Identity Sketches for the San Jose Earthquakes

I design because it’s fun and satisfying - but I also design as a form of communicating critique. This isn’t necessarily because I’ve found a perfect – or even, better – approach to an existing brand; it’s mostly because when it comes to discussions of identity, visuals communicate much more clearly than words ever could. After all, if you’re responding to something visual; why not craft a visual response? Why not express yourself on the same terms the brand does?

The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.
Jean-Luc Godard

I created refreshed identities for the New England Revolution and the Columbus Crew with this principle in mind.  Both of those brands continue to use old, out of favor design language that could stand some fresh thought. In one of those cases, help is on the way; in another, the potential for change is still at least, er, theoretically possible. I’ve also done some visual thinking about New York City FC, a brand which has since defined itself in a rather dignified (if heavily inspired) manner. ‘Critique by design’ is the best way I know how to get new identity concepts across - concepts that may begin with visuals, but usually extend to the way a team presents itself and carries itself.  A well-conceived brand takes on a personality, and becomes a living thing – but the process invariably starts with a foundation of solid design work.

Today, I’m offering a visual critique of the San Jose Earthquakes, a soccer brand that, much like the Revs and the Crew, had good reason to re-imagine their visual identity. Unlike the New England or Columbus, though, they’ve already taken their shot. The Quakes debuted a new identity before the beginning of the 2014 MLS campaign; what might have been a transformative, impactful moment for the club has since passed, leaving behind little more than a few pats on the back and a few more half-hearted shrugs. And that’s too bad.  

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There was so much that the Quakes could have done with their golden, once-in-a-generation shot at a rebrand - and to their credit, there’s much that they did actually achieve. But there’s also a great deal of missed opportunity in what the Quakes released – so much unrealized potential – that I can’t let it go. So I sketched a few ideas up as a form of critique – again, not because I’m more knowledgeable than the club, but because there are un-explored visual and conceptual ideas surrounding the Quakes that I thought deserved to be expressed. 

Who Are The Earthquakes?

For as long as I’ve been aware of them, the San Jose Earthquakes have been a ho-hum middle-tier American soccer brand - not the LA Galaxy, D.C. United or (more recently) the Portland Timbers; not the Mutiny or the Wiz either. They were staked to some non-offensive stretch of territory between those two extremes; never too prominent, but also never outright ignored. Yes, San Jose’s club used the questionable moniker ‘Clash’ for a few years there, but even that seemed more charmingly naive than actually lame (like, say, ‘MetroStars’).

Let’s look at the brand’s visual history:

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Clockwise, from the bottom:

1. The soccer ball is a desk globe, “quaking” inside a few scare quotes. A C-shaped clamp holds it in place; still, the force of the quake is powerful enough to jumble the letters in the wordmark.  It was the 70s, and it was soccer.  I mean, what did you expect?

2. The quake gets stronger, and here we have a soccer ball (Planet Earth?) being split completely apart, creating a kind of burgundy-tinged armageddon scenario. Possibly even more “70s” than the first entry. 

3. The franchise is reborn as the Clash, another one of those early M.L.S. team names that seemed to try to combine references to vaguely British stuff (because that’s where soccer’s from, innit!) with brandable, futuristic buzzwords. ‘Clash’ was a particularly bizarre formulation. The identity included elements of: a recognizable, counter-culture English band, a 90s-appropriate non-plural American team name, and a snap-back cap ready scorpion logo. It was quietly changed after a few years. I still like the shirts

4. A youth soccer crest saves the day, complete with a smelly ball!  The re-adoption of ‘Earthquakes’ is complete.

5. Back from hibernation in a new, fresher scent!

This brings us up to today, and…

6. The rebrand that didn’t really move the needle. 

Reactions to the newest Quakes logo seemed to fall on a spectrum between “it’s better, so, that’s good!” and “it’s not amazing, but what are you gonna do?” I should note that as a logo, it does offer some improvement over the previous crest. The shape is cleaner, and self-contained. The tone is more serious. The color palette is more grown up. There are no busy gradients or drop-shadows. The overall look doesn’t seem to be trying too hard anymore, a sin that almost all M.L.S. crests have been guilty of at one point or another. The diagonal fault-line graphic is, by itself, an inspired touch - as are the decisions to honor the angle of the original logo’s “globe” axis line, and to include elements of the team’s original red color scheme.  

But the end result does not represent positive change. Why? For me, this can be answered two ways. The first is via a critique of the crest itself; as a stand-alone piece of design, I don’t find it overwhelmingly successful. Allow me to illustrate: 

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Particularly, and most importantly, the sense balance is way, way off.  Some of the space is crammed full of stuff, and other space is completely dead and empty - not in the “good negative space way”, but more in the “deserted storefront at the mall” way.  Furthermore, the over-reliance on various stripes and strokes is visually confusing - of what use are the different width lines tracing along every border? Instead of enhancing the design, they clutter it, and ask the eye to process too much at once.  The capper? The use of a Telstar youth soccer ball, which is completely silly and something I had hoped big-time American soccer had moved beyond.

That’s just a design critique, however; the second and more important criticism is that the outcome of this redesign project represents the loss of a chance to do something visually amazing with the Earthquakes brand. Even if this design makes things marginally better (and I’d sign on to that idea - it does), it means “marginally better” is what fans and the public are stuck with for the next, what - decade? Maybe more? With an ownership that understands soccer, and a brand that has roots in the sport’s pre-M.L.S. bedrock, I’m a bit surprised that this design was deemed good enough. From my perspective, it isn’t.  

So: 1.) the Earthquakes redesign isn’t great design, and 2.) it cemented over the space where great design could have gone. And that’s why it’s worth responding to. 

A Principled Approach

Author’s note: Interested in more American soccer identity work? I’ve published pieces on several teams. Feel free to read on.

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New England Revolution

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New York City F.C.

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Columbus Crew

Thanks for reading!

Here are a few guiding principles that should inform any modern American sports rebrand: 

Define the problems, then solve them. Design is visual problem-solving. San Jose’s recently released logo does none of this. It leaves almost every “solution” in the mix, and makes no tough choices. It’s clear that good visual research was done, that problems were correctly identified, and the right intentions were in place, but the resulting logo simply tossed a few too many ideas inside a shield shape, added a bunch of strokes, and called it a day.  A disciplined approach - one which prioritized solving problems like “where do the NASL Quakes and today’s club visually overlap?” and “how can we reference shapes and patterns from San Jose’s visual history in a balanced, elegant way?” and “how might a new logo move the club beyond regional brand recognition?” – would have delivered a different outcome.  

Stop talking down, visually, to audiences. The soccer ball – especially the clip-art, youth soccer ball – is, in 2014, a bit of a visual insult. OK, true - it’s not hurting anybody. But it is communicating three distinct messages. 1. We need to tell everybody what sport we play, because our brand isn’t very strong.  2. We need to do so in a way that references every cliché you already know about our sport. 3. If you already know and love and get the Quakes, well, this crest isn’t designed for you. It’s for people who couldn’t even tell you what we play, or even what we are. Too harsh? Maybe a bit - but it’s kind of sad that, in 2014, the Quakes don’t give their audience more credit (and can’t bring themselves to straight-up ignore those who barely care anyway). Yes, identities have had the Telstar soccer ball design for years; once, it was acceptable in new American soccer identity work. It’s not any longer.  

Stop limiting your brand’s potential. This extends the previous point; unfortunately for the Quakes, when you use a clip-art-y image like that soccer ball so prominently, you automatically limit how easily your mark can stand for bigger, bolder themes, or how easily it can take on gravity of larger ideas.  This is why great brands are apt to remove specific identifiers over time, not add them. It gives them the space to grow in new, interesting, lucrative directions, to take on new markets, and to mean new things to new people. The Quakes brand, in particular, could stand to grow beyond the San Jose moniker, and capture the hearts and minds of the larger, more diverse San Francisco metro area – especially with a new stadium on the horizon. The best way for this to happen (beyond sustained on-field success, of course) is armed with a brand built to grow, one designed to represent not just San Jose, but the Bay Area and beyond with grace and ease.  

Give people something they want to show off.  Does your new mark inspire people?  Is it fashionable in its own right - not just as a signifier of what the club does, but as a symbol that seems confident and intriguing?  If you saw somebody pass you with the logo on a baseball cap or a t-shirt, would you wonder what it was, and feel the need to figure it out – almost like they already knew about something great you just had to discover?

Marry the historic and the modern to create something new. With their new identity, the Quakes identified historic and modern components quite well. But they didn’t create anything from the way they played together.  They simply took some history (some red text on the logo, a founding date, an axis line, and a red jersey) and put it next to some new stuff (like the fault line motif, and the new wordmark.) There doesn’t seem to be any creative craft happening; it’s all just floating there in a shield-shaped soup bowl.

After Principles, Influences

I’d like to try to apply principles above to the Quakes’ identity, up to and including the one that they’re currently using. In fact, to start, let’s take a closer look at all of the club’s old identities - and see what resonates. 

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That gives us a few good staring points.  Next, let’s introduce some additional factors that I think the club should be considering. Some of these, like the Q and the fault line vector, come directly from the club’s own work, aspects of which – again – were quite inspired.   

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Now we have our influences. Where does that leave us? 

A New Direction

Given the Quakes’ history, their current positioning, and the influences I think they should be mindful of, I’ve worked up a few branding ideas. First, a crest and primary logo.  

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Some basics: The general shape is that of a round, Q character, with concentric black, red and white circles sliced apart by the now-familiar blue and white “fault line” vector – in just the way a Q is parted by its bottom stroke. The circles honor several ideas; the original “clamp” of the Quake’s globe logo; the “split ball” shape of the other 1970s identity, the curl of the Clash scorpion’s tail, and even the letter “C” itself, which honors a bit of the club’s naming history.  The logo’s circular components also reference the iconic bulls-eye graphic that a tremor’s epicenter is usually marked with, and the generally round shapes that keep popping up when the influences of this identity is explored.  The idea of three - for San Jose, San Fransisco and Oakland, the three Bay Area communities - is referenced in both the triplicate vector stripe (blue-white-blue), and the three overlapping circles (black, red, and white)

The blue fault lines play against the circles, in both color and shape; instead of red and black, they’re blue and white; instead of round and holistic, they’re angular and sharp. This creates a nice sense of tension and energy in the mark.  The vector lines pierce the circle, creating the idea of a powerful tremor strike and forming the complete Q character itself.  The complete idea becomes even more pronounced and obvious on non-white backgrounds:

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The added white exterior ring, with Q stroke, reinforces the shape as a Q character – and as a completely unique and dynamic mark in its own right.

Below the mark, I’ve added the club’s founding year in an angular sans (Minima).  The characters in the typography echo the vector’s slashing, diagonal nature, an effect I really liked.  Above the original logo, the word mark is set in that same typeface, with plenty of horizontal space to add a little dramatic flair to the name.  The ‘Q’ in Earthquakes gets a little extra size bump given the crucial role it plays in the identity.  

The logo is comprised of simple, solid shapes; this creates a memorable primary impression, and sets the stage for almost limitless visual creativity.

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Color and tone are completely flexible.

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One thing that really works well for this idea: much of the effort the club put into establishing its pedigree and linking itself to its NASL incarnation could be retained. The fault line vector idea is completely relevant and awesome; it stays as a core visual component. But it can stand for more, and be deployed more beautifully, in an application like this one.  

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And it’s not just the vector I’ve retained from the Quakes’ own new identity work – the idea of adding red; the addition of the founding year; the references to the original angled axis – they’re all still here too. They’re just a bit more polished, and they work together in a way that is more iconic, more unifying, and more powerful than the mark the Quakes use now.

By emphasizing the mark itself, the brand has the airspace to grow as large as it wants - from San Jose, to San Francisco, to the entire northern California region and beyond. 

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Above, an example of the club writ large in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, fitting right in with a decidedly young, urban cultural landscape - and one that prioritizes strong visual identity to boot. Nothing more needs to be said; the logo itself does all the heavy lifting. This kind of branding needs to be part of the Quakes’ thinking; unfortunately I don’t believe the current logo is designed to do this kind of work – not regionally or demographically.

Let’s talk jerseys. I quite like what the Earthquakes have done with their current kit, and how prominently they’re featuring the fault line graphic in the textile design. Why change a good thing? These are the Quakes’ actual 2014 shirts with the redesigned crest swapped in for the current one.

In traditional blue & black:

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And in throwback red:

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Simple and beautiful, each. 

(Quick aside: When it comes to crests working on a jersey, somewhere along the line I invented a mental test of worthiness. Imagine a player scoring a hugely dramatic goal, and then, the highlight-reel, slow-motion celebration begins. He rushes over toward the supporters section, maybe hurdling over one of those electronic signboard things like a man possessed. His mouth is joyously open and howling, his clasped fist beats down on his own chest and the club crest over his heart, as if to emphasize the idea: “I do it for you guys.” The crowd explodes around him as his teammates reach him in ecstasy.

Does the crest belong in that moment?  Does it look cool and dramatic – or silly and awkward? During moments as big as the club expects to have, the crest has to fit. I think this one passes that test.)

The main crest mark could be used in all kinds of ways; as a crest, an icon, an avatar or an imprimatur of mood. It’s a singular piece of design. But sometimes, you need words. This is where things could get really interesting; you could extend the main mark in a few very cool ways, one of which is something I’d call the “outlined” mark.  

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With this extension of the main design, words replace the two concentric circles, and the fault line vector becomes a stroked outline in the same weight as the text. This gives you a lightweight way to convey text-based messages, on brand, without losing any equity or creating any confusion.  But it does more, too: it offers the chance for creativity. Slogans, in particular, lend themselves perfectly to this rendition of the logo.

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You can even do more interesting variations once you’ve established the pattern.

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The entire system is powerful, interesting, unique - and would position a mid-tier M.L.S. brand to be something much larger, if it so wanted.  

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The directions you could take an identity system like this are boundless; the opportunities to play with the design language would unfold for a long time. I think supporters, in particular, would be well served.  

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It’s not perfect, and it’s just one guy’s opinion. But when you consider where the Quakes have come from, what they’ve been through, where they are, and where they’re going, I think it’s a fitting approach.

This piece was written and produced, and the marks within designed, by Mark Willis. For questions or comment, find Mark at (@M_Willis). 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!

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