“It’s not about competing with men”: how design can support women’s sport

We speak to designers about how their work is helping women’s sport grow and make more of an impact.

Prior to the pandemic, women’s sport was on an uncontested upward trajectory. A Nielsen Sports study across the UK, US, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia and New Zealand found that 84% of sports fans were interested in women’s sports. It also found that the gender balance between fans was almost completely equal, with men and women making up 51% and 49% of that audience respectively.

As with many industries, the coronavirus pandemic challenged the progress that has been made in recent years. Earlier this year, a report found 80% of female athletes believed the pandemic had hindered the growth of women’s sport, further entrenching the inequalities against their male counterparts.

Despite this, there are a number of high-profile sporting events scheduled for 2022 and beyond. And across disciplines, designers are being engaged to help distinguish sporting leagues, events, games and competitions.

DesignStudio for Women in Rugby

“There is no one way to be on a rugby pitch”

According to DesignStudio creative director Elise Santangelo-Rous, branding for women’s sport shouldn’t concentrate on proving itself in comparison with men’s sport. “We wanted to move away from being comparative to men’s rugby, to show women’s is a distinct sport in its own right,” she says. When DesignStudio was tasked with designing the brand for Women in Rugby, the team says it did so guided by the inherent inclusivity found on and off the rugby pitch.

“We had this idea that it was the differences in a team that actually made it stronger,” Santangelo-Rous says, explaining that time spent with players and coaches from the grassroots to the upper echelons of the sport helped form this belief. It also helped to develop the identity’s driving theme of “Team Powered”.

DesignStudio for Women in Rugby

The idea of inclusivity manifests itself in different ways across the identity and wider campaign. Senior DesignStudio designer Daisy Grice points to the bold illustrative style – for which the team worked with Argentinian-born illustrator Xoana Herrera – as an example. “Each of the women featured in the illustrations has her own look and body shape, showing there is no one way to be on a rugby pitch,” she says.

DesignStudio’s “team” of rugby players offers the added benefit of versatility to the Women in Rugby identity. Player illustrations can be configured in countless ways offering what Grice calls a “hyper-flexible graphic system”. “It is capable of working on anything from local leaflets to giant stadium wraps,” she says.

LOVB branding

“The juxtaposition of intense athleticism paired with qualities of care”

Beyond inclusivity, another note the team was keen to hit was positivity. “A lot of women’s sport campaigns in the past have done the ‘aggressive’ or ‘competitive’ thing already,” says Santangelo-Rous. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it wasn’t an aesthetic the team wanted for Women in Rugby, she says. This is why the colour scheme is bright and video used is dynamic and animated. The accompanying campaign video and tone of voice also concentrates on rugby as something supportive and social too.

Katlyn Gao, founder of the recently established League One Volleyball (LOVB, pronounced “love”) says something similar drove the development of her brand. “We questioned having to default to the conventional combative attitude and language around the sport,” Gao says. “Sports have always been surrounded by language and imagery that focuses solely on crushing the opposition’ or the court as a ‘battlefield’.”

LOVB branding

Instead of this, Gao says the branding developed between herself and LOVB creative director Patrick Cox focuses instead on the “grace and power” that is inherent to the sport of volleyball. “We liked the juxtaposition of intense athleticism paired with qualities of care, collaboration, intuition, and empathy,” she explains.

The most obvious example of this is the LOVB name, but the theme can also be found elsewhere in the identity. Gao explains the colour palette used throughout is a combination of pastels and vibrant neons, to show that duality of “athleticism and care”. Additionally, photography principals are dedicated to showing real players on and off the court, acting with “ease and connectedness”, Gao says.

FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 branding

“Respect the event’s legacy but also look to define its future”

The ultimate aim, Gao explains, was to invite people to question “what they think of when they think of an American sports league”. Because LOVB was a new entity, embedding that inherent challenge was important.

It was different when FIFA engaged the help of design studios Works Collective and Public Address to develop the identity for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, as he brief stated the look needed to both “respect the event’s legacy but also look to define its future”, according to Works Collective founder Nate Morley.

This is why the tournament logo departs from the tradition of depicting the winning trophy, Morely says. Instead, the 2023 logo features 32 squares representing the 32 countries that will compete – and the circular motif is reflective of the many Indigenous Australian and New Zealand cultures.

FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 branding

Public Address co-founder and chief creative officer Chris Braden adds that in engaging the work of Fiona Collis and Chern’ee Sutton – artists from New Zealand and Australia respectively – helped to place the brand in a cultural context. “We thought about how we can celebrate women athletes, but also make it a tournament — and movement — that anyone could be inspired by and be part of,” he says.

The theme of universality is also promoted by Gao and the DesignStudio team. For Women in Rugby, Santangelo-Rous highlights the need to strike a balance between “localising the sport and making the message international” – while the brand and campaign are international, it needed to be just as easy to use for grassroots teams as for the highest levels.

“We wanted to create something long-lasting, which teams could feel they owned,” she says.

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