Calls: Send in your ideas. Deadline April 1, 2024

Hexagons

There are six sides to that!

Much of the work we support at NLnet is intangible. Sure, you can scroll through the source code of your favourite free and open source software on a big screen, but once you close your laptop or turn of your computer monitor that sensory impression is gone. Similarly, open standards and open data or the math behind post-quantum cryptography do not really manifest themselves in a physical way. This is perhaps why stickers have become part of hacker culture: they allow us to leave a small mark of our presence and technological preferences and ideals in the regular world, in a modest and non-obtrusive way.

Heart with hex stickers

At NLnet we adhere to the "living standard" of hexagonal stickers, or hex stickers, as (quasi-seriously) formalised by Stock, T. (2018). Hexagons are neat mathematical shapes ("regular polygons") with one extremely attractive property for those designing and deploying stickers: hexagons (of the same size) can be tiled infinitely in an elegant way (while avoiding being as square as squares tend to be) to fill a surface of any size. Of course there are many shapes (round or oval) which can be used to make nice standalone stickers, combining a larger amount of them on a single surface gets ugly pretty fast. The ability to scale up from one tile to infinity without needing to leave gaps, is why for instance bees build the honeycombs in their hives with hexagonal cells — adding one cell at a time.

The attactive geometric property of being able to scale to any surface is combined with the attractiveness, symmetry and balance of its shape. By adhering to the canonical measurements and maintaining the same orientation as described in the convention, we achieve interoperability — and increase our chances to we "meet the expectations of sticker consumers" — and ensure "maximum enjoyability".

We count ourselves among the hexagonistas: those people that are always looking for interesting new designs to creatively plaster their devices and other suitable surfaces with. Luckily we have a lots of projects to work with, and so we've produced a lot of our own designs too. Check out the gallery of all the hex stickers of projects with their names and links.

Collage of Hex stickers

What is a "standard hex sticker"?

A hex sticker® adhering to this convention has the following characteristics (slightly reformulated for clarity):

  • obviously, it is a regular polygon with six sides each 25.4 mm long
  • with one of the three long diagonals oriented fully vertically (so the hex shape is pointing both up and down)
  • (which determines the width of the hexagon to be the same as the two short horizontal diagonals, i.e. 43.9 mm in length)

Effectively, this means that a compliant hexagon sticker has a width of 4.39 cm and a height of 5.08 centimeter. As random as these numbers may seem, this becomes more clear if you realise that this means a sticker is precisely 2.00 inch high (so by embracing one standard we give into breaking another, and bow down to imperial stubbornness to accept the size of Europe as the measure of all lengths as encoded in the metric system). Officially, the standard allows for 1 millimeter tolerance, which is a bit odd as we are now mixing inch-derived measurements with metric system derived ones — but these tolerances are something the printer will be responsible for anyway and it really doesn't matter too much.

We are done with compliance requirements. From here on creativity rules. Materials can be chosen freely, as long as they stick and don't pose health hazards. The most common material used is vinyl, which allows for stickers from projects that go rogue to be removed without issue. We suggest to avoid paper-based hexagon stickers, these are nearly impossible to remove after a while.

Getting to a print-ready design

We tend to design our stickers in Inkscape, a free software drawing application. Inkscape uses W3C Scalable Vector Graphics, which is the same format we use on our web site. This allows you to take any of the design on our site, and reuse elements for your own stickers.

When you start designing your own hexagon stickers, your first thought would probably to produce a design that fits the dimensions as described by the standard precisely. However, when you bring the resulting design files to an actual printer, they will get back to you with some technical requests.

Add bleed to the design

Stickers cannot be directly printed in a hexagonal shape of the right size straightaway, as such a weird format doesn't fit into regular printing machinery (as a true hexagonista might say "just yet"). And even if they would, there would be a printable area that would be slightly smaller than whatever you feed into the machine. A printer needs to be able to grab the material in order to transport it, and this needs to be an unprinted area; otherwise it would smear ink or toner. This is no different from the regular desktop printer you might have at home or at the office.

Stickers are therefore printed on larger rolls or sheets of the base sticker material (e.g. vinyl), and are subsequently cut out to be the right shape and final size. Obviously, this process of trimming down is not perfectly accurate because we are talking about large surfaces of material that need to be moved at some speed. Even if cutting is done with say a laser, this needs some margin. This is why the design you send to the printer needs to be somewhat bigger than the desired end result: if the cutting is done with 1 or 2 mm of possible deviation, it would look totally weird if the printed area would not cover the whole sticker surface. This is why you need to add so called bleed, which is some extra design beyond the intended edges.

We make our designs in two stages: first we make the regular design (with the standard dimensions, assuming 'perfect' cutting). This is what we hope the sticker will look like. Then we add a border or layer in the background — to arrive at the printable design (the one with bleed). You can either keep the printable version in a separate file, or make the background elements which are part of the bleed area "hidden". This conveniently allows to keep everything in one file, but of course you have to make sure the printer gets the right version, and it makes file sizes for the web version slightly bigger. For a simple design both options work, but for some more complex designs with e.g. gradients we recommend using two files anyway to avoid any visible boundaries between main image and the background. In that case, merge the shape of the hex sticker with the bleed area before you apply any tricky clippings, gradients, etc.

We put the original slim version on e.g. our website or reuse it in other designs, and the blown-up version is only sent to the printer. Our printer requires a PDF version with bleed (PDF supports this natively), but it might be that your printer directly accepts SVG images. Of course if the edges of your design do not have a colour and are transparent (essentially retain the original colour of the material to be printed on), then you can just stick with a single design.

Make sure image quality is good

The other request they might make is to make sure that image quality is good enough. Otherwise you get a fuzzy sticker no matter what. We tend to send our printer designs of 600 dpi, which should be more than enough for most use cases. If you use vector designs like we typically do, that shouldn't be a problem. If you use bitmap images (e.g. photo's) you'd do well to use high quality images, or enhance the quality in some graphical tool.

One note: screen colors and print colors are very different. Printing typically happens with CMYK colors. If you are very very picky about colors, you can work with more complex printing techniques such as spot colors. These are single color, so visually strong but of course more expensive.

Templates

Note that we've made the bleed surface "hidden" and put these in a separate group/layer. When you open these files in your SVG editor of choice, you should be able to toggle visibility again. Of course, since there are geometric tools included with many vector editors, you can also generate your own hexagon from scratch with the right dimension.

Check out the gallery of all the hex stickers of projects for inspiration.

Have fun, and if you have a neat design: send a few stickers to us!

Infosec security warning

Your private collection of stickers on your laptop is probably unique. As with any laptop adornments deployed by people that are under risk of surveillance or face other threats where they may be filmed or camera data is processed by machine learning, any pattern on their laptop can be used to fingerprint them. It can also be used for social engineering. Please be aware of this and use a sleeve or laptop bag when in public.