The letters and numbers on the back of a soccer shirt might not immediately strike you as an area for passionate debate and insightful stories, but behind those pieces of fabric lies a whole world of design innovation and football folklore. A brilliant new book on the subject of typography and the beautiful game entitled Football Type lifts the lid on this particular world, bringing it to life with some fantastic graphics and unusual stories behind some of the most iconic examples seen on shirts through the ages.
There's a fair few Umbro shirts featured in the book, so we thought it was an ideal opportunity to chat to its creator Rick Banks about his love of letters - if you're interested in picking up a copy of the book or finding out more, head to the Football Type site. Here's what Rick had to say about its creation..
What was the inspiration behind the book, and what do you hope anyone picking it up will get out of it?
'The inspiration was simple — it was a combination of my two biggest
passions, football and typography. For designers, I hope it inspires. For
non-designers I think it’s a great insight into the world of typography and the
book also tells of typographical tales of the beautiful game — like stories
behind why Johan Cruyff wore the legendary No 14 shirt or why Zamorano wore 1 8.'
is something that a lot of football fans might not notice, but it obviously means a
lot to you. When did you first start to notice the wording and the different
styles used on shirts?
I was eight years old, I begged my mum to buy me a Manchester United
shirt with Peter Schmeichel’s surname on the back. Schmeichel
was my favourite footballer, and I was fascinated with the slab serif font in
which his name appeared, which I liked to doodle in my school sketchbook. My
mum gave in, kindly bought the shirt and brought it home. But when I opened it
I cried my eyes out. The Umbro logo was missing, and the font was all wrong. It
just wasn’t the same. This is my earliest memory of my interest in typography.'
What difference do you think it can make to the design of a football shirt? Does a shirt need lettering to bring it to life, or should it stand on its own without the lettering?
'Obviously I’m biased but I think it makes a
massive difference. For me, the most successful shirts are when they have
considered and complimentary typography. For example Real Madrid’s 2011 gold
optical font which was designed by Anthony Barnett at Sporting iD. The gold
optical lettering not only looked good but it matched the shirt’s gold trim.
All good design has a story behind it — the font pays
homage to iconic players of the era like peerless Argentinian match-winner
Alfredo Di Stefano.'
Football authorities have a lot of rules around the way letters and numbers can
appear, do you think this has been a help or a hindrance to the way they have
'I know most type designers complain about
UEFA’s and FIFA’s rules but I quite like designing within restrictions and a brief.'
been plenty of different developments since numbers first appeared on
shirts, what do you think has been the most important step?
'Football lettering today is big business.
More clubs are commissioning bespoke, experimental lettering, and spending
millions building a strong visual identity that can be used on merchandise and
communications. I think the biggest development was when Real Madrid bought
Ronaldo in 2009. Madrid commissioned a typographer to draw a bespoke alphabet
in Latin, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. Ronaldo has already sold more jerseys
than David Beckham in his four seasons at the club.'
know it’s like choosing a favourite child, but do you have a favorite typography example (or examples)?
'My favourite lettering on a soccer shirt is
Umbro’s last England shirt (I’m not just saying that!). Paul Barnes’ duotone
lettering, which features in the book, is subtle, different and very striking. It
also compliments the shirt so well. Design wise, my favorite shirt, is the
Bolton Wanderers 2007 home shirt due to it’s minimalism and simple sponsor.'
A lot of thought and research goes into shirt typography, do you think this is time well spent, or in the end does it not make a difference?
'I think football writer, Sheridan Bird sums it
up well in the book: “At the end of the day, names and numbers are for identifying
players,’ is the understandable refrain of the average fan …. but their
creativity adds beauty to function and makes the journey aesthetically
pleasing. Footballers have to wear numbers, why not make them eye-catching, meaningful
you think interesting designs tend to happen at the top level of the game, or
is there anything interesting happening in the lower divisions?
'Top design, whether its shirt or type design,
tends to happen at the highest level — where the money is. In England, football
teams have to abide by their league typeface when they are not playing in
Europe. At international level, it is really interesting to see the divide in
typography. In the book, there are examples of beautifully bespoke typefaces
from the ‘top ranked’ countries and there are also some truly bizarre examples,
including a stretched Wild West typeface used by Kazakh team FC Ordabassy. The
Faroe Islands use Times New Roman on the back of their shirts. Can you imagine
every shirt having Times New Roman on the back?'
there an end point in terms of innovations for lettering and numbers, or do you
think designers can continue to create new ideas?
'In the future, I think
teams may experiment with ideas like those used by Mexican club Los Jaguares
and Spanish team Sevilla: Sevilla’s 2011 kit featured numbers made up of photos
of fans who had paid $1 for their face to appear, and Los Jaguares’s includes
players’ Twitter handles below their numbers. Design and innovation will never
stop, its exciting to think what next season will bring.'
Finally, if you could design a bespoke typeface for any team or player, past or present, who would it be, and what would it look like?
'I’d love to design a typeface for Bolton Wanderers but for that to happen we have to be in Europe again (as UEFA allow bespoke lettering). And I can’t see that happening soon, so I’d love to create a strong corporate identity for a football club. Just like how Tottenham have done —they have a bespoke typeface featured in all over their communications as well as on the back of their European shirts.'
Thanks to Rick for taking the time to speak to us, and congratulations on a wonderful looking book - with all profits going to the Football Federation. Take a look here for more details.