The Beautiful

by Rick Banks

Image credit: Dziurek

Soccer fan Rick Banks, Founder of Face37 and author of Football Type, examines the role typography has played on and off the pitch for the last 80 years; from its presence on the back of players’ shirts to its surprising influence on the world of corporate branding.

To find the first example of typography and football coming together, you have to go back to the FA (Football Association) Cup Final of 1933, which was the first showpiece match that featured shirt numbers – Everton wore 1-11, and Manchester 12-22, in descending order. However, typographically speaking little happened until football’s commercial explosion in the 1990s, when the FA sanctioned squad numbers and names for the 1993 League Cup Final.

This led to sports manufacturers producing Grecian slab serif lettering, influenced by what was going on in the world of gridiron football across the Atlantic. It also constituted my first experience with typography – my mum bought me a goalkeeper’s shirt with my favourite player’s name on the back, and even at a young age I recognised the difference between official lettering and copycat shirts. I wanted my own shirt to be personalised with official club lettering.


“The number 23 was also made sacred by both David Beckham and NBA star Michael Jordan, becoming a lucrative symbol that decorated everything from pencil cases to underwear.”

Image credit: 360b

By 2002, type had become an integral marketing tool, with the English Premier League making a clever move by introducing a stretched version of Optima as a mandatory typeface for all teams. This meant every official replica shirt bought worldwide had to use the official font. However it wasn’t all about commercial gain for the Premier League, it also helped to enforce a consistent brand and combat piracy. Clubs and manufacturers started to stretch typefaces, trying to attain a similar ownable look and feel, but as the notion and spirit of individualism became more apparent, this trend only lasted a couple of years. Football was increasingly embracing typography and design, and in 2006 Tottenham Hotspur commissioned branding agency NavyBlue to reappraise its identity, redrawing its cockerel crest in a more modern way and working with typographer Bruno Maag to create a new display typeface, which featured on the club’s European shirts and across all official communications. It was by viewing itself as a brand, rather than just a football club, that Spurs established itself as a market leader and trendsetter.

Football in general was becoming more savvy, with individuals beginning to see themselves not just as sportsmen, but as standalone ‘brands’. David Beckham, perhaps the most obvious example of this, raised a staggering billion pounds sterling in shirt and boot sales across the course of his career. Self-assigned numbers can also throw up profitable quirks for teams and individuals; when a star has a ‘cool’ or unusual digit, fans, particularly youngsters, lap up all manner of products. Brazilian centre-forward Ronaldo created a brand out of ‘R9’, while his Portuguese namesake, Cristiano Ronaldo, has a clothes boutique named CR7. The number 23 was also made sacred by both David Beckham and NBA star Michael Jordan, becoming a lucrative symbol that decorated everything from pencil cases to underwear.


As design in football became more refined and sophisticated, so institutions started to invest in corporate identity. In 2007 the FA Premier League ditched Optima in favour of producing its own alphabet, which still appears on all its communications, be it broadcast, print, or on the backs of shirts. Sports manufacturers had also cottoned onto the benefits of having a unique font that could be emblazoned across all products. For the 2009 World Cup, Adidas commissioned typographer Yomar Augusto to produce the font Unity, which created a holistic visual language for the brand. The design echoed the central delta-shaped panel of the official tournament match ball, the Jabulani, and appeared on the packaging of all Adidas World Cup products. Unity also thrived off-pitch, becoming a font with an audience of billions by featuring in every piece of Adidas World Cup communication, and in film, content, print, digital, gaming and events. In fact, this proved so successful for Adidas that Baselab were commissioned to create Adidas’ own corporate typeface, adiNeue (2011), which was launched by agency Sid Lee alongside the ‘all in’ campaign for the London 2012 Olympics. adiNeue immediately became the iconic Adidas typeface, gracing all product literature, advertisements and corporate publications. There’s even ostensible similarities to adiNeue in the new Google Android typeface, which shows how much influence and inspiration sporting typefaces can have on other industries.

Another brand with a good history in commissioning bespoke type – arguably better than any other sports brand – is Nike. When it partnered with the FA in 2013, boutique type foundry Fontsmith was brought in to draw a typeface that celebrated the new England football shirt. The new face, Valiant, is an engraved type with a strong geometric structure, designed to reflect the idea of contemporary heritage. Nike also commissioned design agency ilovedust to create a tattoo-inspired typeface for the 2014 Risk Everything World Cup campaign. The angled chimneys of Gaudi’s architecture, meanwhile, inspired FC Barcelona’s latest bespoke typeface, created by Studio Vasava in 2012. The choice also had practical considerations, with its condensed nature coming in handy for displaying long European names.


“FC Barcelona’s latest bespoke typeface, designed by Studio Vasava in 2012, was inspired by the sharp angled chimneys of Gaudi’s architecture.”

Image credit: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley

However, it’s not just typefaces being commissioned. Crests, which are symbolically historic to a club, are also being redesigned or refined. In 2012, just like Spurs had done six years previously, Zenit St Petersburg commissioned branding agency Wolff Olins to redesign its crest. The new club logo accentuated the arrow design that had been present on the club’s crest since 1940, but took on a new minimalist approach by removing more recent decorative elements such as a sailing ship and soccer ball. The new, sky-blue logo consists of the team’s name in white cursive letters – specially drawn by a typographer – that terminate in a sharp triangle. It’s a more modern and minimalist approach, and one that makes it all the more recognisable. Other sports are also slowly but surely following football’s lead. Nike produced lovely, angular, key-line lettering for England’s Rugby World Cup campaign in 2011, and even Australian rules football, a very traditional sport, trialled personalised shirts in seven games last year.

Creating a distinctive font makes a brand memorable. It’s a badge of distinction; a bold statement of individuality. It gives a brand its own unique asset, and lends the team a sense of identity. Typographically speaking, it also seems evident that football and the corporate design industry have influenced one another.

The usual corporate ‘text’ typeface, and its limited personality, isn’t enough anymore, and agencies like Wolff Olins are producing distinctive fonts for huge brands, like Macmillan and EE. Ian Brignell’s 2011 alphabet for Coca-Cola’s Share campaign also stands out, with the personalised bottle proving a huge success and delivering the first increase in sales for 10 years – it’s no surprise Coke chose to expand the logo into a typeface, which has become as iconic as the logo itself. It seems that this idea of personalisation has its roots in the world of football too, with people paying to have their name or idol’s name printed on their shirts.

Fans of football, whether they know it or not, are hugely influenced by their team’s brand, which allows them to pick out the right shirt from a selection, just using the colour, crest and typeface as signifiers. That love of being in a team, and supporting a football team, is galvanised and united by the underlying subconscious design and brand influences. A football team is all about identity, so why not invest in good design?

This feature is extracted from The Recorder Issue 2. You can purchase The Recorder from our shop.