Todd Radom is a renowned US designer who has spent his career turning sporting teams and events into visual pop icons. Radom’s impressive folio includes identity work for the Los Angeles Angels, Washington Nationals, Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Lakers. He’s also designed logos for NBA and MLB All-Star Games, The World Baseball Classic, some of America’s most cherished stadiums and a little shindig called the Super Bowl.
With the biggest day on the US sporting calendar just around the corner, Anthony Costa caught up with Todd to explore his work and find out some of the secrets to a successful sports brand. What are some of the current trends in sports visual branding, and how does an organisations create an identity with lasting value?
Sports design is quite a niche. Tell us how you got started.
I’ve been interested by the visual culture of sports since I was really young. I was one of those kids who was always doodling sports team logos and uniform lettering. I’m also a lover of history of all kinds, so the aesthetic history of sports has always appealed to me as well.
I explored these themes in different ways during my college years. My first jobs out of college were in the field of book publishing — I wound up creating lots of sports-themed book jackets during the first few years of my working career. I eventually accrued a pretty sizeable portfolio of baseball book covers, sports-inspired lettering jobs, and general identity design that enabled me to seek out work with MLB and the NBA. The work was pretty good, but I also came in with enthusiasm for the product and my already established knowledge of what they were selling. That was over two decades ago.
You’ve banked plenty of industry trust since then.
Trust is certainly an important piece of the puzzle. There are many people who can execute — and I can execute — but I like to think that I have accrued a lot of institutional knowledge about what makes a logo and a brand work well once it leaves my hands and gets out into the world. Design is a collaborative process, it’s also often humbling. Focusing on the needs of the client, balancing that with instincts and knowledge and talent and ethics, all with a steady hand—having all of those things work together, in unison is hugely important.
Does a sports logo work differently to a corporate design?
I’ve often said that sports fans are the most ardent, passionate brand loyalists on earth. Design for sports is different than design for any other consumer brand. Sports logos and uniform designs connect generations of fans who follow their favourite teams daily, sometimes obsessively. The opportunity to tap into something that people are so positive about and invested in is a great, great challenge.
What are the ingredients of an effective brand identity?
Every brand is different, and the culture and story behind individual teams, events, fan bases, and cities are all different. Every job starts with research. Drilling down to the core DNA of what makes a franchise or a city tick is imperative as a foundation exercise. Knowing why a change is being made is critically important too. You cannot really begin to execute until all of these things are lined up and clearly articulated.
Money’s always tight, especially in the lower-tiers of the sports industry. Investing in design is sometimes a distant priority. How do you demonstrate the dollar value of good design?
You alluded to a word — investment — that really is appropriate here. A brand goes beyond a single logo, so we are talking about providing a suite of assets that, when deployed well, will become the visual embodiment of a team or event. The importance of getting it right really cannot be overstated. Look at your brand as though your life depended on it– would you skimp in seeking out a cut-rate medical specialist, or would you seek the best care possible that would give you the best opportunity for a successful outcome?
No organisation wants to look dated. How do you make a brand identity that lasts?
A great question. Trends come and go, the challenge with any kind of identity design is to look around corners and create something that’s going to have lasting value. There’s no single answer for this, a lot of it deals with sound judgment and a commitment to being honest with the client. In terms of current trends, there’s a huge push that we are seeing now that revolves around neon colors. Professional franchises have been (cautiously) eyeing this for a long time, piggybacking off of fashion and footwear trends that have been going on for years. I think that this will look very 2013 or so when 2020 rolls around and then we’re on to the next thing.
Speaking of colours, what factors should teams consider when choosing their palette?
Sports identities are centred around tribalism — my team is red, yours is blue, or green, or whatever. Embracing a signature colour palette and having that be the driving and emotional force behind your brand can be a very powerful thing. I should also note that sports identities need to work successfully across a variety of platforms, from print, to web, to product to broadcast and down the line. I am a huge proponent of “bulletproof colours” that maintain visual integrity across all these platforms.
You’ve touched on the crossover between sport and fashion. US team logos have more edge and style than those from other countries. Why do you think graphics are such an important part of US sporting culture?
I think a couple of things contribute to this. First and foremost, we are (for better or for worse) the biggest exporters of popular culture and entertainment in the world. Like many places, sports is integral to our national identity, but when you combine an elevated consumer culture with a landscape that contains many well established fan bases, this is what you get. More than ever, people understand brands and logos and marketing, and are very engaged with their teams and events in terms of what they look like.
Of all the major leagues, which do you think has the highest design standards?
These things ebb and flow, of course, and I’d say that each major professional league here has very, very high standards and a serious commitment to design. In terms of visual legacy, baseball is king, at least to me. Professional baseball here dates back to 1869, just four years after the Civil War ended, the same year that our continent was connected by railroad, several years before the invention of the telephone. That’s a lot of years and a lot of history. Pro football really only hit its stride here in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the NBA was buried behind football and baseball until the early 1980s. The NHL contained only six teams until 1967, and soccer is just now emerging in many ways.
NFL graphics have become increasingly standardised over the years. Super Bowl logos used to be diverse, capturing a flavour of the host city. Now they are slick uniform statuettes. Does this detract from the ‘once in a lifetime’ billing of the event?
I really believe that’s the case. I designed the logo for Super Bowl XXXVIII —whatever it is, it reflects a moment in time and the specific location where the game was played. The Super Bowl is like a national holiday here, a fun day and a chance to get together with friends and family, and the event itself is full of passion and excitement and colour. A slick, shiny, grey corporate identity does not, in my opinion, reflect the dynamics that are so vitally connected to the event.
At the college level apparel companies seem to be squeezing out design agencies and assuming greater responsibility for team branding. Is this a good thing? Should commercial sponsors have so much sway over a team’s long-term identity?
I look at that as a classic case of tail wagging dog. The needs and visual integrity of the colleges have taken a back seat to the the needs of the apparel brands. There’s clearly a lot of money at stake here, but the priorities are backward.
How do you feel about the increasing prevalence of sponsorship in US sport?
I deal with co-branding all the time, and there’s kind of a science involved which is impossible to articulate verbally. Making sure that the team or event or league is the dominant brand in the relationship is key. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s here and it’s here to stay. American fans are much more sensitive than fans elsewhere about sponsor logos on team uniforms, this has been well documented for years now. Placing a consumer brand alongside that of a team dilutes that value of the team, in my opinion. I did an interview 10 years ago in which I said that sponsor logos were going to hit major American sports team uniforms, that it was just a matter of time—it hasn’t happened yet, but it will. The NBA seems to be ready to make the leap. I think that we as consumers are bombarded by brand messaging, more now than ever before. Designers and marketers need to adjust their sensibilities to meet the challenges of this landscape. That said, what makes me happy as a consumer may (or may not) mesh with the needs of a team or league or event.
Your own work aside, what are some of the favourite team identities?
I am a classicist at heart, so I gravitate toward time-honoured identities like the Montreal Canadiens or the St. Louis Cardinals or the Green Bay Packers. As far as what’s new, I absolutely love what the renewed Charlotte Hornets of the NBA have done. A modern and forward-facing look that carries forth the visual traditions of that city’s NBA legacy, well-executed and cohesive. And fun, with broad appeal across all kinds of demographics.
You’ve mentioned three timeless, traditional brands and one trying to build a bridge to the past. Seems like a lot of teams are going retro with their logos nowadays. How do you explain this trend?
I have a theory regarding the current trend toward retro. We have lived in uncertain times for years now. The post 9-11 landscape, punctuated by an economic crisis that has yet to conclude, has left consumers of all kinds longing for comfort food. Something familiar and warm, something certain. As far as the reasons behind change, franchises generally shift their visual culture for several reasons. A move to a new facility, new ownership that wants to break from the past, and a desire to escape an era of failure on the field are but a few. A change in identify really needs to have a defined reason that fans and stakeholders will understand in order to make a smooth transition.
What’s been your favourite job to work on?
It’s difficult to select a single one, and there are many that I’m contractually not allowed to publicly discuss. Successfully navigating the design of a Super Bowl logo is a big one, very visible and important, and quite a process. There are a few New York-centric jobs that are special to me as a native New Yorker too.
Good design is sometimes less about invention and more about the evolution of good ideas. Who are some of the artists and designers you look up to who have shaped your style?
I have been doing this a long time now. I earned my first design fee at the close of the disco era. I have lots of respect for my peers in sports design, of course. And every identity designer owes a debt to the masters, Paul Rand and Saul Bass and Milton Glaser and that generation. I made my mark as a hand-letterer back in the 1980s. I consider myself a craftsman, especially when it comes to letterforms, and I am happy to see a revival in that field, away from computerized and machine-driven, back toward work that has evidence of a human hand attached to it. Jon Contino is at the forefront of that movement, a real inspiration, a guy who is creative and immensely talented, but at heart a commercial artist. The design I do is about commerce, and form needs to meld with function in a very practical way.