Identity Sketches for the Columbus Crew

Author’s note: Given yesterday’s San Jose Earthquakes rebranding, this morning seemed like a good time to run this piece, which has been in the works for a little bit. 


Currently, you’d hear something like this:

“…Well, so - they’re yellow, I think. And Columbus - that’s like, football country, right? Ohio State 24/7, that kind of deal? Do they get into soccer over there? Oh - wait - right, it’s the team with that beefcake logo with the angry dudes on it. What’s up with that thing? Are those guys a ‘crew’? Ha ha… They still have a team, right?”

What you’d want to hear, of course, is something like this:

“I don’t even really watch a ton of soccer but that Crew game blew me away. The fans are just insane - it comes right through the TV. Yellow and black everywhere - it was wild. I was just flipping around and I couldn’t change the channel. I gotta get that jersey.”

If you ask an average American sports fan “What do you know about the Columbus Crew?”, I imagine you’d get all kind of answers. I’m not claiming to speak for anyone specific with the above composites, but I’d wager that the average response would skew a little closer to the first one than the second.

That’s not necessarily a failing; it’s tough to establish a strong, bold message and break through in the noisy American sports landscape. You could argue that no M.L.S. team ever has.  If there is going to be a first, though, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that the Columbus Crew are at the top of the contenders list.

The Crew, after all, have more than a few challenges. Not only are they pushing soccer in a Big-Four-centric American sports culture, but college football - Ohio State football, specifically - is king in Columbus. The city itself is modestly-sized, and far from either coast (meaning it often flies well under the national radar). And the club totes some baggage of their own - including an aging stadium, a limited history of on-field success, and an identity centered on a logo that hits the trifecta: it’s dated, confusing and a little silly all at once.

But that’s the extent of the bad news. The truth is, the Columbus Crew are lucky. They’re lucky to still be playing, 17 years after helping to found M.L.S. They’re lucky to have been shepherded through the lean seasons by one of the original godfathers of American soccer, Lamar Hunt. They’re lucky to have opened the country’s first soccer-specific stadium, ushering in an era of unprecedented maturation for the U.S. pro game. And they’re lucky to have, in their fans, some of the most dedicated and passionate supporters the State-side game has ever seen. The Crew are a success story, albeit one at a crossroads.

When you arrive at a crossroads, you either choose a new path, or you stagnate. The Crew could hang on to their current identity, their current stadium, and their current marketing, and see how long they could string it out. It’s not a very exciting approach, but plenty of teams faced with the same decision do just that.

Fortunately, we know the Columbus Crew won’t be choosing to do nothing. The club is going to change: that much is certain. They are going to become more ambitious. 

And that’s because the Crew are lucky for one more reason: they’ve recently been sold to Anthony Precourt, an owner who by all accounts understands and loves soccer, gets the region, and relishes the passion that he’s inheriting. Precourt’s mandate is simple: he wants the Crew to become the Greeen Bay Packers of US soccer: small market, mighty brand, beloved community icon. To get there, the Crew will definitely be making some changes - not least involving their idenity.

And that’s where I’d like to chime in. With the realization that some kind of branding change is coming, I’ve been thinking a bit about the Crew’s identity recently. I’ve sketched up an identity system that could not only help take the Crew to the next level - it could do so in style. I’d like to present it here.

What Goes, What Stays, What Influences?

The Crew need to make some visual changes, but they don’t - shouldn’t - start completely from scratch. They have built up equity, individuality, and a unique currency around much of what they’re doing now. The tricky part is to disassemble the current identity in order to see what’s worth saving. It’s a bit like restoring a rusty old classic car: the idea is to identify and preserve the irreplaceable, beautiful parts, spiff up the stuff that still works well, move on from the stuff that doesn’t, and where appropriate, introduce modern components that bring the entire project to a new level.

With that in mind, I’m making three piles: what goes (the stuff in the current identity that will be retired), what stays (the stuff in the current identity worth keeping and building around) and what influences (stuff that’s not in the current identity that the Crew can look to for inspiration). So we all know what we’re dealing with, here’s the brand’s current look:

Current Columbus Crew logo

I’m not here to judge (not openly, anyway), so let’s just call this logo/crest a “venerable survivor.” Like the Crew themselves, it’s stuck around long enough that people have attached real sentiment to it; there’s something to be said for that. But if we’re serious about giving the club a new visual identity, it simply has to be reconsidered.

What goes?

The three blue-collar bouncer dudesThe three blue-collar bouncer dudes. Sorry, fellas, but that sound you hear is the permanent 5 o’clock whistle. You can retire safe in the knowledge that nobody ever got past you and into your top-secret construction site. Guy on the left: don’t look so bummed. You have a pension coming. Keep it together.

Inconsistent yellowInconsistent yellow-gold. The Crew is colloquially known as the Black and Gold. Their uniforms are a shade of highlighter yellow. The color on their crest is somewhere in between. The Crew’s primary yellow-gold color needs refinement and consistency.

Copperplate GothicCopperplate Gothic. If you see this typeface anywhere other than on a café’s window lettering, it’s usually a bad sign. Like, literally: it’s usually on a bad sign. A tenuous choice in 1995, it’s completely out of the question today.

The shapeThe shape. I’m a fan of tradition, and the Crew have a somewhat traditional shield; once upon a time, that automatically improved this crest by several magnitudes compared the club’s out-of-control M.L.S. bretheren. But just having a shield shape for its own sake doesn’t count as improvement any longer; American soccer design should set its bar higher. Generic shield shapes are still better than some alternatives, but they only work if they solve a team’s design needs - not simply because they’re a return to traditional soccer form. It’s a close call, but my preference is to let a new design system inform the shape of the crest, rather than vice versa.

What stays?

The nameThe name. Columbus Crew may not be all things to all people, but it’s a strong, unique and enduring American soccer brand. First, the city name: has to stay. Columbus has a lot to be proud of, and it should continue to be front and center in this identity. Second, the nickname: staying too. Crew isn’t embarassing like “Wiz” or “Burn”; it’s not begging to be changed. I like it; I think of “Crew” as kind of a more hard-scrabble version of “Union” or “United”. It signifies a group of people bonded by a common cause, which is pretty perfect in this context, and it’s short and memorable. (Sneaking an “FC” onto the end might not be such a bad idea, of course…)

The basic colorsThe basic colors. Classic, inspiring and unique. It simply doesn’t get any better, from a memorable branding perspective, than yellow-gold and black. The club just needs tonal consistency across the platform (meaning logo, uniforms and collateral like print and online materials). Throw in well-considered white and dark grey compliments, and you have a set of fundamentally strong colors.

The hard hatThe hard hat. The dudes may be punching out, but we can’t forget they ever existed. After all, once “Crew” was established as the club’s moniker, the idea of tying tough, blue-collar symbols to the name was actually pretty interesting (it just looks a little silly when the manifestation is three burly guys auto-traced in Adobe Illustrator). If anything, the current visual interpretation of the crew concept is too literal; the idea of what a “crew” represents should be expanded past construction-worker metaphors to include team, supporters, and the ideas that power the entire culture around the club. The identity can still be hard-working and tough, but it needs to be broader. So: what symbol can keep the previous connotations alive, tie the new identity to the old, take on fresher, broader meanings, and look bad-ass all at the same time? The iconic hard hat. We’re spiffing it up and keeping it around.

What influences?

This is the fun part. We’ve dialed the brand down some core components: Columbus Crew, yellow-gold and black, the hard hat. Everything else is gone. Now, starting fresh with that foundation, what can we create? To answer that, it’s helpful to ask: what should influence this identity? I have a few ideas:

German styleGerman soccer style. Yes, I’m pre-disposed to love German football design work. But there are some special reasons to connect the Crew to German influences. First: Columbus has a undeniably German history. German immigrants built much of the original city, and even in modern times, one in five Columbus residents have Teutonic heritage (more than double the next closest ancestry, Irish). German Village and the Brewery District (which we’ll get to in a second) are celebrated Columbus neighborhoods. German football design languague is spare and clean, just where identity design seem headed at this moment in time. And, of course, in terms of iconic yellow and black football clubs (and supporters), there’s no better model to emulate than top German side Borussia Dortmund. The absolutely striking BVB roundel is a world-wide calling card for great soccer, great supporters, and great design. The Crew would do well to take some inspiration here.

The Green Bay PackersThe Green Bay Packers. The entire ecosystem around Green Bay’s N.F.L. team is the definition of successful small-market sports culture - and as such, Precourt is exactly right: the Packers are exactly what the Crew might hope to become. The Packers are religion to their devotees - and that’s no slight on other N.F.L. fans, either. There’s simply a ferver and an attachment to everything Packers by Green Bay residents that’s universally recognized as something special. Maybe it’s the fact that Green Bay and Milwaukee are fairly small communities; maybe it’s the fact that the community actually owns the team and runs it as a non-profit entity (which has much more in common with traditional soccer club culture than the American sports franchise model). Maybe it’s the unmistakeable yellow and green colors, or the universally-recognized (and strikingly simple) fat-G logo. The factors work together to create something special - something that’s as much about community as it is about sports.

The checkerboard flagThe checkerboard flag. You’ll commonly see these fan-initiated interpretations of club colors across the global game, but M.L.S. fans seem to have really picked up on the power of the checkerboard. I say: use it. A gold-and-black checkerboard flag is a powerful visual symbol; why not make is something that’s part of the club’s official identity? Not only would it fit seamlessly with what Crew supporters are already doing, it would put a Crew stamp on the concept - and maybe even sap some energy from other clubs’ supporters.

Industrial strength designIndustrial-strength design. This means strong, stark, grown-up design: no bevels, no gradients, no shadows. We’re talking about the design language of factories and refineries and warehouses: gothic sans typefaces, bold contrast, clean lines, simplicity, power.  Industrial warning symbols, in particular, strike me as an interesting inspiration: they use yellow and black to demand attention and, and their use of design and shape to convey strong messages.  Warning symbols also go hand-in-hand with a blue-collar, factory ethos and are almost universally understood.  There are lessons the Crew can take from this branch of the design world.  

MicrobrewsMicrobrews. The influences started to come together when I had a minor epiphany: the Columbus Crew are a microbrew. In a sea of Diet Cokes and Miller Lites and, well, Red Bulls, the Crew are like, say, a C.B.C. Festbier Lager: unique, potent, made and loved locally, and poised to grow more well-known, regionally and beyond. Here’s where the German influence connects perfectly - the tradition of German brewing in Columbus has left the city with a once-vibrant, now-reconditioned Brewery District, a symbol of renewal and energy in the city. The design language is there - small breweries are a design playground, and work with much of the same visual language (bold typefaces, iconic colors, quirky but meaningful symbols) that connects with soccer culture. Like the Crew, small craft brewers can grow interesting beers into brands that have real personality - and some, like Sam Adams or Goose Island - eventually become regionally and even nationally prominent without losing their core identity. I think there are some aspirational lessons to be gleaned from thinking of the Crew as a fantastic, local microbrew that holds its own (and then some) against big, bland national brands.

It’s Not the Logo, It’s the System.

So with the core in place, the unworthy stuff stripped away, and the influences identified, it’s time to design. But there’s one key thing to remember: we’re not just sketching up a logo here. We’re building an identity system - a visual language for the Crew. The logo/crest that emerges will be one component of the system - one phrase in that language. The entire system needs to work across many platforms, be able to express many ideas, and be combined, re-constituted, and re-configured in endless ways - including many we haven’t even thought of yet. So this isn’t an “I can make a better logo than that!” situation - it’s a fuller re-imagining of the brand. The idea is to build a strong visual and emotional foundation for the Crew and the culture around the club that will serve the club for years to come. The Crew shouldn’t settle for anything less.

But a system has to start somewhere, and yes, we’re starting with a logo. Here’s where I’m at:

Logo

Remember: this is a logo, but it’s also part of (and made up of parts of) an identity system. Let’s dive in.

  • The basis for the logo - and the entire system - is a diamond construct. The logo itself is a four-chambered diamond, each chamber consisting of a smaller diamond in the exact proportion of the larger shape. The diamonds are simple rotated squares, giving them a substantial, precise feeling - not too thin or too fat.

  • The four chambers create an alternating yellow-gold and black checkerboard, taking inspiration from Crew supporters’ iconic flags. This pattern is fantastic - it’s both eye-catching and tasteful, both bold and inviting, and it expresses both modernity and heritage. It has some of that “indie” spirit I think the Crew need to capture - like a microbrew or a great about-to-be-discovered local band, it expresses both individuality and broad potential.

  • Each single diamond tile can be used to express part of the club’s identity, either separately, or in groups - and here’s where the utitlity of the identity system starts to spring to life. The logo, specifically, groups four diamond tiles into a larger crest that expresses Columbus Crew FC (the “C”, “C” and “FC” tiles), crowned with the most important tile of all - featuring the Crew’s signature yellow hard hat. You can imagine any of these components working alone, or together in different kinds of groupings or color combinations to express the essence of the brand.

The hard hat is a key mark by itself. I’ve taken the liberty of designing a hard hat icon that’s simple, pays homage to the hats worn by the guys in the current crest, and expresses the idea of what the Crew are with far less visual clutter. I’ve also rendered the hat in yellow-gold (though the club colors can cycle through any of the components), seeing as the Crew’s calling-card color is yellow-gold and construction hats are traditionally yellow.

Hard Hat

The hat-in-diamond mark could be used alone - as could the C-in-diamond mark, or other variations - to act as a shorthand for the brand, a simplified logo, or a “bug” on something like a TV broadcast. It’s simply the easiest way to express the identity in one gulp.

Other notes:

  • I’ve chosen a gothic sans typeface with industrial qualities called OSP-DIN to express text; it’s got just the right kind of strenght and grace to convey the emergent style. OSP-DIN also has the right kind of vertically-oriented letterforms that fit well into the diamond shapes while also looking great outside them, surrounded by negative space. Below the logo mark, some simple text gives the club’s name and pedigree; nothing fancier need be done.

  • There are exactly four colors in the palatte: yellow-gold, charcoal black, dark grey and white. They can be used interchangeably.

Let’s take a look at some of the configurations the identity can take on.

Simple Iterations

Simple Iterations

By alternating between one- and four-chambered diamond shapes, the logo can express many aspects of the brand. Each container holds a single visual idea that can either stand alone, or play along with its neighbors. For instance, the four-chambered checkerboard can feature one typography character in each diamond, together forming an idea or a phrase (as in 1996, the year of the club’s founding). The icon can stand alone, as mentioned above. Lastly, two diamonds can be paired together horizontally to express a two-phrased idea (like CC, the club’s initials). I like to refer to this final configuration as the bow-tie look. Colors can, of course, be alternated through the palette as well, and can feature in single or multiple-color combinations.

Once the rules of the system are in place, ideas can begin to flourish.

Simple Iterations III

A single diamond can contain a C (or potentially other characters) to form a strong secondary icon. This look is at once a partner to the hard hat icon, one half of the “bow-tie” look and one-quarter of the full club logo. Colors work well when they swap elements, so a black C on a yellow field looks just as strong and just as correct as a yellow C on a black field. And, of course, once the mark has been divided into four chambers, it’s quite simple to divide again to create a more nuanced checkerboard pattern. The symmetric, balanced nature of the shape makes it completely extensible, even as levels of complexity ratchet up or down. Finally, the side-by-side bow-tie configuration can be used with four-chambered diamonds to spell out longer phrases (for example, that of the Crew’s most notorious supporters’ group, Nordecke).

Simple Iterations IV

Applications of a single visual idea - a colored diamond containing a single item - tend to stand out, especially by themselves. But the converse is also true - subdivided diamonds need not fill up all of their “spaces” with items; sometimes phrases or ideas can be expressed in interesting ways by what space is not used. Abbreviations or shorthand (COLS being an old diminuitive for Columbus) are, of course, interesting too.

Simple Iterations V

The system can go in multiple directions, and once it’s established itself, can convey “Columbus Crew” with very minimal applications. For instance, a 96 inside a diamond shape is fairly generic - unless the system it springs from provides the right amount of color and context. Then, it becomes an unmistakeable calling card for the identity - just another small way to express the club visually. Club mottos or trigger words can be expressed as well - and if the characters don’t fit perfectly, some creativity (like using the hat icon as a point of emphasis) can be seamlessly called in to make everything work. This is one of the best parts about a system like this - alternatives and solutions will always be suggesting themselves. Finally, with advanced creativity, new patterns can be added to the diamond/checkerboard idea to breathe extra life into the system. Here, hoops of black and yellow-gold illustrate the point nicely.

The identity can be stretched past simply conveying the essence of the identity - it can actually do some heavy informational lifting too.

Scheduling

It’s fun to imagine expressing schedules, or scores, or player stats, or any kind of interesting data with the same visual language used to brand the team.

And, though the applications shown here are very flat - no gradients, no shadows, no bevels, minimal extraneousnes - the system can take on character of almost any kind.

Character

In a simple example, it’s easy to see how the hat icon alone can transition from a stark one-color outline, to a mark that features imagery (instead of a flat color field), and then back to a simple tonal arrangement. The versatility is there to be discovered.

A final iteration is something I’m calling the civic mark:

Civic Mark

This version of the diamond introduces a simplified Columbus skyline, and is useful for occasions where the club’s connection to the city itself needs to be emphasized.  I imagine the Crew as an organization with regional, and even national, branding ambitions, but sometimes immediate, local connections are useful.  (Say, I don’t know, if you’re trying to build support for a new urban stadium.)  

This mark, of course, can be iterated as well:

Simple Iterations III

Bringing It To Life

With the system in place, it becomes quite easy to see how the current identity could slide into the new. The uniforms, for example, wouldn’t have to change much; beyond ensuring that the yellow-gold coloring was consistent with the logo, it’s possible to think of dozens of ways to apply the concept. Here are a few simple examples:

First

A first-choice jersey must be mostly yellow-gold. Black sleeves and accents keep the focus on color and pattern alone. Shorts and socks are black, to ehnance the jersey’s pop. The stripe on the socks is constructed of diamond shapes in a subtle callback to the main identity (and a nice touch of argyle).

Change

An away, or change, jersey should be simple, deferential, and intimidating. Here’s a blacked-out look that the Crew could employ; some creative work with the crest allows it to mirror the color shift (to tonal blacks and greys), save the hard hat icon - which remains defiantly yellow. The tonal accent here is a rich, pewter-like gold-grey, which could be rendered with a just touch of shimmer to lend the kits a bit of elegance and weight. It’s hard to discern, but a very light quilted diamond/checkerboard pattern is set into the fabric.

Third

A third-choice jersey can go in many directions; here’s one simple, stark example that riffs on of the club’s current horizontal-split design. Under this system, the third jersey could go anywhere; I’d also expect checkerboard patterns to emerge.

Another way to see the new identity system come to life is to imagine basic club-inspired messaging. I envision the diamond checkerboard metaphor playing a strong role in the personality and narrative style the team could employ - even using the pattern as a visual grid to uniquely mark its graphic identity.

Message I

This example plays up the idea that the Crew can, and should, be a regional and even national brand - much like the Packers are. As the only first-tier pro soccer club in Ohio, they have a large territory to pull from - and with other major pro sports pre-occupying Cleveland and Cincinnati (both of which are smaller than Columbus, by the way), they have plenty of room to become the soccer capital of the region. In researching this piece, I learned that half of the US population lives within 500 miles of Columbus - so if the Crew are indeed thinking about growing past their market and into national prominence, they have advantages to work with.

Graphically, one can see how the diamond-grid framework can be used to inform the tone of the design work - lending a spare but interesting edge to the messaging.

Message II

Because elements in the system are discrete, they can be utilized in interesting configurations to do some visual storytelling. Here, the hardhat iconography is adapted to create a visual manifestation of a “crew” of supporters, the logo’s diamond pattern becoming their checkerboard flags. The diamond-grid system can be rigid and serious; here, it’s also easy to see how it can be playful and fun.

Message III

Sometimes, of course, it just makes sense to drop strict visual rules and create something with a more organic, artistic style. When that time comes for the Crew, a system like this one can accommodate it. With the right attention to principle, artistic messaging can fit right in to the identity.

Concluding Thoughts

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

The Columbus Crew have the natural DNA of a big, beloved, successful brand. It hasn’t been fully expressed yet, but it’s definitely in there. The club has the support, the market, the distinctiveness, and now, the ownership, to make something amazing happen; now, they just need an identity that orients them towards their goals. Here’s hoping that they turn to an identity that can grow with them, think with them, react with them, and give them a system on which to build towards future successes.

This piece was written and produced, and the marks within designed, by Mark Willis, with input and consultation from Chad Reynolds. For questions or comment, find Mark (@M_Willis) and Chad (@TheChad_KC) on Twitter. If you like this design work, check out Clean Sheet Co., Mark’s apparel design company, and the 32 Nations Project, about designing expressive shirts for every single 2014 World Cup team. If you want to know a little more about Mark, check out the features at the top of the page, or check out his brief bio. Thanks for reading!