Right before the 2014 Men’s World Cup started in Brazil, the United States Soccer Federation (U.S. Soccer) unveiled a new brand look that made extensive use of my typeface United. They used it for their website, fleet graphics, luggage tags and pretty much everything except the team’s uniforms. I’m a huge, daily-news-reading, player-following, press-release-reading U.S. Soccer über-nerd. I love our teams in good times and bad. So, our national team using one of my typefaces? I lost my mind.
U.S. Soccer kept this look around after the Men’s World Cup ended. They continued to use it through the 2015 Women’s World Cup. (Which the US won!) It stuck around after that and has gone on to be used for everything from highlight videos to conference banners to scarves. Awesome!
The only thing that would have made me more excited would have been if I could have designed a typeface specifically for U.S. Soccer. Something that precisely matched their needs. I mean, you have no idea how happy I’d have felt if Captain Bradley or Captain Lloyd or Jozy or Rapinoe or Deuce or Baby Horse walked out onto the pitch wearing numbers and letters that I had drawn.
Well. A funny thing happened. U.S. Soccer brought me in to create a typeface specifically for them. Graphics, uniforms and everything. I’m pretty excited and proud about all of this, so I’m going to go pretty deep into the thinking and development process below. If you just want to see what the typeface looks like, here you go.
Still here? Cool. Let me walk you through how this happened, what we did and show you the results.
In the Beginning
I grew up playing recreational soccer in South Louisiana. Like almost everyone in my generation who kicked the ball around, I was not a good player but I loved the game and desperately wanted it to grow in our country. We knew that we weren’t going to make it to our beloved national team, but we all hoped that someone we played against might play against someone who might play against someone who might get that call. We all felt like we had a connection, as minuscule as it might be, to our teams. The players that we saw in Sports Illustrated and on TV (if we were lucky) were just like us—they played on the same messy pitches, with the same busted goals and in the same sweaty summer camps—except they were better and they made it. That feeling has never gone away. We all watched Landon Donovan amaze us, Rapinoe thump the ball to Abby’s head, Michael Bradley show some serious smarts, Christen Press make a touch that is just, my goodness. Seeing our players do this didn’t make us happy. It made us proud.
I watch all of this from a different perspective now. I’m a proud dad of sons who play soccer, one of them very seriously. I spend a lot of time sitting at practices and games and it amazes me to see what soccer in America has become. The coaching, training, organization and skill that is now at the youth level is so much more advanced than I could have ever imagined back in my day. U.S. Soccer has very often been the catalyst for these changes.
All of this is why I was gobsmacked when U.S. Soccer started using United. I’m not a player or a coach, yet I had managed to contribute a little something to my national team. I was happy, but part of me wanted to do more. Then, quite out of the blue, Garret Drexler from U.S. Soccer sent me an email and asked me to give him a call to talk about a potential project. I probably sounded like the biggest nervous idiot on Earth during that call. Still, U.S. Soccer kept talking to me and gave me an overview of what was going on. They were redesigning their entire identity from the crest on down and they wanted a custom typeface to be a part of it. Would I want to work on it? Um, yeah.
At that point, Nike’s in house design team had designed a new crest and it was fully approved and locked down. Everyone was happy with it (I concur, it’s great.) so whatever I did had to complement that. Nike’s team had also developed a display typeface while they were working on the new crest.
U.S. Soccer was happy with it, but wanted to see if I had thoughts about how it could be improved, modified and made to be as versatile as United. It needed to be able to work across media, in different sizes and scopes. It needed to reflect the history of U.S. Soccer, but not be overly nostalgic, because this new identity was for the future. It also needed to work with Neutraface Slab, which was to be the serif component of the new typographic palette. Beyond those criteria, they asked me to give them my honest opinions on what they needed and how to get it done.
I like to start each project with a lot of thinking and very little drawing. I’ve learned that what a typeface looks like is important, but how it works is even more consequential. Thinking through what a typeface needs to do, where it needs to work and why it even needs to exist establish the foundation of the work to come. Once I know the answers to these questions, figuring out what it should look like is pretty easy. So, as soon as I hung up the phone with Garret, I started thinking and taking notes. This turned into the design brief that I followed throughout the project and evaluated my work against.
What does the typeface need to do?
My initial assumption was that it would be a straightforward family for use at medium to large sizes, primarily numbers and names on jerseys and headlines in informational materials. Before jumping to that conclusion, I did a thorough investigation and I found a lot more places where it could end up: television graphics, stadium banners, social media images, etc. I broadly categorized these into two groups: apparel numbers and large text. This presented me with a contradiction. In most situations, a typeface’s job is to subtly influence how the reader interprets the text in which the typeface is set. It is meant to be felt but not noticed or directly appraised. For example, when a fan is walking through a stadium, they don’t typically pause in front of a directional sign to admire the shapes of the letters on the sign. However, in the case of numbers on jerseys, the opposite is true. Sure, when we’re watching a game on TV we need to see the numbers clearly, but the numbers have another important job: they need to look nice. Jersey sales are a big deal and very few people are going to buy a jersey if they think the numbers are ugly or boring. Further, fans pay extra to have numbers applied to their jerseys. Jersey numbers are meant to be assessed just as much as they are meant to be read.
I also found instances of paragraphs of small text squeezed into very tight spaces. Neutraface Slab is a great text typeface, but it’s not particularly space efficient. Additionally, a lot of this text was supplemented with tables of dense statistical data. U.S. Soccer was going to need something else to handle these typographic tasks. The only feasible answer was to make the new typeface suitable for this kind of work.
As I dug through all of these materials, I took note of which styles of United U.S. Soccer had been using the most. United is a massive family that covers a huge range of weights, widths and styles.
Drawing something this comprehensive was not feasible for this project. However, U.S. Soccer wasn’t using all of United. They were using the medium to heavy weights of United Sans in the normal and condensed widths. That helped me to narrow the scope of the project. No tricky to draw ultra-extended or hyper-condensed and no superfluous weights or decorative styles.
There are also lots of partners involved in the application of brand graphics. There are graphic designers, videographers, uniform designers, player id manufacturers, web designers, advertising art directors, scarf makers, folks at U.S. Soccer who need to make a flyer for the office holiday party and, maybe, coaches making starting 11 charts. All of this meant that the typeface needed to be really easy to use.
So, the brief was shaping up like this: the typeface must be attractive when used in very large sizes on jerseys. It must be aesthetically simple enough to get out of the way of the content in large informational uses. And, it must do some workhorse tasks at very small sizes. It also must be as simple as possible for practically anyone to work with. That’s a lot for a single typeface to do, let alone do well.
What does it need to look like?
Next, I spent a lot of time examining the new crest and Nike’s related typeface. The crest had a strong personality and that meant that my typeface would need to be somewhat restrained and clean. In Nike’s typeface, there were some details that I thought were interesting, such as the mix of curved and sharp corners and the compact proportions.
There were also some obvious things that needed to be done to make it a more versatile tool, such as adding a lowercase and increasing the weight range. This flexibility was a huge goal for me. United has proven to be quite flexible since it was released in 2005 and my decade plus of seeing how designers had made use of it was going to be a good, real-world reference.
I also wanted to introduce some more American typographic and lettering influences. We have a rich history from Morris Fuller Benton’s iconic work to the impactful lettering on Works Progress Administration posters to the bluntness of wood type on letterpressed event posters. I wanted to subtly reference these to make the typeface as distinctively American as possible.
Aesthetically I had a pretty good idea about what the typeface was going to look like, but I wanted to show U.S. Soccer how far we could push the ideas. The range that the project called for was somewhere between “Nostalgic Americana” and “Generic Modernity.” I quickly drew examples of these.
I compiled all of my notes and sketches into a document that explained to U.S. Soccer what the typeface was going to need to do, what it could look like and how long it would take to develop. I explained that a one size fits all structure for the typeface was not going to work. The aesthetic needs of the large jersey numbers were too dramatically different from the functional requirements of numbers used in statistical tables. The attractive clarity needed for large informational text was different on yet another level. So, I opined they needed three distinct subfamilies. One for uniforms, one for large informational text and one for dense passages of text. All of these would look similar, but each would be drawn to meet very unique needs. This would meet the main goal of giving U.S. Soccer a versatile tool that would do all of the necessary jobs.
The feedback from U.S. Soccer was perfect. Structurally, the plan for a typeface that did so many different things was more than they had hoped for. Aesthetically, we were on the same page. The “Nostalgic American” sketch was a bit too on the nose. The “Generic Modernity” sketch was too boring. We needed to be somewhere in the middle. One catch: the timeline I proposed was going to be tight for the new crest launch. Could I do it faster?
I got to work and slogged away in complete secrecy almost non-stop for five and a half months. (It’s still not quite done. I took a break from kerning to write this.) I drew day and night. I started all of the drawing completely from scratch so that I knew where every single point was placed. I spent untold hours subtly adjusting horizontal proportions of the uppercase letters until headlines had just the right rhythm. I covertly sketched ideas while sitting at my son’s soccer practices. I took a quick side-trip to study DIN 1451 to figure out how it manages to be both rigidly geometric and highly legible at small sizes. I even jotted some notes about number shapes in the game statistics book during one of my son’s games. (Hey, I was watching players with numbers on their backs move around a field and it gave me some good insights about legibility.) I thought about the project all the time. It consumed me in a way that few others ever have. The development process was straight-forward given the thoroughness of the brief, but it was intense.
The family is called 90 Minutes and it contains 37 unique styles broken into three use specific subfamilies.
90 Minutes Display is the center of the whole family. It establishes the overall style, personality and rhythm that the other two subfamilies follow. It has six weights in two widths.
I drew these styles with a rather large x-height and short ascenders/descenders to make mixed-case, stacked headlines work cleanly. I made the counter shapes broad to give the proportions a warm, almost letterpress-like feel. I used the alternating round/sharp corners to help pull it back to the 21st century.
U.S. Soccer has a very active social media presence. Their @handles and #hashtags show up on everything from the sides of busses to banners in stadiums, so I paid particular attention to making the @ and # symbols look at home with the letters.
90 Minutes Kit is a set of styles developed exclusively for use on uniforms. These look similar to the Display subfamily, but the weights, widths and shapes are substantially different. The reasons for the changes varied from technical things like FIFA uniform regulations to abstract things like “what will the uniforms look like in five years?” This was a fascinating quagmire to work through.
The first thing I had to sort out was the look of the numbers. The numbers on jerseys end up being restyled frequently; sometimes they are quiet and sometimes they are wild. The plan was that the numbers I was drawing would establish the base shapes for at least several uniform iterations. I know I won’t always get the call from U.S. Soccer to design the new variations so I wanted to give future designers as much of an open canvas as I could.
I started with the numbers from the Display subfamily, condensed them, made them a bit more stylish and optimized the placement of stroke terminations so that number combinations like “23” set cleanly. Then, I started to second guess myself about these very terminations. In the Display subfamily, I had designed these for optimum legibility at a distance. To do that, I had the ends of the strokes in the 6 and 9 end in open positions rather than looping back down. Which of these termination styles looks better is a matter of taste. I decided to give the uniform designers the option to choose whichever style looks best for the uniform at hand. So, there are two versions of some key numbers.
I made the open style the standard based on pure functionality. I felt those shapes made it easier to differentiate the 6 from the 8 from the 9 when the numbers were in motion. For example, when the numbers would be on the back of a shirt worn by a player during a game.
Feel free to disagree.
FIFA has strict regulations that govern the size and stroke weight of numbers and letters used on official match uniforms. This made me unbelievably paranoid. I had a nightmare that one of the national teams would be set for kickoff of an important match and the referee would suddenly blow the whistle and say, “Hey, hey, hey! The bottom stroke of that 2 is 1 mm too light. The United States must forfeit this match!” I wanted to make sure that I did everything right, but I had no idea what the uniforms were going to look like. To cover my butt, I drew a subtle range of weights, from the lightest to the heaviest possible within the regulations, so that the uniform designers could shift up or down as needed. Additionally, this could be used for consistent optical weighting across colorways. I hope my Color Theory professor Paul Dean and the ghost of Josef Albers are proud. Sure, I probably overthought this, but I wanted to be thorough.
I drew a set of matching weights for the uniform names, again following the FIFA regulations. All of these weights are in two widths. A sort of condensed width and a really condensed width, specifically for USWNT’s Meghan Klingenberg. Each of these include small caps for names that need a subtle case variation. There are 10 styles just for player names on jerseys.
I can’t wait to see these in movement on the pitch (after the referee lets the kickoff happen).
90 Minutes Text was drawn specifically for use in small sizes, paragraphs and tables of statistics. It’s a visual companion to 90 Minutes Display and 90 Minutes Kit, but it is quite different in subtle ways. The weights, proportions, spacing and shapes have all been redrawn to work very well at very small sizes.
When I started working on this project, I was very excited about seeing my favorite national team players wearing my work. That’s cool, but I’ve since realized that there is something even better. My colleague Bas has eloquently stated that one of the most exciting things to see in soccer is when kids want to wear their own names on their backs. He’s right. It’s amazing to see young fans step forward to say this is my team and I want to be a part of it. In my own small way, I get to play a little part in that. The kids wearing these shirts with their names are the future of our team. This is undoubtedly going to be one of the highlights of my career.
This typeface is exclusive licensed to the United States Soccer Federation in perpetuity. But, if you are a representative of a large soccer league, club, national team or soccer gear manufacturer looking for your own typeface, please get in touch.