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World Cup special issue: Rachael Steven interviews GBH’s Mark Bonner on his typographic work for Puma, and how the brand is approaching Brazil 2014

When it comes to designing football shirts, Puma is a brand that likes to push boundaries. It has launched the first kit to represent a continent, celebrating the first African World Cup in 2010; one-piece and sleeveless designs for Cameroon which were banned by FIFA; and a series for the African Cup of Nations in 2012 featuring patterns designed by leading visual artists.

In 2012, Puma also debuted one of the most unusual typefaces to be used on a football shirt to date. Inspired by sticky tape, Gaffer was a visual representation of the brand’s grassroots Make Football Anywhere campaign and the first to be used in advertising as well as kits.

The typeface was designed by GBH and as creative director Mark Bonner explains, it allowed Puma to develop a powerful visual language at the African Cup of Nations tournament. It also tested the limits of rules that prevent shirts being used as a vehicle for marketing.

“FIFA’s guidelines explicitly state that shirts can’t be used to convey marketing language [see page 34], but there’s nothing in the rules that stops the on-pitch typeface from being used in advertising,” he says. “By exploiting that loophole, Puma became the first brand to link on-pitch assets and traditional media channels.”

As Bonner points out, kits are a valuable media space – billions tune in to watch each World Cup and the numbers on shirts will be broadcast on TV screens around the world. “Synching on-pitch typography with off-pitch advertising creates a powerful story, and I think Puma was quite ahead of the curve in doing that,” explains Bonner.

This year, Puma has adopted a similar model. Shirts feature rich graphic patterns – Cameroon’s is decorated with a lion motif and Ghana’s with stars – and the same typeface as its latest campaign, Nature of Believing, an extension of Puma’s Nature of Performance campaign, devised by GBH and the ad agency Droga5.

The Nature of Believing logo features a star motif and Barcelona foundry Emtype’s Geogrotesque, and GBH has developed an accompanying star pattern and country specific designs for use on products, ads and fanwear.

The op-art inspired visuals will be used on static and digital pitch-side ads, as well as event banners. Puma has also launched social campaigns with the hashtag startbelieving and held tours allowing fans to turn up and ‘bless’ their country’s kits.

For players’ kits, GBH has designed a condensed version of Geogrotesque, “with a distinct Futurist, Italian flavour,” says Bonner. “It’s a simpler execution than Gaffer and much less radical, but it’s designed to stand firm with the look and feel of the Nature of Believing, and the Nature of Performance [which also uses Geogrotesque],” he adds.

Letters are also inspired by pitch markings, such as the penalty box ‘D’, says Bonner, and a custom ‘A’ has been created for the Italian kit, which features white numbers with a gold outline.

GBH has made clever use of FIFA’s guidelines on breathability, too: the Nature of Believing star pattern has been applied to letters via thin laser cut holes around 1mm thick. “Regulations try to prevent appendages to typography, or graphic marketing language, but this was approved because of the breathability [numbers may feature 2mm-wide breathing holes],” says Bonner.

This constant desire to push the boundaries of kit design and test the limits of FIFA’s equipment regulations can backfire – Cameroon was docked six points in the World Cup qualifiers for wearing its one-piece, a decision which the brand later disputed in court – but it’s a canny marketing tactic, and one that never fails to attract attention.

“I personally believe Puma is one of the smartest clients in design,” Bonner says. “Every major tournament, it’s like we sit down, rub our hands together and think ‘what can we do this time?’ Staff are all over the rulebook looking for innovation opportunities and in a sport with a global audience, that needs no language barriers, that’s really important,” he adds.

 

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