Lots of readers have recently told me how much they like “Soccer Out of Context,” a web project in which designer Mark Willis has been taking MLB jerseys and repurposing them as soccer jerseys. I’ve Ticker-linked to the project several times, but I recently thought it would be fun to interview Willis (shown at right). I normally prefer to do phone interviews, but they’re such a pain in the ass to transcribe, so Mark and I did this one via e-mail. Here’s how it came out:
How old are you, where do you live, and what do you do for a living?
Boston is home — I live in the city and work in Cambridge, at Harvard University, where I oversee web and digital strategy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. And I just turned 35 a couple of weeks ago. (Funny, all of a sudden commercials don’t seem targeted at me any more!)
Have you ever designed an actual uniform (i.e., one that someone has worn, not just a digital mock-up)?
Not yet, no. A few T-shirts here and there, but nothing at the level of uniform apparel. I’d certainly love to. There are considerations beyond graphics (like textile choices, material science and the like) that aren’t my specialties. But I’d be thrilled to collaborate with folks who know that stuff cold.
You obviously like soccer and baseball. Which one do you prefer?
Boy. It was clearly baseball for probably 20”“25 years. That’s why I moved to Boston. (I grew up a Sox fan in upstate New York, and needed to be with my people.) I lived in England for half a year during college and started to fall for club soccer. This was in 1999; I watched that insane Champions League final, with Manchester United scoring twice in stoppage time to beat Bayern, in a student pub with a bunch of English and international kids. Bedlam. There was no turning back after that. Then the ’02 World Cup came, and the U.S. made its run to the quarterfinals. I haven’t been able to get enough soccer in any form, club or international, since then. Of course, during 2003 and 2004 I barely lifted my head from the daily soap opera that was the Red Sox. The two sports have always felt complementary in a lot of ways.
I’ll say this: I was in Kenmore Square when Mientkiewicz squeezed the underhand from Foulke in 2004, and in the stadium in Pretoria when Donovan scored against Algeria in 2010. Those are my two pinnacle sporting highlights, and there’s no way I could choose between them.
How and why did you get the idea to reimagine MLB uniforms as soccer jerseys?
I’ve been working on jersey design for a while as a hobby, which came out of a general desire to write about and discuss American soccer culture. It can be really hard to demonstrate concepts, like team rebrands, or identity tweaks, without a way to illustrate your thoughts. I’ve got some background in design, so I decided to take a shot at working up jersey designs to accompany a few pieces I was writing. I did a series on rebooting the New England Revolution (who still need it!), and one regarding my take on what USA Soccer’s identity could/should look like. Each time, I used kit mockups to illustrate the pieces, and they went over really well. A few months ago, I was looking for a bit of a graphic design diversion to clear my brain one day — I just needed a direction to start off in. With Liverpool/Red Sox drama always swirling around Boston, the soccer/baseball mash-up had probably been percolating in my head for a while. Once I dropped the “hanging Sox’” logo onto the jersey template where a soccer crest would go, the concept just seemed to pop and I wanted to see where it would lead.
At any point did you consider doing it the other way around (i.e., soccer uniforms imposed on a baseball jersey template)?
Not really! There is just so much more room for creativity and interpretation in the world of soccer visuals – though it would be kind of cool to see “Stoke” or “Wigan” in baseball script across the front of a double-knit Majestic jersey. And baseball hats with soccer crest logos is definitely a no-brainer.
One of the biggest differences between baseball and soccer uniforms is the presence (or absence) of corporate sponsors. How did you decide upon the jersey sponsors for each team?
I knew I wanted the jerseys read as “real” soccer shirts — to speak the same design language as well-known, high-end English and Spanish club jerseys. So I made the choice to use corporate sponsors (as well as different manufacturers for each team, which isn’t really how American pro sports work). And that’s been one of the fun and interesting aspects: sifting through information about each club, its locality, which corporations it might have natural ties to, how big their brands are, etc. That’s part of the magic of the project — once I started really getting into it and doing research for each team, connections started leaping out and suggesting themselves. With luck, the choices I’ve made are both justifiable and expressed well in the designs.
love all the little details you included, like the reference to the Yankees’ 27 championships. I’m guessing that those details were among your favorite parts of the project, yes?
Absolutely. One thing soccer’s visual culture does very well is express history and meaning through design. Soccer embraces stars over the crests to indicate championships, and patterns and flourishes in fabric that actually mean something. For instance, I read somewhere that Manchester United’s current kit, which has a suggestion of plaid in it, is a tribute to legendary coach (and legendary Scotsman) Sir Alex Ferguson’s 25th anniversary with the club. That sort of stuff just kills me, I love it. Baseball has so much rich tradition — it’s the only team sport that rivals soccer in that regard — but except for the odd throwback jersey here or sleeve patch there, that tradition is rarely expressed in terms of creative uniform design. So it’s very fertile ground to base design work on.
Another advantage soccer culture has over baseball in terms of expressive design is that soccer teams use alternate looks and different designs and reinterpretations all the time — for a season, or a tournament, or maybe even for a single game. And those looks might use colors and patterns completely disassociated with the teams’ traditions. Chelsea, which will be blue forever, can roll out in a black and orange jersey and nobody will bat an eye; Barcelona, synonymous with blue and red vertical stripes, can wear a neon yellow shirt for a season. These are second or change jerseys, and nobody forgets about the traditional colors, but in general there’s much more room to have fun. American fans — especially baseball fans — are purists and won’t usually go for that stuff (well, maybe it would fly in Oregon). In Soccer Out of Context, I’ve been trying to walk the line between soccer’s expressive, exuberant design culture, and the traditional, conservative sense of design that American pro sports generally have.
All sorts of people on the internet engage in all sorts of sports-oriented design projects, but “Soccer Out of Context” seems to have really struck a chord with people. You’ve gotten some good coverage, and literally dozens of Uni Watch readers have e-mailed me to say, “You’ve gotta see this!” Are you surprised by all the positive response?
Yes, I’ve been really fortunate to get some great coverage. It’s very meaningful to me when fans of individual teams tell me they like the design choices I made for their team — there’s no higher compliment. So hopefully part of the success is solid design work. But I think a good deal of the reaction is also due to soccer, and its visual language, really starting to make headway here in the States. There is a growing appetite for authentic soccer style here. There is something really fascinating to many Americans about a soccer kit — it’s kind of like watching a British TV drama or going out for good tapas or sushi or something. It’s intriguingly different, it’s a little foreign, but it’s pleasing, and we instinctively get it. I think this project has capitalized on a growing trend — namely, that the soccer aesthetic is here to stay in the States. Soccer jerseys are only going to become more common. And now the question is, how can we blend soccer style with our American traditions? The emerging landscape is incredibly interesting to me.
Can you imagine doing this with other sports? Hockey uniforms reimagined as basketball teams, say, or whatever?
I could as a design exercise, definitely. But from a fan’s perspective, I consider the soccer jersey to be the perfect template to receive designs from other sports. It’s not a specialized garment like a hockey jersey or a basketball top. It just looks like a shirt you can wear around town, a like a T-shirt or a polo. And I don’t know about most people but as a 35 year-old dude I’ve mostly stopped rocking my “Garnett 5” Celtics tank top in mixed company. Nobody needs to see that. As a regular fan, soccer shirts are great, and I think most teams should consider translating, and marketing, soccer-style versions of their shirts to the public. Judging by the reaction I’ve gotten, the idea would be successful.
Where do you see the project going next?
If there’s a chance to participate in making any of these designs into something people could actually wear, I’m hoping to seize it. As of now, that remains to be seen. But after finishing up MLB, I’d like to do a series of shirts on national soccer identities — and those will cross definitely over into reality.
While I have you here, I also want to talk a little bit about your gorgeous “Seasons” infographics. What’s the story behind that project?
Thanks! Seasons was born out of some print design experiments I was doing with clubs and colors. I really liked the way they came out, but wanted to take them further, and I coincidentally needed a project to keep my programming and interaction design chops sharp. So from that Seasons, the interactive web app, was born.
I find traditional soccer league tables to be absolutely fascinating. A table is just one long list of everybody in the league, leader at the top, goat at the bottom, and lots of stories in between. In most soccer leagues there are no divisions, no uneven home/away arrangements, and a completely balanced schedule. That means the stories that make the season are right there in front of you when you look at a league table. Despite the simplicity of the model, there are so many things clubs can fight for during a soccer campaign — championships, tournament qualifications, playoff places, relegation or promotion spots — that call for visual treatments. Combine all that with the pageantry and color of international club soccer and it’s just a fun world to design within. I created Seasons with an eye towards absorbing past data — it could theoretically hold hundreds of league seasons, and hopefully it will some day. It’s got about a dozen now. But like every project, I need to circle back to it when I can. I’m following a few “big” leagues in real-time — like the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, German Bundesliga, etc. — and of course, everyone is invited to check out the site and follow along. Seasons also works as a web app on any smartphone, even offline – and looks great in modern browsers. I’m excited to see where it goes.
If there’s anything you’d like to add about, well, anything, feel free.
Thanks for making Uni Watch exactly the kind of site that inspires projects like this! It’s a real pleasure to speak with you, Paul. If anybody wants to keep up with what I’m designing or making, just find me on Twitter or leave me your e-mail address in the little box the bottom of my site.
ESPN reminder: In case you missed it yesterday, my latest ESPN column is about last week’s symposium at the National Museum of the American Indian.
Mike Hersh update: Big shout-out to those of you who contributed to the Mike Hersh memorial fund. Yesterday I bundled all the contributions and made a $165 donation to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Thanks.
Collections and collectors who collect them: I’m looking for people with eccentric and visually interesting collections who are (a) based in NYC and (b) willing to be interviewed and photographed with their collections for an article I’m writing. Not interested in standard collections like books, records, or stuffed animals, unless there’s something particularly unique about them. Also not interested in hoarders. More interested in unusual collection categories (butter knives, aspirin bottles, discarded umbrellas, etc.). The more acutely curated, the better. If that sounds like you or someone you know, please get in touch. Thanks.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Nameplates in the Penguins locker room are now corporate-sponsored (from Nicholas Schiavo). … Some good detective work has revealed why Stan Musial briefly wore No. 19. … Some funny photos of fans wearing soccer jerseys (from Eric Bangeman). … Two White Sox items from Clint Wrede: Jake Peavy has “AK” on his cleats in memory of former Padres bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds, and there are some uni number changes. … Okay, so we’ve all seen football players wearing a towel. But it’s usually a hand towel. Check out the guys on the far right and far left of this Bills photo from 1967 — those look like full-size bath towels! (Great spot by Tom Jacobsen.) … I can’t recall if this has come up before, but just in case: Yanks prospect Tyler Austin spent time last year with the Tampa Yankees, whose logo matches his nickname. … Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates is not fond of the latest Gazoo helmet (from Nile Smith). … New baseball cap for SDSU (from Jay Sullivan). … New “Restore the Shore” jerseys for the Lakewood BlueClaws. “I like the touch of TNOB — town names on back,” says Dan Cichalski. “I’m not sure if they’ll have the 20-something different ones necessary to give each player and coach a unique one, but I do like the idea of all these different local place names out there on the field.” … Super-interesting video about a shoemaker and craftsman who spent 30 years working for Nike. Recommended (from Pete Woychick). … Shaun Powell is the latest sportswriter calling for the ’Skins to change their name (from Brayden Ruthart). … On the other hand, an Indian tribe in Michigan is fine with Indian-based team names. … Speaking of sleeved basketball jerseys, as we were a few days ago, check out this awesome 1954 Sand-Knit ad (nice find by James Ryan). … Kentucky hoops will wear alternate unis this Saturday. Odd that the article refers to them as “commemorative,” when in fact they’re not commemorating anything, except maybe Nike’s bottom line (from Benjamin Gordon). … Boise State’s all-blue home football uniforms may get the kibosh from the NCAA. ”¦ Check out Dayton’s new stirrups, ready for action (from Jay Sullivan). ”¦ Also from Jay: New gray basketball uniforms for Texas. ”¦ This is pretty funny: Raptors center Aaron Gray got a technical last night while on the bench. Since he was wearing warm-ups at the time, the ref had him lift his warm-up top to show his number so he could T him up. “Never seen that before,” says Neil Vendetti. Me neither. ”¦ Here’s an article about Jim Leyland talking about his early playing days. Key quote, about his rookie league days: “I was a lettuce-legger for quite a few years. Lettuce-leggers were the guys that wore the green socks. They were usually not too good. In those days, you differentiated your team by the socks you wore. Now all the kids wear the same socks, but that’s not the way it was. You had some blue with orange stripes. You had some plain blue. You had some orange, and green. If you were on that green-sock team, you knew you weren’t a prospect” (Dan Cichalski again). ”¦ Still more about the Redskins naming issue here.