-foot Steelhead after only 20 minutes out on the river. These personal talismans create a symbiotic relationship in which consumers are free to express their likes and experiences, and allows designers to bring their digital portfolios into the real world.
“People are really interested in supporting artists that they find online,” says Kelly Feighan of Valley Cruise Press, who’s been producing enamel pins and patches since 2014. “Art has never been so accessible before; Instagram really opened that up to everyone.” Other artists like Penelope Gazin agree that the exposure Instagram provides has been integral to expanding her brand, but the most satisfying part of running her business is spotting her designs out in the wild. “Lapel pins are a way for tiny versions of your art to walk around the world so it really spreads one’s aesthetic both IRL and over the internet much faster than plain images. I love being at Vons [super market] and doing a double-take when I spot someone wearing one of my pins.”