“Wherever you look in the world of football, there’s a design behind it” – examining the creativity behind the beautiful game
From team badges to fanzines, game legends to kit development, we take a look at the legacy of football and its enduring relationship with design.
How do you capture the growth of the beautiful game? Beneath the picturesque surface, there are layers so complex that an entire exhibition is dedicated to depicting what makes the sport so significant in the first place. In the Design Museum’s latest show, Football: Designing the Beautiful Game, curators Eleanor Watson and Rachel Hajek have spent the past few months uncovering the design elements that made the game so impactful. In total, 500 objects were selected and 150 of them were from The National Football Museum’s rich collection.
Having enjoyed the luxuries portrayed in the National Football Museum myself, it’s amazing to see such integral materials recasted through the lens of design. Speaking with Rachel, she made clear the intention behind the exhibition. “Football is such a huge part of people’s lives, it’s a big industry. There have been exhibitions on how football has influenced art but I don’t think anyone has ever looked at it specifically through the lens of design,” she says. “There are so many design needs. Wherever you look in the world of football, there’s a design behind it”.
“Wherever you look in the world of football, there’s a design behind it”Rachel Hajek
Performance, identity, crowds, spectacle and play
The entrance of the exhibition mimics that of a stadium tunnel. As you walk through, you’re accompanied by crowd noise, blasting through the speakers. In the end, you’re greeted with bright lights overlooking a jigsaw of sections that contribute to the design of today’s game. The feeling is unreal. It fuels the inner childlike fangirl in me, excited to discover another layer to the game that I love.
While roaming through the exhibition, the puzzle begins to piece together; the sections each represent a different aspect of football and its design needs. As Rachel says, each part asks how design has played a role in that specific strand of the game, before “stripping it right back to the basics”.
Performance vs the Player
Without a ball, there is no football. Without the boots, there’s a decrease in performance.
A football is a simple concept. Taken from Uganda in 2007, a ball on display was made simply from banana leaves. Next to it is another ball made from a maize meal sack tied with a string. The simplicity lies within the shape but the performance is dictated by its design.
In 2020, Nike revealed their new Flight ball which is now the resident ball for the Premier League’s 2021/2022 season. Its research took 1,700 lab hours, 800 footballers, 68 iterations and one robotic leg to curate a ball that not only increases performance but also looks after your foot. The ball holds 30 per cent “truer flight” and is covered in an aerodynamic geometric pattern of grooves called AerowSculpt. I guess there’s beauty in knowing that the design to enhance ball performance is exclusive to the professional game; for some, it’s a luxury.
A number of the greatest players have not always been afforded the equipment needed to better their performance. Brazil’s most prestigious player spent most of his younger years playing barefoot using a sock stuffed with rags as a ball. His talent alone was enough to bring him centre stage and play at the highest level that football could offer. His name remains one of the most profound names in football: Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Or as the world calls him, Pelé.
There will always be new ways to enhance the performance of an athlete, whether it be through nutrition or a simple, effective tweak to their gear. Football boot studs, for instance, were first introduced in the 1940s. Puma released what is thought to be the first boot with screw-in studs, but they were only available to those in the top division of the German League. Now what’s interesting here is that, down the timeline, Puma created a specific boot that was to be worn by some of the greatest players the football world has witnessed, like Diego Maradona, Johan Cryuff and Pelé.
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Puma Super-Atom, Puma, 1952
Identity vs the Fan
“As much as we have things in football that are designed by architects and brands, fans are actually responsible for a huge amount of its design,” Rachel explains. Neither ball nor boot separates you from the opposition. The colour of your shirt does the job but not to the extent of the crest. Before shirt colours, footballers only had the crest. The players would wear their own clothes and sew on their distinct badges. Whilst the England national team has worn the same crest design since 1872, clubs such as Newcastle and Juventus have continued to redesign their identity. Courtesy of both clubs, the exhibition gives an insight into its development from 1890 to the present.
A club crest is treated as a sacred entity by fans. It represents them as well as their clubs’ heritage. I have been supporting my football club since the age of six and I would not think to change its crest. It was an eye-opener to read that some clubs after acquiring new ownership have been subject to changing their identity, Cardiff City FC being an example. Their home kit colour was changed from blue to red and their crest was redesigned to feature a dragon. Fan bases such as Hull City’s, though, were not so kind to the idea of change. In fact, they protested to ensure that their crest was protected.
Football fans hold exclusive power within the game. From the design of a football kit, right up to the design of the sport itself, fans will ensure their best interests are served. Walking through the squared room displaying fan designed football shirts, posters of ultras and fanzines, I thought back to when different fans united against a common enemy, the European Super League. In a difficult year when Covid-19 took the livelihoods of many, fans made sure that they could still hold on to the game that they loved. The ESL concept was set to dismantle the design of football’s precious spectacle. As a result, fans protested. Their voices essentially echoed those who have gone before us to protect the identity of the beautiful game and the concept was soon abandoned by many of the clubs involved.
“Whether that’s graphics, chants or fanzines, you have fans contributing to the design of football.”Rachel Hajek
“The level of fan engagement that you get in football is extremely unparalleled in any other sport.” Rachel says. “It was really important for us to have the fan output as a central scene throughout. Whether that’s graphics, chants or fanzines, you have fans contributing to the design of football. We wanted to include as much of that as we could.”
Crowds vs Spectacle
There are a number of footballers who have a claim to the title, “Greatest of All Time”. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo currently share the crown. Before these two intergalactic beings there was Kaka, Ronaldinho, Beckham, Henry, Bergkamp and Zinedine Zidane. Football’s most successful manager, Sir Alex Ferguson once said, “give me ten planks of wood and Zidane and I will win the Champions League”. I love the idea of watching Zidane in light of the spectacle around him and just admiring the attributes that make him great. Luckily, the exhibition granted me such a unique request: a blacked out room dedicated to the man himself, with two adjoining walls showcasing Zinedine Zidane during a game. The artists, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno used 17 cameras and focused just on Zidane throughout the match. The footage is interlaced with soundbites from interviews with the French Footballer and is accompanied by a soundtrack by Mogwai.
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Hoolicards, A football calling card archive, a set of seven business card-style, mixed media, ink on paper.
“Football allows for freedom, creativity and imagination, all the luxuries we’re afforded during childhood. When we play, these senses are renewed within us.”Rachel Hajek and Eleanor Watson, curators of Football: Designing the Beautiful Game
“It really cuts through the complexities of that celebrity angle of football culture and fandom and how we see these players. They’re really just people who have emotions and there’s a lot of pressure on one person,” Rachel continues. “It’s quite a psychological piece. Yes, football is there to be enjoyed, but in a way, it’s a commentary on what happens to the game and people as we engage with it to that extent. It’s a comment on how celebrity and spectacle sometimes take over.”
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Group of “casuals”, 1980s
The fast pace of a football match often denies a fan the chance to really take in what’s happening around them. It’s easy to soak in the atmosphere and get lost in the beautiful feeling that it provides, hence why stadium design has become more important than the spectacle itself. Archibald Leitch, the grandfather of football stadium design between 1899 and 1939 had designed many stadiums in the UK. Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool are amongst his collection. The outdated designs curated in Leitch’s era became an issue, most notably in the 1980s when stadium disasters saw a spike.
On the 15 of April 1989, a poorly conditioned Hillsborough stadium had tragically taken the lives of 97 football fans in an FA cup semi-final. The story is narrated in the exhibition before showing the new stadium developments that have or are in the process of being made. Rachel highlights the importance of the new direction taken by architects devising new plans for stadiums: “You’ve got to keep the crowd safe and move them through a stadium and make sure they go in and out safely and they can hear and see everything that’s going on.” Fan safety and circulation is the main priority ahead of the spectacle that football comes with. We are the complexity that comes with designing the beautiful game.
Play vs Perfection
“Football allows for freedom, creativity and imagination, all the luxuries we’re afforded during childhood. When we play, these senses are renewed within us,” states a powerful quote from the exhibition curators themselves. There are several ways to engage with football. Design has allowed the art of playing to transcend from the pitch to our television screens, tabletops and even cards. I remember my younger days when I could morph into a ten-year-old Ronaldinho in the school football cages. Now I can pick up my PlayStation controller and control a virtual version of my favourite players and club.
Play is subjective. There’s no right or wrong way to design it. Its core value is to escape reality for those few minutes and enhance your own performance – to create your own identity, build your own spectacle and, if you like, encourage a crowd to embrace you. The exhibition sets a gentle reminder that the game of football can be so simple, despite the complex rollercoaster it takes to reach perfection.
Football has been played for over 100 years. It’s a sport centred around fans and piques the interest of the “curious onlooker”, as Rachel would call herself. The language of the beautiful game is universal. The design of it however…
Peter Carney and Carmel Gittens: Destiny Delivered (Copyright © Peter Carney and Carmel Gittens, 2005)