Identity Sketches for NYC FC: Colors, Logos & Branding

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As I mentioned a couple days ago, my intention here is to throw a few visual ideas out there for New York City’s just announced MLS expansion club, NYC FC. Today we’ll go over thoughts leading up to a logo; next, some uniform ideas. Visual identity work gets people excited, and gets them to take positions quickly and with conviction. So with that in mind, here are a few quick caveats to this piece.

  • I worked this concept up over a day or so. It is not a professionally workshopped, unlimited resource-backed, Sheik-and-Steinbrenner approved design. These are sketches.  It’s just me having fun with colors, concepts and software.
  • I’m doing this for fun, because I like these conversations. There’s probably a ton of stuff that I haven’t considered. Write me a response and point it out - I love that!
  • This work represents ideas I like; I make no claims that my taste is universal.
  • I’m also not claiming that this is something the club, or MLS, would ever actually want to do - it’s just a direction that’s fun to explore for me personally. If you’re looking for very literal speculation about what the club could look like, I’m not your guy. This is purely what I would do with the NYC FC opportunity, not necessarily what makes business sense for the parties involved.

OK, I feel unburdened. Let’s get on with it. Some ideas I’m carrying over from yesterday:

  • First, from the club’s managing partners (English soccer’s Manchester City FC and baseball’s New York Yankees) we can infer color (shades of blue), style (ready to splurge, expect to win), and attitude (larger than life).
  • From Major League Soccer’s dogged desire to land this club in New York City proper - and the rather grandiose name that’s been chosen - we can infer that NYC FC will be a flagship franchise, and will speak to, and claim to speak for, the entire city.
  • Finally, from New York’s endless supply of graphic signifiers, we can infer some visual concepts for the club’s logo, colors and sense of style.

Author’s note: This piece is part of a mini-series on identity design for the MLS club New York City FC. When you’re done here, feel free to read on:
Intro
Part 1: Logos & Branding
Part 2: Jerseys & Apparel

For more, including how to purchase future design work from the author, follow @m_willis on Twitter or leave your email at the very bottom of this page.

Also, if you like this kind of stuff, check out 32 Nations, a project to give unique designs to every team headed to the 2014 World Cup. image
Thanks for reading!

This piece will be a very visual essay about these principles, plus a few more. Besides the ideas that can be inferred about NYC FC, we can also take into consideration current design trends, traits and attitudes that make New York “New York”, and (most importantly, of course) visual stuff I think is important at this moment in time. We’ll tackle a few of these subjects, and then build to the logo; I really want to show my math here, because as everyone knows, a good graphic identity is equal parts logic and blind faith. The least I can do is give you the first half of that equation.

Let’s start off with something easy.

Color

Manchester City is sky blue, and has never gotten it so right as they are getting it right now. First Umbro, and now Nike (who probably just changed a few Umbro filenames and handed their work in) understand the power of space. Not whitespace, necessarily - more like free space. When you have a color as gorgeous and as calm as sky blue, if you just let it breathe over wide spaces, it becomes intoxicating. City’s jersey does it right: they get out of the way and give their colors space. Sky/Carolina/powder blue - whatever you’d like to call it - has got to be a founding NYC FC color.

The New York Yankees are the second founding partner. The Yankees are known for navy blue - a midnight, almost-black, dark-hearted navy blue. Navy is powerful and complimentary; it soaks up light. The Yankees have understood this for going on a century; they use it to keep white (or heritage, off-white) firmly incarcerated behind navy pinstripes.

NYC FC will merge the formidable resources of Manchester City and the Yankees. But will the team’s identity become a merger of their founders’ personas? City is a rambunctious, newly-confident upstart who hasn’t quite figured out how to control and channel successful behavior. The Yankees are ruthless and mechanical; success seems to be barely pleasurable to them. (I’ve always suspected that execution and discipline and well-followed processes are really what make Yankee hearts light up; that this attitude leads to on-field victory is almost beside the point.)

If the new club really will merge these two approaches, sky blue and navy seem a perfect match. They’re both in. There’s only one last thing missing: heart. If sky blue is City’s boisterous “we can”, and navy is the Yanks’ assured “we will”, there needs to be one last warm, exciting, rallying color that says “we have to.” This third color should be used sparingly, and the identity can work without it - but at times, when extra impact is needed, it will be called upon. This color comes straight from the New York city flag (and connects us, through history, to soccer royalty) - vibrant orange.

Together, this is the palette I’d choose for New York City FC.

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This color family acknowledges the club’s founding partners and their principles, and the environment the team will be born into and go on to represent. The three colors work together, or in any combination of pairs, and can pair with complimentary bases like whites and creams and even blacks and charcoal greys, depending on the occasion.

Heritage and Visual Language

First, sporting associations. Baseball is soccer’s only real peer in the heritage department - not just through the particular partnership that created NYC FC, but in temperament, in the historical record, and in New York City’s lore.  Each sport started before the turn of the century, moved from fields and alleys to semi-pro associations to professional clubs.  The power of tradition has kept old visual language alive in both baseball and soccer; this includes the use of word marks and letter forms that speak to an earlier time.  New York has had a particularly rich history of beautiful visual signifiers, given power by their association with sport. 

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Note the odd, quaint letter forms - these are not modern, mathematical, vector-derived creations; they are hand-rendered and imperfect.  In the days when these identities were created, reproducing an insignia perfectly was not considered mandatory; there was no “perfect” version or “master copy” of these marks.  Their lasting power comes not from their perfection, but their association with earned emotion and collective memory.  The flourishes these marks exhibit - curled serifs, swooping lines, tuscan bulges - were once modern.  Now, they serve to remind New Yorkers that theirs is a sports consciousness that runs very, very deep.  

And then, of course, there are the more city-wide visual associations that New York embodies:

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New Yorkers will know these marks; the city branded itself with the simple and functional “NYC” mark in recent years; before that, the I Love NY campaign (state-wide, but often colloquially used to refer to the city) is one of the most successful place-branding campaigns of all time.  Both marks use thick slabs and obvious grids to make their point: if you accept the terms, New York is a place where you’re invited to play along.  NYC FC’s identity need not echo these ideas - but it must exist alongside them with ease. 

New York’s MTA, which runs public transit, may be the most prominent civic branding system that exists within the five boroughs. Bus and subway signage - in Helvetica, and primary colors - has become notorious and celebrated for its intelligibility and easy confidence.  Going back a few years, MTA subway tokens show a different side to the city’s design history - they represented the city’s identity in bold, even risky, ways - but for the decades they existed, the way tokens expressed the idea of New York City always fell on the side of utility and clarity.  Either stylized initials (“NYC”) or symbols (most notably a five-sided pentagram, symbolizing the five boroughs) figured prominently. 

Finally, there are a few New York-based graphic signposts that should not inform the new brand. These are the identities NYC FC will compete against - either because they are on-field rivals or because they are not associations the club should want to make.  

First, the Cosmos.  No one is quite sure what to make of the “new” Cosmos; despite the team’s history, they were not involved with either of the MLS franchises that have been created to call New York home.  The Cosmos continue to trade on a brand which had great mind share years ago - and which has retro appeal today.  That some version of the club is fielding a real team again - and not one NYC FC will expect to compete against too often - isn’t much more than a curiosity at this point in time. For NYC FC (or any aspiring brand), associations to the Cosmos identity should be avoided.  They are best ignored right now.

Next, Red Bull New York.  The Red Bulls have had the New York market all to themselves for a while now and haven’t done too much with it; it remains to be seen whether MLS desire and popular sentiment will push NYC FC ahead of RBNY as the “alpha” soccer presence in the region.  Since Red Bull plays in New Jersey, has a dubious-to-many identity, has never had much success, and will struggle to compete with the resources of their new sibling, it seems somewhat likely that they are destined to become the Mets to NYC FC’s Yankees. image Time will tell.  What is certain, however, is that Red Bull is instantly NYC FC’s biggest rival, and the brands will be in direct competition with one another both on and off the field.  If anything, NYC FC’s brand should be designed to either overwhelm (with force), or subvert (with cleverness) what RBNY has been able to create so far.  (My preference would be a brand that could do both.)

Finally, the gaudy exoskeleton Red Bull New York shed years ago - their original identity package, centered around the MetroStars name. “MetroStars” was a mistake - I think even the league would now acknowledge that - and their visual branding was atrocious, even by 1990s US sports identity standards.  But before the Red Bull switch, the club did manage to stumble into some real equity with a simple, fan-nourished “Metros” identity.  And in that lies a potential lesson for NYC FC: let the fans speak.  Give them time and space to create something they love; you (the club) will get to own it, and it will actually mean something.

And by god, avoid looking in any binders marked “Design Inspiration - 1996" in the MLS offices. 

Attitude

Here are a few recurring New York City themes and traits I think the club would be wise to take into account.  Let’s all jump into the collective mind of the city for a second.  (Yes, it always smells like that.)

We’re the center of the freaking universe
New Yorkers think it, and it’s just close enough to being true that they’ll never stop.  If NYC FC wants to be a big deal, they have to be at the center of the soccer/futbol universe.  That means conversationally and on the field.

We’re proud to be annoying
This might fit the Manchester City side of the equation just fine.  New York is a city full of “noisy neighbors” - and NYC FC’s identity shouldn’t be afraid to mix it up - especially with other clubs. 

We’re very sentimental, but ruthlessly modern
New Yorkers think nothing of tearing down a building and then weeping that it’s gone.  They love history and the “good old days”, but live squarely in the present - maybe even the future.  NYC FC should give New Yorkers something to love about both the past and the present.  

We make grandiose claims, and can back them up
Call it the Babe / Namath effect; New Yorkers love it when you call your shot and then hit it.  NYC FC should make a big claim right out of the gate - if it hits, they’ll live off it forever.  A good gamble to take.

We’re a little unhinged
If Travis Bickle is considered heroic here, then yes, Joey Barton, Mario Balotelli or Luis Suarez: New York is ready for you. NYC FC needs one or two unhinged personalities to do things for the brand that, for reasons of propriety, it won’t be able to do for itself.  

We’ll watch you go from nothing to something
The most-loved New Yorkers are self-made people.  Those that came from the streets to celebrity, or from obscurity into the public eye.  New Yorkers implicitly trust ambition, and will reward it when they see it.  If NYC FC can harness the power behind the nobody-to-notoroius trope, New Yorkers will pay attention.

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Whatever it is, we have the best one
Food? It’s almost embarrassingly good in New York. Music? See: Brooklyn. Buildings? Yeah, we’re just finishing the tallest one in human history. Athletes? Entertainers? They find us. NYC FC’s identity needs to play at this level - New Yorkers expect to have the best - the definitive example - of whatever they love.

Don’t baby us
The symbol for the 1 train is white “1” set in Helvetica, inside a red circle.  The end.  If MLS designed it, it would have bevels, layers, patterns, strokes, and the word “It’s a New York City Subway Train” in some robotic font underneath.  NYC FC should resist over-explanation.  New Yorkers hate it; they don’t have time for flourishes and details.  In fact, the club should go in the other direction.  They should be minimal, simple - and instantly absorbable.  You glance, you get it, you keep moving.  That’s what works in a city like New York. 

Trends and Taste (a.k.a., stuff that makes sense to me right now)

This last point is a perfect segue to something important: NYC FC’s identity needs to meet current design trends head on.  MLS has caught up a bunch since the days of the MetroStars; their recent work has been solid if not just a bit heavy-handed.  But NYC FC is a once-in-a-generation chance to define a worldwide brand.  It needs something better than a bevelled shield or some overlapping shapes with cartoony New York landmarks interspersed somewhere.  It needs to be more thoughtful, simpler, and more aspirational.  The brand needs to make sense in dozens of languages, to kids who will doodle it in notebooks, and on everything from caps to mugs to the badge players will wear over their hearts.  

I’ve spent a lot of time swimming in the world of soccer design language.  And there’s one thing I think I can safely report: the best visual soccer brands are the simplest, boldest, sharpest.  They’re the easiest to instantly understand and, because of that, the hardest to forget.   Here’s an assortment of soccer brands from around the world that I find beautiful and unforgettable. Spend a few seconds seeing if you can come up with something they all have in common.  

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Great, right?  And no, it’s not lack of words or letters; no, it’s not only one or two colors.  There are two things, really: first, there are no bevels, shadows, or layered shapes in these logos.  They don’t compete with themselves.  They’re bold expressions of simple ideas.  But second, and most importantly: after glancing at these for a few minutes, you could draw them from memory, by hand, on a piece of paper.  I love that quality in a logo.  

This is a personal preference - hence the name of the section - but I find identities like this to be incredibly strong.  That’s not to say Manchester United, Liverpool, and Real Madrid - brands with incredible global mindshare - don’t have good logos.  They do.  In most cases, phenomenal on-field success has helped.  I simply find work like this even better.   The more you can say, and do with less - the more you can own the idea of less - the stronger your brand is.  This is why Apple and Nike are revered brands, by the way - and why USA Today just rebranded with a blue circle as their signifier.  It’s why “flat design" is all anyone talks about right now. In a busy, detailed world, "simple" the best way to break through and communicate.  That’s something I think NYC FC should think long and hard about. 

Some Visual Math

Let’s go to the old virtual whiteboard, and sum up a few findings. 

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That’s where I’m coming from.  And with that, here’s something I think speaks, visually, to a lot of what we’ve discussed.  

An NYC FC Logo Concept

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I know it’s different.  Let me break it down.  

The logo is a five-sided (pentagram) shape - technically, a very obtuse star.  This is our visual representation of New York City, and its five boroughs.  The sides of the logo bevel in at a very gradual curve, giving the shape a more unique, comfortable, human, feeling than a straight pentagon would have.  It’s a unique shape - one you don’t run into all the time in world soccer - and it would become instantly recognizable very quickly.  (The Dutch, by the way, have used a version of the pentagram for their national insignia.  Luckily they also founded New York, so that lines up!)

The logo has just three components.  There’s a wide stroke outline, a broad interior field, and contained within, the styled letters “FC”.  That’s it.  In this main rendition, the letters and the stroke are sky blue, and the field is navy - but as we’ll discuss, this logo is designed to change and absorb more than just that primary color configuration.  

The typeface. It’s an intentional callback to the whimsical, historic faces used by old and beloved New York baseball clubs.  There are round serifs and small tuscan points.  In moderation, this can create a wonderfully nostalgic effect - almost like the club’s been around forever.  But tempering the nostalgia are the sharp points and straight lines of the pentagram shape - which exudes a more modern sense of style.  Like the city’s architecture itself, old and new are entangled, and sit comfortably here, side by side.  

Also, yes - there is no type-based mention of New York, NYC, or any other place brand.  This is a decision that addresses a few points I made earlier, and gets to the heart of the opportunity I think NYC FC has here.  

  • First, the pentagram stands for the city and its boroughs - it’s a simple and worthy indicator of New York in its own right.  The shape is the city. 
  • Second, I really like the idea that the brand doesn’t shove an identity down your throat.  If this club is put together correctly, everybody in the world will know where it’s from.  You don’t need one more interlocking NY, or one more stylized Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building or Brooklyn Bridge.  You just need to tell people what you are: a Football Club.  
  • Third, and this gets to New York’s sense of exceptionalism - I really feel like NYC FC has a chance to be not just a football club, but the definitive football club.  They are being set up to succeed - and what if they do?  This brand has the confidence to tell the world that they’re the best, and they always expected to be.  It’s audacious, yes; but nobody has tried it doing it yet!  If any club can pull it off, it’s New York.  
  • Finally: I also really like the idea that the club doesn’t have a nickname yet.  Maybe it’ll be the Blues, or the Empires, or even City. But simply giving people “FC” practically inspires them to come up with folk names for the club.  It leaves a ton of the branding up to the people, the fans.  (In my conception, people would just start calling these guys “the Club.”  Like, “no, I can’t - I got tickets to the Club on Saturday.”  It sounds exclusive and populist at the same time.  But who knows how it would evolve.) 

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How It Works

Because the logo is simple, it can function as a system of changing parts without confusing people.  Any of the three components can change color, for instance; or one or more can disappear to let in outside colors.  It works well on different color fields, in single or multi-colored applications, or with photography.  

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Above, in the first row, we see the logo in single-color applications on white and dark fields; in the second row we have two-color versions in New York Yankee, Manchester City, and primary flavors.  Next, with photography:

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The logo can sit atop almost anything - no matter how busy or how simple - and brand it effortlessly.  Above, two city-focused applications; the third photo shows representations of each of the five boroughs radiating out from the pentagram’s center.  

We’re just getting into actual soccer applications; next we’ll do jerseys and other wearable components.  But here’s a potential application that teases the new club.  

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Vintage-style teaser bill. It’s never too soon to start fighting for mindshare.

(And yes - all other club-focused type work would be in Helvetica. If you can’t beat ‘em…)

This logo may not be for everyone, but I like it.  It does a lot of things I’ve been wishing the US soccer establishment would catch up to: it breaks through the noise, trusts people to come with it (instead of pandering to them), leaves room to grow, and demonstrates that we’re evolving into a more sophisticated soccer culture.  

If nothing else, I hope you enjoyed how we got here.  We’ll take a look at some jerseys next.  Update: no need to wait! You can read about jerseys right here

Interested in wearing something with this logo?
I’m working up some real-life apparel options with this identity. If you’re interested, let me know on Twitter (@m_willis), by email (@m_willis), or just leave your email in the form at the very bottom of this page.

If you made it this far, you might enjoy a few other uniform, soccer and identity-related projects I’ve worked on: Clean Sheet, my shop for soccer-inspired design; and design pieces Soccer Out of ContextRe-booting the New England Revolution and What Makes a USA Soccer Kit?. I’m also tracking seasonal soccer tables, beautifully, at the Seasons project. If you like tech writing, I do a little of that too now and then. Thanks again!

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