The A-B-C of 4-4-2

Designer Rick Banks explores the evolution of football lettering in a not for profit book co-authored by Sheridan Bird

When designer Rick Banks was eight years old, he begged his mum to buy him a Manchester United shirt with Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel’s surname on the back. Schmeichel was his favourite footballer, and he was fascinated with the slab serif font in which his name appeared, which he liked to doodle in his school sketchbook. His 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,” he says.

This is Banks’s earliest memory of his interest in typography. Twenty years later, the founder of graphic design agency Face37 is no less intrigued by the lettering adorning football jerseys, and for the past two years he has toured the country researching the evolution of the sport’s numerals and typefaces for his self-published book, Football Type.

The project was inspired by an article by writer Sheridan Bird, published in the November 2006 issue of Creative Review, which looked at the introduction of numbers on jerseys and the inspiration behind Real Madrid’s 2005/6 typeface, an italicised derivation of Peignot.
“I stumbled across the article on the archives and it got me thinking: so many people are passionate about football and design but I don’t think there’s ever been a book about football type. I contacted Bird, started collating official typefaces, and realised it was turning into quite a nice project. After that, I contacted everyone I could think of who was involved in designing football lettering, including Bruno Maag, GBH, Umbro and the Premier League,” he says.

While football club re-brands stimulate national debate – Everton’s crest makeover in May proved so controversial that the team issued a formal apology to fans and promised to consult them on future logos – footballing typefaces are less talked about. Unusual or bizarre lettering, such as the marker pen style face used on this season’s Real Madrid kit, are mocked on fan blogs or Twitter, but rarely provoke serious discussions.

“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 and unique?,” asks Bird in his foreword to the book.

Football Type is a collection of images, vectors and graphics presenting a visual guide to the introduction, evolution and importance of type to football. Through archive photographs and shots of kits from each decade, with captions written by Bird, Banks explores experimental projects, players’ allegiance to a particular number and examples of good, bad and ugly fonts.

All of the proceeds from the book will go to UK charity Football Foundation, which funds sports facilities and grassroots projects. Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, England, Liverpool, The FA, Adidas, PUMA, Umbro and Nike all contributed to the project, and the book was sponsored by Identity Print, Winter Company, Sporting ID and Tom Duncalf, who built the Football Type website. “Without them working tirelessly for free, there wouldn’t be a book,” says Banks.

“It’s the first book I’ve published under Face37. There’s an ongoing trend with designers publishing content themselves, such as Unit Editions and Browns Editions, which gave me the encouragement to do it myself. It took two years of writing, designing and project management, and getting copyright approval from clubs (which they wouldn’t usually give, but waived because the proceeds go to charity),” he adds.

Banks’s book opens with a photograph of King George VI shaking hands with Manchester City players before their 1933 FA Cup Final match against Everton at Wembley Stadium. The team are wearing numbers hand-stitched on to their jerseys, and the game is the first showpiece match in which players wore numbered shirts. The first ever use of numbers on European football shirts was a match between Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal five years earlier.

By 1966, jerseys with hand stitched type and numerals were becoming commonplace: as Bird explains, Umbro founder Harold Humphreys visited every country playing in the World Cup that year and offered to provide their kit, and only USSR refused. In spreads comparing hand stitched kits from 1966 to 1980, he highlights the differences between national typefaces – West Germany used a shadow slab serif, Turkey and Greece more ornamental designs – and the influence of other sporting fonts on football numerals: numbers for the 1982 England kit appear to be inspired by American Football lettering. Banks also explores players’ attachment to particular numbers long before David Beckham achieved global fame as England’s No 7.

To compile his visual history of football, Banks had to contact teams and sporting manufacturers, and took a trip to Umbro’s archives in Manchester. “I was like a kid in a sweet shop – they invited me to pick any jersey I liked and photograph it, and I was allowed to look at telegrams and printed material from the 1930s,” he says.

He also contacted Sporting ID, which manufactures shirt numbers, and was invited to visit the company in Newcastle and practise putting numbers on cloth. Online, he trawled eBay and Flickr looking for unusual and historical kits, and came across some truly bizarre examples, including a stretched Wild West typeface used by Kazakh team FC Ordabassy that was just “too odd to ignore”. “I spent hours collating a little scrapbook of cuttings and thumbnails of shirts,” he says.

In the latter part of his book, Banks looks at the evolution of type since football’s commercial explosion in the early 1990s, and the official typeface introduced by the FA Premier League – a stretched version of Hermann Zapf’s Optima Black. This was replaced by a bespoke design in 2007 that is now mandatory for every official replica shirt sold worldwide.

As Bird and Banks explain, football lettering today is big business. More clubs are commissioning bespoke and experimental lettering, and spending millions building a strong visual identity that can be used on merchandise and communications. Football Type includes some excellent recent examples, including Paul Barnes’s designs for Umbro and Puma, Sporting ID’s Anthony Barnett for Liverpool and Real Madrid in 2010 and 11, and GBH’s Gaffer typeface for Puma, developed by Dalton Maag.

In the future, Banks believes more teams will invest in creating strong corporate identities like Tottenham’s, and may even 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.

A limited edition of 1,000, the cover of each copy is hand numbered using official Premier League lettering supplied by Sporting ID, and customers can choose their number colour: gold costs £50, red £45, white £40, blue £35 and black £30. (Identity is printing the book for free, and cloth was donated by Winter Company). “I wanted it to be a collectible, but introduced a pricing structure so it’s still affordable,” explains Banks. It’s a beautifully produced project, and the rich visuals, archive imagery and insightful captions offer a fascinating look at football type history for designers, enthusiasts, and anyone who’s passionate about the sport.

Football Type is published by Face37. For details or to buy visit footballtype.co.uk

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