Buttons do lots of things– they advertise and promote, display the wearer’s interests and advocate for causes. While all button’s say something, there’s a subset that are designed specifically to start conversations. We call these “social lubricators.” These buttons break the ice in social situations and make it easier to start conversations.
In helping to start those conversations, social lubricator buttons tend to say things that the wearer wouldn’t themselves actually say out loud. Just like the tone of conversations we might want to have can vary, the tone of social lubricator buttons varies as well. They range from tame to goofy to purposely offensive, and can help the wearer find the tribe of peers who share their sensibility.
They heyday of the social lubricator was in 1970s. Novelty companies pumped out these designs by the thousands, and buttons from the 70s speak to the zeitgeist of the time. Building on the button’s popularity for conveying messages (mostly political) in the 1960s, these later social lubricators illustrated loosening taboos around sex and drug use, and spoke to growing cynicism in the culture at large.
The examples pictured are a small sampling of the Button Museum’s collection of social lubricators from this era and are, to be honest, some of the tamer examples. Plenty of the buttons we find from around this time are much more suggestive!
So if you were designing a social lubricator for today, what are the conversations that need a little button help to get started?