The Design Museum’s football exhibition tackles the world’s most popular sport

Football: Designing the Beautiful Game traces the rise of football to global phenomenon, and the design story behind it.

The Design Museum’s new exhibition opens with some impressive statistics about its subject. Around the world, some 265 million people play football regularly. It’s estimated that 3.5 billion people (over half the world’s population) watched the 2018 World Cup. Even without those figures, the love for the football is obvious – reaching a fever pitch in England last summer with the Euros final. Football: Designing the Beautiful Game adds a new spin on the phenomenon, considering how design helped football take over the world.

To some, football and design may seem like distinct entities. But from the first items of display – school footballs used at a time when the rules were still being formalised – it’s clear that every aspect of the sport has been through a design process. The most recent football on display shows just how much things have changed. A result of eight years of research and testing, 2020’s Nike Flight ball has aerodynamic geometric patterns for what the sports brand bills “truer flight”.

The exhibition has a comprehensive scale. Five sections take visitors through the design story of football, from performance, identity, crowds, spectacle to play. Architectural studio OMMX is responsible for the 3D design, which includes an immersive half-time room, while Shaz Madani is behind the 2D design. Lima studio has crafted a series of interactive features, including animated content and areas for children to design their own football kit.

Carney’s banners. Courtesy of Felix Speller

One of the prevailing tensions explored throughout the exhibition is between football and the infrastructure that has built up around it. As the museum outlines: “It is a simple game but a complex industry.” That’s particularly clear in the section dedicated to identity. Though football’s graphic design roots are relatively simple – as shown by Umbro’s pattern template kit from the 1950s – a complex culture soon developed around it. Some football kits become fan favourites, while others are ridiculed. And shirts with specific sponsors can become collector’s items, like the exhibition’s West Ham home kit complete with a Dr. Martens wordmark.

This sector also highlights what exhibition curator Eleanor Watson calls the “formal and informal design outputs” within football. A good example of the latter is Liverpool supporter Peter Carney’s banners, made to be displayed at the home seats at Anfield. Carney is not a designer but his oversized banners – crafted for Liverpool’s players, coaches and victories – now hang in the Design Museum. Perhaps most powerful is a pair of Hillsborough memorial banners; Carney designed the first in the aftermath of the tragedy and the second 20 years later.

Another memorable display is a set of hooligan calling cards – designed and printed by rival team supporters. These cards, which usually parodied British institutions like Network Rail, were dropped at the site of brawls by the winning team’s supporters. As Watson points out, there’s a contradiction in our idea of a football hooligan and the dedicated individual who designs and prints their own calling cards as a craft project. It is yet another tension in the exhibition, she explains – between people who would not consider themselves designers but nevertheless contributed “vibrant, often witty, and rich visual languages to the sport”.

Designing the new Brazilian kit. Courtesy of Felix Speller

Despite all the elements used to elevate and control football – from high-level tactics to endurance training and material innovation – an “incredible level of superstition persists”, says Watson. That can be both a joy and pain for fans. After Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup final to Uruguay, the country’s all-white kit fell out of favour, deemed bad luck. A design competition was launched to find Brazil’s new kit. The only requirement? That it contain all four colours of Brazil’s flag. Newspaper illustrator Aldyr Garcia Schlee ended up winning – his sketches for the country’s new kit show the beginnings of the instantly-recognisable green, yellow, white and blue colourway.

The show is also a chance to spotlight some of the unsung heroes of football design. The exhibition showcases the 2011 Real Madrid typeface and 2005 Fenerbahçe typeface, both designed by Anthony Barnett for team shirts. It speaks to the evolving status of design within football branding; a bespoke typeface can distinguish a club’s identity but it can also help prevent counterfeiting. Despite designing for major league clubs, Barnett has stayed under the radar as sportwear manufacturers have a habit of not crediting designers for their work.

Courtesy of Felix Speller

The exhibition’s tensions were an inspiration for its 3D design, explains OMMX director Jon Lopez. While an overarching grid-like structure is used to demarcate the five themes, this is occasionally broken up with unexpected materials or a large-scale display of football shirts, for example. The contrasting design choices were an attempt to seek a balance between “the formal and the improvised”, he adds. The half-time room was a particularly happy marriage between the show’s theme and the visitors’ requirements, explains Lopez. In the blue-walled room, visitors can take a rest on the stairs and watch clips from classic matches.

Though it was not an attempt to recreate a stadium in a realistic way – the scales are so different that it would be almost impossible – the room does mirror certain stadium-specific feelings, according to Lopez. The sense of being sat among other people, for example. He explains that the contradictions of stadium interiors, which feel open even though they’re enclosed, have influenced the look and feel of the exhibition more widely, with its mesh room separators and undercurrent of crowd noise.

Football: Designing the Beautiful Game runs from 8 April – 29 August 2022 at London’s Design Museum. For more information on opening hours and ticket prices, please visit the museum’s website.

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