Design and football, part of the game’s evolution

FOOTBALL’s dynamism has long been built around spectator involvement, colourful characters on and off the field and exploitation of the mass media. Marketing the game has revolved around these elements and other more peripheral aspects such as iconography, typography and visual identity have been influenced by four things: club crests; club strips; history; and the homes of the clubs, the stadiums. These have long represented the visual representation of virtually every football institution and hence, when a club has changed any of these, it is usually accompanied by fan protest or discontent.

London’s Design Museum is currently running an interesting exhibition called Designing the Beautiful Game which looks at the various ways football has packaged itself over the decades. It’s a colourful, fascinating walk through the game’s history, including the increasing boldness of stadiums, the innovation of individuals in trying to challenge the status quo and the growing prioritisation of finance.

While we kick-off with homely Pathe films about hand-made footballs and examples of boots more suited to heavy duty building work than sport, we pass through displays of that great symbol of commercial opportunism, the ever-changing football shirt, to see models and photos of stadiums far removed from the traditional arena, such as Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, the proposed rebuild of Stamford Bridge and the sheer brutalism and beauty of AC Milan’s San Siro or Braga’s incredible structure in Portugal. The work of architects such as Herzog & de Meuron and Populous has taken football stadium ideas to an unprecedented level.

World Cup posters were one of the first print products to combine art with football. Take a look at the first posters from the 1930s and they cannot be confused with any other period, likewise in the 1950s, they are very representative of their time. While these pieces of art were, in their own way, the future, the rest of football at the time was still stuck in its quite parochial past.

In the early 1970s, Coventry City pushed the envelope further than any other club with its match programmes. Designed by one John Elvin, who had been poached from producing West Bromwich Albion’s ALBION NEWS, Coventry’s SKY BLUE was imaginative, exciting and so far ahead of its time. In fact, football programmes today lack the vision of Elvin’s work and are full of cliché, commercial intention and carefully cultivated messaging. The Design Museum pays tribute to the work of Coventry City providing a reminder of just how forward-looking the club was in its heyday.

More recently, clubs have recognised the need to portray their identity as a corporate logo, dispensing with historical but complex heraldry and introducing easily-recognisable and eye-catching badges, a trend that started back in the 1970s. But in the age of instant gratification and distraction, the simpler the image, the easier it is to remember. The redesign of Juventus’s badge is a prime example of transformation of brand identification, their “J” has become a form of corporate ID that can be replicated with ease across media, products and digital content. Not everyone likes it, the traditionalists are always likely to complain, but Juventus have almost taken ownership of the letter J in Italy.

Design is undoubtedly moving football into a new space, although some of the football kits being produced may suggest creativity is going a little too far at times. But in many other ways, it is creating a more spectacular game, although those controlling the purse string would be wise to ensure that beneath the gloss and artistry, there is genuine substance.

The exhibition continues until August 29 at the Design Museum, Kensington High Street, London.