Neville brody’s distinguished career has included work for some of the UK’s biggest institutions. The founder of Fuse and the Anti Design Festival may be one of design’s great rebels at heart, but his client list is remarkably respectable: as well as The Times, the BBC and the Royal College of Art, it now includes England’s national football team.
Since early last year, Brody has been working with Nike to create the numbers and lettering for England’s 2014 World Cup kit. The slim fit, all-white design references the strip worn by the team in Mexico in 1970, and features a subtle pinstripe and metallic three lion motif that Nike claims is inspired by the armour of English knights.
When the kit was unveiled in March this year, Brody said the inspiration for his accompanying typeface was “the intersection between flair and workmanlike reliability,” adding: “the industrialised suggestion of a stencil is simultaneously based on a pinstripe motif, combining style with no-frills efficiency.”
This combination of style and efficiency tries to convey an image of England as an industrious yet innovative nation, but it’s also a result of Brody’s desire to create a font with flair while adhering to strict constraints set by football’s governing body, FIFA.
Brody spent around eight months designing letters and numerals, after being approached by Nike’s football design team. “We had met with them a number of times then, out of the blue, they asked me to do this. The brief from them, really, was to do something different – they wanted me to explore some fairly radical ideas,” he adds.
The first idea he explored was the image of England as a hard-working, industrious team – “as opposed to, say, a Brazilian team, whose image would be based on flair,” he adds. Brody compiled a series of initial sketches and fonts he had designed previously around this idea, but Nike suggested he pursue something a little more experimental. “It was a very interesting response from Nike – essentially, they wanted to push boundaries,” he says.
According to FIFA’s equipment regulations, numbers on the back of men’s shirts must be centred and between 25 and 35cm in height, with a stroke width of between 3 and 5cm. Numbers on the back must be chest height, between 10 and 15cm high, while players’ names must be between 5cm and 7.5cm. In addition, at least 4cm must be left between names and numbers. “The problem, ultimately, is there’s a rectangular proportion you have to fit things into – if letters are square, then once they hit the height, they are too wide,” he says.
Guidelines also specify that numbers should include breathing holes of no more than 2mm, and be affixed to shirts via heat transfer. As FIFA points out, technical and sizing requirements ensure a certain level of uniformity, but its guidelines on legibility are open to some interpretation.
In part IV of its regulations on playing equipment, FIFA says that numbers and letters must be ‘clearly legible and distinguishable from a distance for all players, match officials, spectators and media’.
“This is prescriptive, but it doesn’t qualify – it doesn’t say what distance, for example,” says Brody. “The largest you’re going to see it is on a giant playback screen or if you’re a match official standing a metre away. The smallest is on a mobile phone. You have to think about scale and legibility, not just for a match, but for distributed images,” he adds.
While a lot of people will be watching matches on their mobile however, it’s unlikely they will be tracking player numbers. “You can’t scope for all instances, so we looked at the optimum, which is TV-sized delivery, and took it as an opportunity to explore some new ideas,” says Brody.
Focusing on the idea of ‘creative flair’, Brody produced a second, more daring round of designs. A quick glance at his computer reveals dozens of sketches, mock-ups, variations and finished fonts, which range from characters with a heavy horizontal pinstripe to angular digits inspired by the architecture of a stadium.
At each stage of the process, Brody toyed with hundreds of subtle variations, changing stroke widths, angles and curves, and adding additional decorative elements. “We were looking for a really reductive statement that still communicates with a degree of flair,” he explains.
“Each number has to make an impact on its own but if it’s too decorative, you enter into an area where numbers are used for illustration rather than information. It also doesn’t feel like football, which says a lot about how we understand the simplicity of the game,” he adds.
One of Brody’s many number options was a set of geometric characters [see below left] that tested the limits of FIFA’s legibility guidelines. Elements of this can be seen in the final design, which is a little less extreme, but still incorporates the same pinstripe and also uses the England crest to join both halves of each number.
“It would have been a pretty amazing visual statement, but we knew FIFA would be keen on straighter designs which begs the question, is it entirely about legibility, or some degree of taste?” he asks. “I’m very happy with what we ended up with, though, which is a typeface that is workmanlike and does the job, with some interesting and radical touches,” he adds.
Brody isn’t convinced FIFA will relax its stringent legibility guidelines any time soon, but believes the issue will become increasingly less relevant, particularly as the way we view matches rapidly changes. “It’s just a case of taking steps towards pushing boundaries – each new experimental design is a move towards that,” he adds.
It’s been a rewarding project, one that Brody is particularly proud of, but he describes it as a complex cross between engineering and expression. “It’s like designing machinery that has to work but at the same time, you want it to feel loose and free,” he says. “I had no idea about the guidelines when I started this – I thought I could treat it like a poster. The result is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing but then, type design is often about management and negotiation.”