Game changers: the designers innovating graphics for sports

Visual identities across the sporting world are modernising and innovating to reach new audiences, while trying to keep a firm grasp on tradition and, importantly, their loyal fanbase.


It’s Nice That’s 2024 Forward Thinking series is supported by AKQA, the globally renowned design and innovation company. AKQA is at the forefront of creative technologies, telling unforgettable narratives across service, experience and product design that capture the imagination.

In some ways, graphic design is like a team sport (hear me out on this…) The designer is the coach, ensembling elements like players, whereas a successful design is about using these elements to communicate emotion and tell a story. Every element has its strength and its part to play, but they can’t work in isolation – in the best work/team, each detail complements another, and they all work in unison. And a good coach sees the game play out before players hit the field, seeing it from all angles at every finished draft, considering the playing conditions (in this slightly stretched analogy, the cultural context) and the opposition (its competitors in whatever sector it’s designed for).

Until recently, many designers working in the field of sports graphics have been trying to make that dream team, all the while restricted by the tradition and tropes of individual sports. The slow-rising wave of graphic design is throwing off old shackles and instead lacing its cleats to experiment and play through digital and static media. Sports design is currently redefining how to use its elements to include broader audiences while attempting to stay true to its heritage. Take the July 2023 U.K. and Irish BT Sport rebrand to TNT Sports. which uses a moving practical typeface to accent digital to translate multipurpose usability. This rebrand employs play and flexibility as an invitation for the audience to be engaged. Fans are invited to see more, be more, and foster community around inclusion. Teams, channels, and brands rely on graphics to expand who and what is in focus. It’s a tricky line to tread – particularly in certain sports, where fans are fiercely loyal and any change is taken very seriously.

“I think sports design is unique because fans are different to consumers. And you have to be incredibly respectful of that. If you do it for a club, then you are in the club.”

Stuart Watson

Zak Group: No Finish Line (Copyright © Nike, 2023)

AboveHappy Ending: BBC Sport Cricket (Copyright © Happy Ending / BBC, 2023)

In 2023, Nomad Studio took a bold stance when redesigning the Premier League logo after nine seasons of collaboration. The approach was “radical simplification” to create “sharper cut-through and maximum impact” – including making the League’s famous lion a standalone icon removed from its wordmark, to emphasise its importance and look at the overall brand design in a way that’s perhaps more akin with consumer companies such as Apple or Nike.

Nomad’s co-founder, Stuart Watson, links the studio’s attention to colour with its priority of making an audience connection. “I think sports design is unique because fans are different to consumers. And you have to be incredibly respectful of that. If you do it for a club, then you are in the club,” Stuart says.

By simplifying the colour palette with gradients, Nomad aimed to make the Premier League’s colours more quickly recognisable. The graphics use three distinct, high-intensity colour gradients that blend the six Premier League colours with analogous schemes. Vibrant gradients and patterns have been making strides into the sports design sphere recently, a clear sign of modernisation in a heritage-filled visual landscape. In Nomad’s work for the Premium League, the use of colour balances the reach for a wider audience without ostracising distinguished fans, because the scheme attends to unity. Likewise, precise attention to spacing of the Premier League logo shows how space informs composition.

“You have to think really carefully about why you’re changing stuff before you do and sometimes you have to change and it’s painful. [Sport] is part of that person’s identity. And if you change the logo, you’re changing their identity,” Stuart says. “There’s a connection that breaks in your brain.”


Nomad: Premier League (Copyright © Nomad, 2023)


Nomad: Premier League (Copyright © Nomad, 2023)


Nomad: Premier League (Copyright © Nomad, 2023)

“I think that utilising design allows us to also say, hey, we are for you. [Design] becomes super vital.”

Ross Popejoy

Zak Group: No Finish Line, illustrations by Bráulio Amado, synthesised imagery by PWR (Copyright © Nike, 2023)


Happy Ending: BBC Sport Cricket (Copyright © Happy Ending / BBC, 2023)

The London creative design agency, Zak Group, used bold minimalism on its latest design projection book for Nike. Nike made itself a leader in brand identity and forward-thinking by creating a lifestyle around bold activity and timelessness. The engaging Ferrari-red that vibrates under the black serif title After all, there is No Finish Line represents Nike’s appeal to emphasis by controlling space. The book’s contents stay true to minimalism and emphasise highlighted greyscale images, which impress sleek and futuristic metal skin. The metal skin and highlights allude to space age exploration in a way that feels nostalgic to past expectations for the future and genuinely futuristic by using frosted metal as a sleek natural texture. Zak Group’s seven-person team is an example of how a tight, well-organised team can to push the envelope forward without extra fluff.

When asked about the design trends that will stick out in 2024, Zak Group’s director, Zak Kyes says: “Smaller design offices that can ‘specialise to generalise’ will continue to have an advantage over larger agencies.” Zak believes smart brands will establish themselves as the new cultural patrons.

In sports graphics, space can form a sense of dominance without being heavyhandedly masculine, which appeals to a larger audience by raising inclusion. Form follows function, and British agency Happy Ending’s BBC Cricket rebrand shows an expert exploration of form by using negative space as a function to guide the audience’s eye and recognise cricket equipment. This collaboration works well for those who know cricket. Emphasising cricket equipment with high contrast and large proportions helps translate the cultural impact of the sport. Happy Ending makes more with less, then goes further by bridging the digital and physical divide by making the physical graphics reminiscent of a digital visual language with dotted, grid-like patterns.

“We leaned into a really, really strong colour palette,” Happy Ending founder and creative director, Ross Popejoy, says. “The use of motion was designed to bring energy as opposed to slowly leaving on video footage, which would normally happen in these kinds of worlds. We utilise 3D objects, which gave us some texture and flavour to say, we want to attract you here. I think that utilising design allows us to also say, hey, we are for you. [Design] becomes super vital.”

Through the dotted pattern of the 3D images, Happy Ending’s design team has decreased the weight of the imagery so that it’s that much more approachable. There’s still impact and order without imposing dominance or superiority. Being approachable opens space for new audiences to accept how they’re different and where they fit inside the framework of a strong identity.

AboveHappy Ending: BBC Sport Cricket (Copyright © Happy Ending / BBC, 2023)

“Different forms and an evolving system can attract a broader audience, including those who may not be traditionally interested in sports.”

Paz Martinez Capuz

Household: Penta+ (Copyright © Household, 2023)


Household: Penta+ (Copyright © Household, 2023)

My sports knowledge ended in high school, which effectively released me from the grasp of physical games for fun. Sports progress and teams change, yet sports always appeals to identity. The emotional bond evoked by sports is arguably the most consistent quality that holds fans in place and attracts new ones. Approaching progress through design assumes the task of pushing the envelope without tearing away from the foundation of what was already established. In the language of audiences and fans, the hard work of design innovation in sports is inviting new followers while maintaining an emotional connection to mature followers.

Take the experience design agency, Household’s approach to rebranding Penta+, the UK governing body for pentathlon. Household faced the challenge of designing for a multifunctional brand whose identity was larger than a single sport. To do this, Household designers sought to define a design language that represents expansiveness through colour and form. Household’s attention to form helps Penta+ maintain its emotional tone, which communicates its story as an accepting brand that identifies with change.

“Different forms and an evolving system can attract a broader audience, including those who may not be traditionally interested in sports, which was key for us as Penta+ has the role to recruit the future athletes,” Household’s design director, Paz Martinez Capuz, says. “However, as a new brand, we needed to make sure we were setting up a strong brand recognition: a consistent and thoughtful visual. If we manage to create an easy form that people can easily recognise, remember, and associate to our brand, it becomes more likely that they will engage with and support the brand.”

Looking ahead to this year, what is likely to grab your attention will be the priority of expression. For its control, you’ll see motion graphics and expressive types that explore popping colours like graphics for the 2024 Australian Open. Or maximalist, busy designs full of unabashed personality, such as Thisaway’s for Team GB.

For impact, you’ll see the 2024 Paris Olympics approach France as a brand through elements like arches, typography, and iconic shapes. The arch-shaped sans serifs coupled with prominent photography help define a graphic identity that’s future-forward and intergenerationally considerate.

2024 will explore making design approachable. You’ll see how youthful energy and authority interplay in early bracket watches for the 2024 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. ESPN uses a sticker-like doodle pattern to translate movement and diversity to identify with multiple age groups.

Although graphic design for sports in 2024 seems by in large expansive, subtleties in design language translate well. Take the new Six Nations Rugby and Guinness partnership. The legacy serif font and gold Guinness icon are positioned above “Women’s Six Nations”. The label is simplified to highlight women through a display font in front of a purple orb that reads definition, growth, and majesty.

So much of culture is expressed visually through design. It’s almost like without design, a culture wouldn’t have the visual language to distinguish itself in time and among outsiders to tell its unique story. In sports that tracks. A team’s story is told a lot through looks and feelings, then settles into the point that sports help flesh out community. Design, through fashion and cultural icons, is inseparable from sports. If artistic elements – colour, form, and space – are the players then the principles of art – unity, emphasis, and movement – are the goals that make winning designs.

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About the Author

Lilac Burrell

Lilac Burrell (they/ them) is a Morehouse College and Northwestern Medill alumnus. They write about contemporary art, design, and culture centred on Black and queer folk worldwide.

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