Strokes, Serifs & Sports: A Lesson in Athletic Lettering

By Charles Nix on May 10, 2022

Type expert Charles Nix explains the connection between sports teams and their logotypes


Any pre-teen with a yen for sports (like any teen with a yen for pop music) will attest to the importance of team logotypes and typography. The way the words look is a huge part of the identity and mystique of a sports franchise.


Logos speak the name and they shape the meaning. Typography is a purposeful interference between the idea, the language, and the meaning. Typography gets in the way. The words New and York together are the name of a place—a city and a state in the eastern U.S. Set in Times Roman they’re almost generic:

"Typography is a purposeful interference between the idea, the language, and the meaning."

A variety of concepts of New York can flourish in this generic style, but if we set in Helvetica Bold, the meaning begins to gain specificity:

Associations with the form (the New York City subway, for instance) begin to creep in. Granted, this is still pretty generic, but the form is starting to change the meaning. In a circus-style font, in an all-caps arc, blue with an orange outline, it becomes hyper specific:

In this typographic telling it’s no longer simply about geography. This is New York’s other baseball team. This is the New York Mets. This is their history. It’s Shea. It’s Citifield. It’s a hyper-narrowing of the New York concept. And that narrowing creates identity. It focuses the meaning and allows the fans to identify (and identify with) the franchise. It’s a code that creates a sense of belonging. The typography and logotypes are uniforms for language.

And to continue the point, this:

and this 

are the same, but this

and this 

 

are very different. They’re the same letters, but they represent different geographies, histories, and fans. Their typographic forms are intercessions, bending generic language into very specific meanings.

Even though I’m a typographer, I still think team colors are the most important identifiers. Even when teams use alternate color schemes—special jerseys, caps, helmets, etc.—it’s the memory of the “normal” color scheme that makes the deviation successful. All that said, the logotype is a definite anchor.

They’re all “of a piece” though. The logo can be the driving force at one moment; typography the next; and the next moment the color is the primary asset. They’re hardly ever asked to go it alone though. The name, the places/parks, the colors, the logo, typography, the story/history/traditions, the merchandise, and the mascot all work together (or don’t).

"They’re all “of a piece” though. The logo can be the driving force at one moment; typography the next; and the next moment the color is the primary asset."

When it comes to making a sports team logo pop, it’s not the same formula for every successful logo. There are the purely formal aspects like clarity of form, contrast, scale; there are concepts and meaning; and there’s history and repetition.

The Dallas Cowboys' helmet with its silver field and dark blue star is formally great—clear shape, good contrast, and large but not too large. It’s a great concept with deeper meaning: the Texas “lone star” and the cowboy with a star—the good guy.

But then if you look at logos like the New York Yankees and New York Mets, they’re confusing—or confused. They both have the same concept: overlapping capital NY—awkward, distorted, clogged, unresolved. The Yankees NY is cartoonish. The Mets is circus-like. Both get their meaning and power from history and repetition. The peculiarities of form have become invisible. Just as we don’t question why a stop sign is a red octagon, we don’t question why the Yankees logo is vaguely akin to Nordic runes. It has been that way for a long time. It’s been repeated billions of times. We accept it.

When it comes to designing a sports logo, you have to ask yourself a few questions: Is it a new franchise? Has the franchise been renamed? Is it an update or refresh? Which sport? Is it international? Etc. New franchises like the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions or Houston Gamblers begin from the ground up. It’s a branding exercise: define why the brand exists and then find a visual expression of that reason (or reasons) for being.

Updates or refreshes are different. There’s a bit of brand archaeology involved. Where has the team been? What is its personality? Does it want to lean into its past? Or move away from it? How recognizable or iconic is the logo in its present state? Is there equity in the mark and its accompanying typography? Is this an evolution or a revolution? Is it the next chapter? Or a new story?

None of this is concrete advice. There’s no “it should always use sans serif type, always bold” kind of magic formula. A good logo and good typography begin with basic-but-big questions: Who are you? How do you want to be seen? What is your voice? What is your ethos? Honest, probing answers to those questions are the recipe for a great logo, great typography, and a great brand.

Think of the fans and think of the players. The players and fans connect themselves to the story and its visual manifestation. Who are they? What are their concerns and expectations? Divine from them the motivation and direction for the design. Empathize. Be them in the story. This isn’t decorating holiday cookies. This is visualizing. This is purposefully imagining new things into being.

"This isn’t decorating holiday cookies. This is visualizing. This is purposefully imagining new things into being."

Charles Nix


Charles Nix, Creative Type Director at Monotype

Charles Nix is a Creative Type Director at Monotype. He taught typography and design for two decades at the Parsons School of Design where he also served as Chair of Communication Design. He is Chairman emeritus of the Type Directors Club.


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