Everyone loves a trophy! Okay, it’s not that simple. Still, we humans love to mark milestones and accomplishments. Trophies are tangible reminders of those fleeting moments of victory. However, not every accomplishment comes with a ready-made sculpture for the display case.

Enter the sticker.

Like trophies, stickers can celebrate victories, but because they’re inexpensive to produce they commemorate a broader category of achievements.

Stickers celebrate wins large and small. Awarding stickers to kids in the classroom is so common that “you get a gold star” has become an expression of approval for a job well done. / Girl: César Rincón (license)

A numbers game

Trophies can recall happy memories, but a large trophy collection has a quantitative message. A row of trophies doesn’t spotlight specific achievements. Instead, it encourages the viewer to think about the scale of the collection. It’s a visualization of winning.

Because stickers are plentiful and don’t require a lot of space to display, adhesive trophy collections are not hard to find. The buckeye leaf stickers that adorn Ohio State University helmets are well-known among fans of U.S. college football. The criteria for earning these stickers have evolved over time, but in general they’re awarded for strong performances in a game. Here, the specific achievement associated with each sticker disappears completely. All that remains is the count.

Stickers on Ohio State helmets visualize performance on the field. / Penn State (license)

A suitcase covered with old hotel luggage labels is an iconic image of travel. It also happens to provide a visualization of how well-traveled its owner is, for the benefit of other passengers on a train.

A more modern equivalent: the stickers on the side of this recreational vehicle (RV) allow the owners to document the states they’ve visited and, it appears, to note a few activities along the way (square dancing in Nevada, whale watching in Washington).

Location adds meaning

Large trophy collections need space. Where a trophy collection is housed often asserts ownership of the reflected glory: a high school, for example, or this fire station.

On the other hand, sticker trophies don’t take up much space, and they gravitate toward places or objects that played a role in their stories, adding some qualitative color to the quantitative picture.

The locations of the stickers above do suggest ownership, but they also provide additional context about what the stickers mean or how they were acquired. For example, the RV map suggests not only that its owners have visited 18 states, but specifically that they have done so in that vehicle, evoking cultural connotations that come along with that mode of travel. The location of the map also reinforces the explicit depiction of the 48 contiguous U.S. states as the likely priority for destinations. (I did find some other sticker maps that included insets of Alaska and Hawaii, causing me to wonder how many people actually choose to transport their RVs to Hawaii.)

This guitar case also tells a specific story. Like the suitcase above, it features travel souvenirs (I see stickers related to tours, concerts, and radio stations, among others) but the fact that these are plastered on an instrument case suggests that these are places its owner visited as a performer. I don’t know this to be true, but it’s the story that emerges.

Group efforts

The sticker collections above reflect the achievements of individual people, but trophy collections often represent the efforts of many. Those on display in the fire station photo above were collected over time (the years 1983 and 2001 are legible) and are sure to represent wins by people who never met. The common thread is the station.

So-called “victory markings” commonly adorn military planes, a practice dating to World War II. These are usually painted stencils, not stickers, but they serve the same function. Sometimes the pilot’s name is displayed along with each marking, but the linkage to the event is with the plane.

This Israeli Air Force fighter jet displays markings for shooting down seven enemy jets (the half target represents a joint interception) and bombing a nuclear reactor. / Zachi Evenor (license)

Finally, I found a crowdsourced collection in these photos of astronauts bound for the International Space Station. Crew members are shown affixing mission insignia stickers to the wall of the plane that transports them to the launch site, building a visualization over time.

Top: NASA/Victor Zelentsov (1 & 2); NASA/Alexander Vysotsky (3) (license); Bottom: Andrey Shelepin/Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (license)

This accumulating collection of stickers is a little different than the others, and it may be my favorite. I’m never going to be an astronaut (sorry, eight-year-old me) but there’s something about this improvised ceremony that captures the essence of it. Working aboard the ISS is a milestone for everyone involved, but this humble composition of faux wood and paper on what looks like an ordinary passenger jet is not a grand display for the world to behold. Rather, it’s a chance for those few who stand before it to connect with those who came before and those who will follow, to say “we were here,” and to make their small mark on something much larger than themselves.

Thanks to Jason Forrest. 

User researcher at consultfathom.com. Communicator of data. Promoter of fun and useful things.

CategoriesData Humanism