“We had no other choice but to make it exciting”: Shuka on its radical re-brand of World Chess

Accompanied by a new format for the game, Moscow-based Shuka, is bringing chess into the modern age.

27 January 2020


When you think of chess, what words come into your head?

Whatever they are, it’s more than likely they are not dynamic or exciting ones. This shows the challenge Moscow-based studio Shuka faced when tasked with re-branding the game for the modern age.

“When asked to make an identity for the championship of the most boring game in the world, we had no other choice but to make it exciting. The sport needed to be re-humanised and World Chess decided that we were the right people to make it attractive,” says partner and creative director, Ivan Vasin.

“Everything began with a single task to develop the key visuals for the World Сhess Championship in New York in 2016. Then Ilya Merenzon (its CEO) asked us to join him in the global goal to make chess popular again, and to fit it into the digital era through creating the distinctive visual system. We signed a long-term contract and continued as the only design partner,” says Vasin.

Shuka describes itself as “a brand bureau rooted in editorial design,” founded in 2003 by Ivan Velichko. Six years later he was joined by long-term collaborator and fellow graduate from the Moscow State University of Printing Arts, Ivan Vasin. Their route to branding was not a direct one though, and having begun in editorial design they were forced to change path due to political reasons.

“In the same period, Russia began facing the freedom of speech issues and print media became propaganda rather than a market,” says Vasin. “Magazines were closing one by one or went online, the others had little potential for creativity. Our wish to evolve and continue telling stories brought us to another market with a different take on storytelling.”


Shuka for World Chess – Armageddon Series

According to Vasin, the story of why chess was in need of a rebrand is an interesting one, and rooted in technological advances: “Аfter Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, the chess sport faded out. Before that, chess used to be a worldwide phenomenon with millions of fans. People knew the names of grandmasters, they were rock stars. During the preparation for the World Chess Championship 2018, the goal was to break the perception of chess as one of the most conservative sports. To represent the human side of it - showing that it’s about one-on-one communication, interaction and being close to each other,” he says.

Much of the Shuka team’s recent work has focused on Armageddon, a sped up version of chess that recently brought the game to prime time Russian television for the first time. “Armageddon is the blitz series: three minutes for each player with two seconds added for each move. Armageddon is a tie-breaker format where White has five minutes and Black has four, but wins the game in case of a draw. It’s fast and disturbing!” explains Vasin.

Shuka's approach, therefore, was to elevate the design "to match the context", Vasin continues. "The rebranded company was proposing a new contemporary product. It had to be modern, fit into the present day and be orientated around the fast consumption audience.”

This modernisation is clear to see, with typography and imagery that you would associate more with streetwear than a 1500 year old game. Most prominently, this is demonstrated by the Armageddon name taken quite literally, replacing the clean aesthetic of their previous chess work with a dark and imposing theme. “The look isn’t actually modern. It's metamodern. The New Testament says that Armageddon is a place for humanity to meet the end of the world,” explains content manager, Vasily Kolesnik.

“Although we’re not sure about the exact location of Armageddon, we know the time when the concept of it was most popular - the Middle Ages. So we took the Fraktur typeface and pretended Armageddon was happening in prime-time and over flooded the style with drama,” says founder and creative director, Ivan Velichko “It’s an irony. An irony that couldn’t be more straight and more perpendicular to chess philosophy.”

Gauging whether the project has been a success is a difficult one, and measuring people’s perceptions isn’t easy to quantify, but Ilya Merenzon, CEO of World Chess has noticed a surge in interest: “After London’s campaign was launched, chess found itself in the centre of a heated discussion about design, sex and gay culture. It turned out that chess attracted significant attention among millennials and was covered by all major media outlets, including an above the fold front page feature by the Financial Times. The media ended up calling it one of the most important sporting events of the year.”

Shuka remains hopeful that this work can bring about even more change, and from an outside perspective this new branding combined with a new format does seem to be working. “It would be awesome if the effect was maintained between сhampionships,” says Vasin. “But we also believe that the impact will continue showing itself and influence the perception.”

GalleryShuka for World Chess – Armageddon Series. Photographs: Ivan Knyazev

GalleryShuka for World Chess – World Championship 2018. Photographs: Ivan Knyazev

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Shuka: Chess Armageddon

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Charlie Filmer-Court

Charlie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in December 2019. He has previously worked at Monocle 24, and The Times following an MA in International Journalism at City University. If you have any ideas for stories and work to be featured then get in touch.


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