Football programmes: lost gems of design?

Instagram account turned digital archive 1 Shilling celebrates an unsung graphic design object – the vintage football programme.

With experimental type, an almost total disregard for advertisers, and covers that could pass as literary magazines today – hello Albion Review – vintage football programmes are a surprising source of boundary-pushing design. Instagram account and soon to be online archive 1 Shilling collects and shares these lost pieces of print – usually the mainstay of football fanatics rather than design enthusiasts.

“There’s a whole culture of people who are obsessed with these programmes,” says Matthew Caldwell, the graphic designer behind 1 Shilling. “I’ve been to a couple of events where they sell them, and everybody knows everything about football programmes. There’s probably five or six events a year in church halls where all these people congregate to search through them like old vinyl. I’ve found a lot of beauties that people just don’t pick up on.”


Hibernian vs Aberdeen, 1972

Caldwell’s carrying on a family tradition with 1 Shilling, which is inspired by his dad’s extensive collection of programmes – hundreds of pieces of print saved from every single Aston Villa home and away game of the last 30 years, held in leather-bound folders that rarely see the light of day. His dad’s not alone, with keen collectors willing to invest thousands in rare copies. In 2013, an 1882 FA Cup programme sold for over £32,000, while in 2014 a 113-year-old Sheffield vs Tottenham Hotspur programme went for £19,000.

“It’s not glamorous,” says the designer. “It’s not like collecting diamond jewellery. But these programmes are the most innocent little things, especially the older ones. They’re so beautiful and I’m not sure people realise why they’re so nice. They throw back to a time when everything was a lot simpler, and there was less showing off for advertisers. It just was what it was – from-the-soul writing and designed by very normal people.”

Rochdale vs Southport, 1976

Many of these programmes were printed using litho, meaning they’re often in a single shade of red or blue, or adopt a very minimal colour scheme. Grotesque No 9 – a sans serif typeface designed by Sheffield printing company Stephenson Blake in the late 1800s – was a popular choice, and crops up in several programmes of the 1960s and 70s. Mastheads vary wildly, from super minimal covers that unite type and photography, to wildly unconventional lettering. Many of the programmes also contain a trove of vintage advertising – everything from tobacco and beer brands to local businesses.

One man in particular cornered the football programme market of the 60s and 70s – a designer and former art director called John Elvin, who Caldwell says has all but disappeared since. Elvin’s agency, Sports Graphic, created programmes for a number of teams including Aston Villa, Coventry, West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City. “He did the most incredible work,” says Caldwell. “I’d love to find him, because no-one’s doing anything about his work, and he did everything from his living room with an illustrator.”

Wolves vs Ipswich, 1972

“Designs that get showcased now are the Olympics, or work made by Swiss designers in the heyday of Bauhaus,” he adds. “No-one talks about the men and women from places like Birmingham or Coventry who were also doing amazing things at the time that nobody ever knew about, because they’re not associated with a particular era of design. They go under the radar, and there’s a lot to be said for the Midlands design scene happening at the time.”

Not just a source of under-appreciated design work, Caldwell’s collection offers a stark contrast with contemporary programmes, which he says are creatively limited by commercial pressures. With sales of programmes on the decline, the English Football League is now considering only producing them for major games, rather than for every league match.

Arbroath vs Hibernian, 1972

“I think it’s something to do with the monetisation of football,” he says. “It’s a business now, and you can’t make mistakes designing programmes – you’ve got to turn over a certain amount of money with every programme, and sell slots. Of course they did that then, but there was less emphasis on it. There’s some sort of freedom to the designs, people were allowed to let loose.”

“1 Shilling is a throwback to that day and era when it was less monetised,” adds Caldwell. “It’s a testament to what design can be, and how free designers can become when they don’t have restrictions bearing down on them. They go back to a time when football was less a business and more a pastime than it is today, and I love how they reflect the pure culture of what it was like before.”

1 Shilling is accepting submissions to add to a planned online archive of vintage football programmes