Clearly the Foursquare badge system references, and borrows from, the traditional Boy Scout merit badge (like this one for physical fitness) both in design (the circular border) and concept.
A few of Gerd Arntz’s many pictograms, meant to capture an idea at a glance, for the “visual statistics” language of the Isotype—or “International System Of TYpographic Picture Education.”
“Crunked,” a Foursquare badge that’s “earned” by checking in at lots of bars in one night, tweaks icon-language as much as it borrows from it.
Foursquare designer Mari Sheibley cites Ryan McGinness as an influence: He has appropriated iconography to address a variety of subjects, as in Installationview, from 2005.
Over time Foursquare has branched into more overtly merit-badge-like behaviors, such as checking in regularly at the gym. But it has stuck with minimalism—three colors at most. Less is more.
Foursquare has no monopoly on digital symbols as gamelike rewards: Travel-oriented app Gowalla’s system of “pins,” earned by visiting landmarks, restaurants, and other notable places, has its own following—and a very different visual style.
“Good icons should be more like road signs than illustrations,” according to Susan Kare, whose many creations include these early Macintosh interface graphics. These are arguably as much a visual signifier of Mac-ness as the Apple logo. Foursquare’s badge system may play a similar role for the geolocation social networking service.
The “Hangover” badge—earned by checking in late at a bar and early at work—is notable for its resemblance to the (presumable) self-portrait-as-icon figure on designer Sheibley’s site.