Designing an enamel pin is a great way to create a unique and collectible item that can be used to promote your brand, showcase your artwork, or simply express your personality.
I fell into pin design totally by accident during the COVID lockdown in Japan, and literally started using a pencil and piece of paper. From there, I upgraded(!) to Microsoft Paint (yes, really). It would be another year before I got my hands on a drawing tablet. You don't need fancy software or tons of money to start making your own pins. I've been making pins for 3 years now and I'm still always learning something new, so I thought it might be helpful to share what I've learned so far! Here is my guide on designing and producing your own enamel pins, which I'll try to keep updated!
Choose your concept
The first step in designing an enamel pin is to think about the style, composition, theme, as well as size, shape, intended use, and target audience. A pin can be anything from a simple logo or symbol to a complex illustration or character. I've created very small pins for a railway institution in the UK and huge limited edition Sailor Moon pin-on-pins for collectors internationally!
You can draw the art yourself or commission an artist to do so (be sure they accept commercial use commissions!). Consider the purpose of the pin, who your target audience is, and how it will reflect you and your personality and style. A lot of folks will design 3 or 4 pins in a complimentary style, especially if they're funding production via Kickstarter (my top tips on running a crowdfunding project are here).
Sketch your design
Once you have an idea, start sketching your design. This can be done by hand or using design software. As I mentioned before, I started out doodling designs in pencil - you totally don't need an iPad or fancy software to create enamel pins! Consider the size and shape of the pin, as well as any special effects, screenprint details and shading. I usually sketch out the rough metal lines first very quickly - this means that if I decide I don't like the concept, it's very easy to change it (and I've not lost hours on something I won't make!). It's good to keep in mind the physical constraints of enamel pins - soft enamel will allow for much more detail and thinner lines, whereas hard enamel requires thicker metal lines and it can be difficult achieving very small detail with hard enamel (without relying on screenprinting).
I tend to achieve a lot of small detail in my hard enamel pins in the Fantastic Places collection but that's partly because my factory are super, but also because I use a lot of screenprinting to achieve what can't be done in metal and enamel. Some examples of my most complex small pins are below - these are all less than 2 inches, and my Fantastic Places pins are only 1.5 inches!
Refine your design
Once you have a rough sketch, refine your design by adding or modifying elements until you have a final design that you're happy with. Keep in mind that enamel pins can often be small, so your design should be simple and easy to read at a small size. This is particularly true for any text or logos. At this stage, I finalise the metal line art, settle on the composition, and think about any special effects (such as pearl powder, glitter, glow, and screenprint) which would enhance my design.
For example, I used a mixture of pearl swirl and glitter in the Knight Sky pin above to achieve a gorgeous 'celestial' feel to reflect the scene in the show. I used half-raised metal lines in a zig-zag pattern to add a 3D effect to the sea in my King's Landing Pin. I also used pearl powder (non-swirled) in the magic around Sailor Moon's hand in her limited edition pin-on-pin. Special effects are such a cool way to add a little extra to your pins, but they do tend to increase costs so bear that in mind.
You should also consider how cheap and easy it is to mass produce your design - generally the more colours and special effects, the higher the price (and sometimes the amount of colours affects price more than size!). The below pins had pearl swirl, glitter, glow in the dark, and screenprint - this can all add as much as $1-$3 per pin as small as this. Production costs can quickly get out of hand when you start adding lots of details and effects.
Choose your colours
Enamel can come in a variety of colours, so at this stage you'll need to choose the colours that will best compliment your design (especially if you're producing several in a similar theme - I stuck with purple shades for most of my Halloween collection). Keep in mind that not all colours are available, so you may need to make compromises based on what your manufacturer can produce. Most manufacturers use the Pantone Solid Coated guide.
These aren't cheap - they're approx. £180 unless you can find a second hand guide because you have to buy it as a set with the Uncoated guide. Using a guide isn't even strictly necessary - I didn't have one for my first 2 years making pins - but it can really help to achieve the colours you want. Without a guide, either you'll need to rely on other makers' reference photos for Pantone colours, or the factory will be left to decide for you, and they don't always get it right!
Please note that Pantone colours can change drastically when you start adding special effects such as pearl, glitter, stained glass, and glow powder. If you're using a lot of special effects, it might be a good idea to produce a sample before you settle on final colours.
Find a manufacturer (a 'manu')
Once your design is complete, submit it to a manufacturer who specialises in producing enamel pins. They will review your design and provide feedback or quotes for producing the pins. This can be, by far, the hardest step in enamel pin production.
There are literally thousands of factories that produce enamel pins, in addition to middlemen (such as Made by Cooper and Pin Depot). It's either prohibitively expensive or illegal to produce enamel pins in some countries, so a huge majority of them are based in China. Even companies who claim to be in the US are almost always middlemen who will use factories in China but assist you with the production process.
If you're not familiar with pin production, a middleman can be a great way of bringing your pins to life. Some middlemen are better than others, but they should help with finalising the design, choosing colours, liaising with the factory on your behalf, and quality control. Some offer backing card printing too as part of their service. The flip side is that middlemen are often more expensive and the quality is not always guaranteed.
If you'd prefer to go it alone, which is what I have always done, the best way to find a manu is either head to PMR or Pin Maker Help & Share on Facebook and look for reviews, or check reviews on Alibaba. I do almost ALL my pin production via Alibaba as that is what most manus use. Look for a factory which is certified, which has been operating for a while, and which has lots of good reviews. To help gauge whether a factory will work for you, you may wish to put one small run of pins into production and see how they come out. Almost all manus will have a minimum order quantity (MOQ) of 50 pieces. If you need fewer than 50 pins, the costs will go up and some factories won't produce them at all. Generally the more pins you make, the cheaper each unit price should be.
Some folks will ask existing pin makers who their manus are, and 9 times out of 10 the pin maker won't say. This is usually because a factory which works for them may not work for you, and because pin makers can have different quality standards/expectations - I use 4 or 5 different factories depending on my design. Some are better at screenprint than others, some are great at special effects, some are super cheap for basic designs, and some have really quick production times. A pin maker is unlikely to share their manufacturer's information in case you then have a negative experience with the factory and blame the recommendation. It's therefore better that you put the time into researching a factory, discussing your design(s) and needs with the rep, and produce a sample or a small order of pins to check the quality for yourself.
Review the proof
Before the pins are produced, you'll receive a proof of your design from your rep at the factory. I would usually expect a proof within 48 hours of paying for production depending on the number of different designs being made. The proof will usually show the line art, the flat colour art, any screenprint, the backstamp (I 100% recommend including a backstamp on your pins!), and the chosen backs/clutches. It should also show the size of the pin, and all the Pantone colours chosen. Here's my Tempad pin proof to show all of these elements:
Factories use vector files to produce pin artwork. Many pin makers will produce their own vector files to ensure they are totally accurate (as sometimes the artist at the factory may not get it quite right or reflect the designer's intentions). I've never produced my own vector artwork and instead have always let the factory do it, but this does mean you have to be even more thorough when checking the artwork received from the factory.
Review the proof carefully to ensure that everything is accurate and meets your expectations. If you need to make any changes, now is the time to do so.
Once you're satisfied with the proof, approve the production and wait for your pins to be produced. This process can take several weeks, so plan accordingly. Part 3 of my Fantastic Places collection were in production for 3-4 months because of the number of pins and different designs, so be prepared for a wait!
Once the metal molds are produced, you will need to pay a new mold fee to change any of the metal lines. Once the pins are in mass production, colours can't be changed without paying for production again (less the mold fee). If the factory makes an error and the finished product is not exactly as shown in the proof, you should request a remake and this should be totally free of charge (as it's their error, not yours). You will not get a sample pin to approve unless you request and pay for one. For limited edition or expensive pins, a sample is a really good idea, especially if you're running preorders to fund mass production.
In conclusion, designing an enamel pin is a fun and creative process that allows you to express yourself and create a unique collectible item. It isn't always easy, but it can be SUPER rewarding! I hope this guide helps you to get into creating pins and please let me know if you have any questions.