Playing to the crowd

Words by Kristina Ketola Bore


Football plays out on a field, but it also extends way beyond it. When talking about football, we’re not only talking about the sport. Football is a culture. Any football fan will tell you this with great enthusiasm. And if you ask a designer what design is, you’ll get the same answer. Maybe that’s the reason design and football often find each other with such great ease. 

Behind every successful team, there is most likely also good design, in every sense of the word. Football culture is about more than just the players and the internal or external design. To the greatest extent it’s about the fans, the supporters and the people watching the game. Without the fans, there is no football. Simple, perhaps, but at the same time, very complicated. 

Some of the pillars in football are pride and traditions—values that are communicated through the sport’s visual elements. Yet, when a design agency comes into a club to make ‘design adjustments’ to change their visual identity and the so-called brand, it’s not always popular with the fans. Often, it’s construed as an attempt to change traditions. 

In 2013, Assem Allam, the owner of the British Hull City Association Football Club, declared that he would change the name of the club to the shortened version, Hull Tigers. The club was founded in 1904 and is famous for their black and amber striped jerseys—especially the ones from the 1992-93 season—giving the impression of tiger stripes. Allam, who has in the past declared that he wasn’t a football fan, but a businessman, claimed that the reason for the change was that in marketing, you want as short names as possible. According to the Hull City owner, this makes for a stronger brand, and Hull City Association Football Club, felt Allam, was too long. He went on to decree the word City ‘common’, in addition to being associated with other clubs. 

Right before the first game of the season, the fans marched outside the stadium with a banner that read ‘Hull City AFC: a club not a brand.’ From the stands you could hear fans screaming, ‘City Till [sic] We Die!’ Allam used the media to respond that they were welcome to die as soon as they wanted, as long as they left let the people who wanted to watch good football alone. This led to a new slogan: ‘We’re Hull City, we’ll die when we want!’

Allam also went on to change the crest of the club to a new version, where the name of the club was removed and replaced with its founding year 1904, set over an illustration of a tiger in profile. He was criticised in the British media by both football and brand experts, who said Allam should pay more attention to the club’s supporters. David Stern of the National Basketball Association in the US told the BBC that beyond a financial investment, sport should be considered a public trust, where the fans should be seen as an important element. 

The story had a happy ending for the club’s fans, when their wish to retain Hull City AFC was approved, but not by Allam. It was the British Football Association that intervened and rejected the application for the change.

There is an obvious dichotomy in football. While being a public foundation for the fans—a place for culture and community—for the owners, it’s most often a brand and a commercial entity. It’s not certain who wins this match, but they both depend on each other in order to move forward. 

Back to the field—players’ kits are a great example of how a team’s values are transferred into visual elements. What follows is a hot topic. The world does not lack examples of controversial, radical and less appealing kits trying to communicate values and pushing boundaries on how to do it. The Spanish club Club Deportivo Palencia is a great example of how far this can go. Recently, the club declared their bid for Segunda B, the division above where the team is currently playing. They did this by launching a new kit for the occasion. The kit depicting muscle anatomy gives the impression of players being skinned from the knee up. With the slogan ‘Nos Dejamos La Piel,’ meaning something in the likes of ‘We give our skin,’ the team subsequently played with both spine and hip muscles somewhat overexposed in the weeks that followed.

It might seem like players can dress in almost anything, but there are some limitations. When Cameroon’s national team got ready to play the African Football Championship in 2004 wearing a one-piece (with a drawstring at the waist), six World Cup points were deducted from their team, and they were fined 154,000 dollars. According to football regulations, you must play in a top and shorts, and not a onsie.

There have also been cases where the loss of a game has been blamed on the kit. In the 1995-96 season, Manchester United’s trainer Alex Ferguson changed the away kit during half-time. According to Alex, the players had trouble seeing each other on the field when wearing the gray kit as opposed to their regular red. The team managed to scrape themselves up from 3-0 to 3-1, but the harm was apparently already done.

A few years later, another British team, Cardiff City, got a new Malaysian owner. Vincent Tan took huge steps in breaking with tradition when he changed the team’s colours, also known as The Bluebirds, from blue to red. According to Tan’s traditions, the colour red would carry good luck for the club, but since the team had been blue and white since their founding in 1899, this was not looked upon kindly. Supporters protested by refusing to buy tickets, and even fans outside the club were publicly dismayed. In January 2015, it was announced that Cardiff would once again be dressed in blue, but Tan kept the colour red for the away kit.

Another visual element found in most football clubs is a crest—in other words, the club’s logo. Often, in football, an animal sit in the middle of the crest, and such is the case with the British club Crystal Palace, which carries an eagle in their crest, and Wolverhampton’s, which depicts a wolf. But when the Norwegian national team went for a mythical animal—a dragon—in 2008, it evoked anger at both a national and political level. 

At the time, the Minister of Culture, Trond Giske, played the political position card and stated publicly that there was no way they were going to replace the flag on the national team’s chest with a dragon, although it frankly was beyond his mandate to say anything about the design of the national team’s kit. ‘They can’t possible believe that they can change a tradition built through 1000 matches, without the fans reacting,’ Giske said to national press. He was not alone. Both football scientists, culture scientists and football fans voiced their unhappiness about the influx of the dragon.

‘We are so happy with the result,’ said Karen Espelund, general secretary of the Norwegian Football Association at the time.

However, it didn’t take long before the dragon was again replaced by the flag and the Norwegian Football Association announced that they would be selling the unused kits. ‘But we will not make money on our own misjudgment,’ said Ronny Aasland, commercial director at NFF and put the kit on sale at half price. Today, the kit is a collector’s item.

When it comes to football, most designers find themselves in a Catch-22 type of situation. Working with football clubs, it’s only natural to work with tradition and heritage, but by changing, breaking or renewing these, you’ll most likely face the wrath of the supporters. It is essential to understand that football is not only the players or the field it’s played on; football is also the terraces, the parking lot and all that lies beyond.