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EDITOR'S NOTE: Below is a full transcript of the interview Uni Watch's Paul Lukas did with uniform designer Todd Radom.
Uni Watch: How old are you?
Todd Radom: I just turned 41.
UW: Where did you grow up?
TR: In Yonkers [N.Y.].
UW: And were you a big sports fan as a kid?
TR: A big baseball fan more than anything. As a kid I was always fascinated by the visual history of the game. My father was a graphic designer and photographer; my grandfather was a painter; his father was a painter. It's an artistic family.
UW: Were you the kind of kid who was doodling team logos on your notebook in math class?
TR: Totally! And later on, I studied design at the School of Visual Arts, and my senior thesis was a triptych painting on the visual history of baseball. Another time we had to design a letterhead, envelope and business card package, which is a very typical design school project, and I did the Philadelphia Phillies.
UW: Did you play Little League, or other youth sports?
TR: Played Little League for one year, and didn't do especially well.
UW: But did you love the uniform? I mean, I can trace my own fascination with uniforms to that first Little League uni, especially the stirrups. It all seemed, like, very "official."
TR: That's an interesting question. But actually, I don't recall being particularly interested in my Little League uniform.
UW: What kind of fan were you, growing up?
TR: I've always been a Red Sox fan. It goes back to when we used to vacation out in Montauk during the summers. This was around '73 or '74, and there was no cable TV yet, and the only televised baseball you could get out at the tip of Long Island was the Red Sox broadcasts. So I watched a lot of Red Sox games.
UW: Was it your plan to get into sports design?
TR: No, I couldn't even dream of it. I had no idea how the system worked, and had no idea of who could possibly do this for a living. My first jobs after SVA were in the publishing industry, designing book jackets. I must have done over 1,000 covers. At that time, because of my love of sports in general, and baseball in particular, I got to do more baseball-related book jackets than anyone else. So I built up a portfolio of baseball books. One of the biggest thrills of life was going to a Red Sox game around 1989 and seeing an ad in the program that featured one of my covers. I thought, "Oh my god, I've made the big time."
UW: How did you move from publishing to the actual sports world?
TR: There came a point, around 1990 or so, when I had built up enough of a portfolio of baseball book covers, and I dropped it off at Major League Baseball. I thought, why not? Sure enough, I got a call back from the creative director of Major League Baseball Properties, and he said, "We like your stuff and we want to meet with you." So I went in there and said, "Look, if anyone knows your demographic, it's me," because I was the typical baseball fan. The first job I got was a minor league logo for the Knoxville Smokies I think they were single-A, a Blue Jays affiliate. They tested me out on a few other things, like the logo for a Dodgers tour of Asia, that kind of thing.
UW: And then you got the Brewers, which was your first opportunity to do the uniforms and identity for a major league team.
TR: Yes. It was the spring of '93.
UW: And how did that feel? I mean, there you are, designing a big league team's uniforms. Did you feel like you were living out a fantasy?
TR: I still am. I pinch myself. The greatest thing in the world is to see my work in this context. I'll never be a ballplayer, so this is the closest I can come. It's great!
UW: So in addition to the Brewers, what else have you done?
TR: The Angels' current uniforms, the Brooklyn Cyclones that was one of my favorite jobs ever and a lot of sleeve patches: the 2003 World Series, the Hank Aaron patch, the Jackie Robinson patch, the American League 100th-anniversary patch, some stadium-closing patches. And of course, the new Washington Nationals.
UW: And how did you branch off into the other sports?
TR: There came a point where it made sense to diversify. In early 1997, I designed the logo for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Armed with that, I was able to get work from the NBA. I've done some of their Opening Day marks, and the Indiana Fever logo for the WNBA. Lots of licensing stuff. I still do some stuff for them, but not too much.
UW: What about football?
TR: The NFL approached me in 2001. I designed the logo for Super Bowl XXXVIII, and I've done some other stuff for them. I did this year's Pro Bowl logo, and I did a secondary logo for the Cleveland Browns the bulldog. I own a bulldog myself, so I had great visual reference for that one.
UW: How about hockey?
TR: I've never worked with the NHL. They're very strange they'll only work with certain people, and it's tough to crack the code.
UW: OK, so millions of fans see your work. But almost none of them know who you are. And a lot of them may not even want to know, because they want to think of their favorite logo or uniform as being a pure extension of the team they may not want to think about someone like you being involved in the creative process. What's it like to be so anonymous in such a high-profile field?
TR: Any creative person has an ego. But celebrity designers offend me it's nice to have recognition, certainly, but the anonymity goes with the territory. This isn't brain surgery, I'm not changing people's lives.
UW: I think that's an arguable point, actually you have a huge impact on something that people feel very strongly about.
TR: It's not so important in the grand scheme of the world that I need any greater recognition.
UW: Most sports fans also have a rather intense feeling of ownership regarding their teams' graphics. What's it like working on a design knowing that it'll be scrutinized by millions of fans, and knowing that some of them may not like it, and that some of them may even resent it?
TR: That's where the anonymity comes in handy! But again, that kind of reaction comes with the territory. It's a great challenge, no question about it. If you were to come to me and say, "I have a great assignment for you: Redesign the Boston Red Sox logo," it would be a daunting challenge, but I'd be up for it. I know that with almost any design, about a third will absolutely hate it, for whatever reason some people are just resistant to change, or whatever. Another third will be apathetic. And you can probably slice the other third up into the ones who'll think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread and the ones who'll say, "Well, it's pretty good, but it could've been better if you'd done this, this, and this."
UW: Given how strongly fans feel about this stuff, do you feel a big responsibility?
TR: Absolutely. Also, in this day and age, where there's a Wal-Mart in every town and so much of the country looks the same, I love the fact that in sports, Kansas City looks different than Los Angeles. I try to put myself in the shoes of the local audience. But it's tricky these are brands, and they have soul and personality. It's different than doing a logo for UPS.
UW: How do you feel when you hear criticism, either from a fan or from someone like me?
TR: As I always say, there is no right or wrong in design there's no way to quantify it. People will have their opinions, and that's fine. Criticism is what it is.
UW: How do you feel when you see your designs, your work, out there on the playing field?
TR: I pinch myself seriously. It's the greatest thing in the world. And since I'm so invested in being a fan, not just as a professional, I can't imagine that I'll ever lose that feeling.
UW: Do you ever get feedback from the players?
TR: No. That's beyond my world.
UW: Has working in the business ever forced you to reconsider your rooting interests? Like, have you ever had to do a design for a team you didn't like?
TR: I'll never root for the Yankees, but I could do a design for them. It wouldn't feel like one of my children, the way some other designs do, but I'm a professional, I could do it. Basically, you just have to separate your passion from your professionalism sometimes.
UW: How would you describe your aesthetic tastes?
TR: I'm a traditionalist in sports and in general. I've got Stickley furniture, I like streamlining, I'm not into modern art. As far as my work, I like to consider myself a craftsman. I love ribbons, I love pageantry, heraldry, old luggage tags, fruit crate labels, license plates, old beer bottles, things like that those are big influences. More than anything, I'm a type guy: My work is typographically driven. I like to disassemble things and put them back together, stretch them out.
UW: I notice there are lots of industrial details in your work a bridge here, a metal railing there.
TR: I'm fascinated by architecture. One of my favorite things I've done is the Fenway Park 90th-anniversary logo, because it incorporates the actual Fenway Park building into the mark.
UW: And you're obviously very into banners and flags.
UW: What's that about?
TR: Well, it's part of the tradition of baseball. If you look at baseball art or any kind of advertising art from the 1880s or 1890s, you see lots of little banners and things.
UW: Let's go sport by sport. For each sport, tell me your favorite uniform. Let's start with baseball.
TR: That's an interesting question. I mean, how can you possibly compare the Dodgers and Tigers to the Blue Jays? Vive le difference. I mean, there's something wonderful about the Astros' old rainbow uniforms you wouldn't design that today, but they're every bit as wonderful, in their own way, as the Detroit Tigers' "D." So it's hard to pick one. But if you insist, I'd have to say the Braves. I love the double piping, especially on the belt loops. Hard to improve upon.
TR: I like the Giants love the gray pants. They look like a football team. The Eagles are good. The Kansas City Chiefs, the Packers.
TR: I like some of the recent updates, like the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Lakers' yellow uniforms always intrigued me those white alternates that they've been wearing have sort of ruined that for me a bit. The Pistons. Even the Knicks and the Celtics. You can see where I'm going the classics.
TR: The Montreal Canadiens. How could you not love that? Especially the road uniform with the stripe in the middle. Used to like the Bruins and the Maple Leafs more, before they started adding little extra touches that mussed them up. It's unnecessary it feels like change for change's sake. But the NHL has some great logos and uniforms, like the Flyers, and Pittsburgh's skating penguin.
UW: Which bygone trends do you wish would come back?
TR: Powder blue road uniforms in baseball. It would have to be the right club. I think if the Royals went back to that, it would be appropriate. Or if the Devil Rays tried it, it could work. There's no reason they couldn't step back to that era and emulate it. There was something wonderful about the powder blues. Of course I miss the socks and stirrups; I miss the Red Sox with their striped stirrups I wish those would come back. And they probably will, because everything comes around again.
UW: Which current trend do you wish would go away?
TR: I'm getting pretty tired of NBA uniforms being big in the shoulders and shiny. I'm not thrilled with that. Baseball is in a pretty good place right now, I think, unless the White Sox decide to wear shorts again. I'm not big on vests it was great when the Marlins and Angels did it back in the '90s, but now too many teams are doing it. Like any other trend, it stops being interesting when too many people do it.
UW: Most people probably have no idea of the process of how a uniform design or logo gets created. Can you walk us through the basic sequence?
TR: Generally speaking, you'll get a phone call with the assignment, and you'll have two to three weeks to do the initial sketches. If it's a team identity, I'll try to come up with eight to 10 possibilities. And I know that there's going to be some mixing and matching people will like a certain element from this drawing and another element from another drawing. One from column A, one from column B. If a client comes back from that first round and likes nothing, you're in deep trouble. But that very seldom happens.
UW: Now, when you say, "the client," do you mean the league or the team?
TR: You're usually getting the commission from the properties division of a league, and that's who you're dealing with. They work as the middleman between the designer and the team. So in the next phase, you go through multiple revisions to winnow things down. So you go from those original eight to 10 drawings down to five, then down to three, then down to one which will then be massaged, with regard to color and small details.
UW: And what are you thinking about during this process the team's history, the market, or what?
TR: Well, your initial sketches will take into account everything from the town and the team's history, to demographics and how well the logo can function within the family of logos it needs to coexist with.
UW: Are you given some direction at the outset, like, "This team is looking for a more modern look," or "They're looking for a particular kind of feel," or whatever?
TR: Oh, sure. And you've got to do your own homework. And most logo or uniform changes are precipitated by some kind of failure on some level, whether it's the need to jump-start the team's image or whatever. And you've got to remember, any logo or uniform design needs to be practical. If I do a logo, it has to look good if it's on the side of a building, and translate equally well shrunken down to the size of a dime on a pocket schedule, and, in the context of a newspaper, it has to look good in black-and-white.
UW: And it has to be stitchable.
TR: Yes, embroidery is huge, although the quality of that has improved tremendously over the years. But it has to look good on TV, in print, on the web. Basically, you have to know that it'll work equally well across every conceivable platform and size.
UW: Are you told at the outset, "OK, you can use up to three colors here," or "This is a two-color design"?
TR: Very rarely. I don't usually like to use more than four colors there's really no reason to. There are some logos out there that have seven and eight colors, but that's crazy. I always think of the fact that anything I do is going to be touched by people whether it's suppliers, or some guy making a T-shirt somewhere, or whatever and that they shouldn't have to fuss too much with it. It should be easy to work with.
UW: Have you had to learn a lot more about textiles?
TR: That's interesting. I don't profess to know a whole lot about them, but I do think you need to know a little bit, since that's the ultimate medium for the uniform.
UW: Have you ever interacted with one of the uniform manufacturers, to discuss any aspect of textile design?
TR: Very seldom.
UW: As you've gotten more involved with this kind of work, what has surprised you most, either in terms of things that didn't work the way you thought they did, or things you never thought about to begin with?
TR: This probably shouldn't have surprised me, but it hadn't occurred to me that sports design would be influenced by other societal trends. I didn't realize that my work would have to be compromised by, or reflect, other trends that have nothing to do with me, and that I'd have to think about that and tailor my work accordingly, even if it's only a minimal amount. For example, the influence of jerseys and logos being embraced by popular culture is a surprising phenomenon that no one could have imagined 12 to 14 years ago. The enthusiasm shown for all things retro, particularly by the urban community, has returned many "lost classics" to the public eye and has proven conclusively that fashion matters too.
UW: What do you think has changed the most in uniform design over the decades?
TR: This is now a packaged product. It's targeted, it's marketed, it's a series of slickly designed professional logos. When we were kids, and before that, a uniform supplier would approach the team and suggest something, or the owner's cousin would sketch something, and it would end up out there. Now there's market research and all this stuff.
UW: Going back even further, the sporting goods supplier would say, "We're running a special on maroon felt this season," and the owner would say, "Great, we're wearing maroon this year!"
TR: Right! But now, with the advent of focus groups and things like this, it's very different. It's a marketing tool, part of a cohesive marketing plan. And it goes back to the fact that professional sports is now big business, and the licensing potential dictates that it all be well thought out and vetted and all the wonderful stuff that goes along with that.
UW: Have you ever been told that one of your designs didn't test well with a focus group?
TR: I've never been told that, but you've got to know that it goes on. And when they ask for a change in the midst of the process, it might be because of focus group feedback. Certain leagues and clients do it more than others. It's a Faustian bargain.
UW: What else has changed the most just during the time you've been in the business?
TR: It's a totally electronic business now. The Mac is a very fancy pencil. My first jobs were done by hand, but now everything's on the computer. Deadlines are much tighter as a result. And because everyone has a computer, now everybody is a type director, everybody's a designer, everybody's an expert.
UW: What has changed the most in terms of what we see on the field?
TR: The results are predicated much more in terms of trends, especially regarding color. Fashion drives a lot of this now.
UW: Color forecasting?
TR: Color forecasting is huge, absolutely huge.
UW: You mentioned that your client is usually the league 30 or 50 years ago, it would have been the team. And as you and I have discussed in the past, a lot of the most distinctive older logos, whether it's Pat Patriot or the Milwaukee Buck or Chief Wahoo, come from an era when teams did their own work on that level.
TR: That's true. It's much more centralized today.
UW: Well, so when there's somebody like yourself, who does work for several different teams, several different sports, frankly that concerns me.
TR: You mean in terms of homogenization?
UW: Yeah. I wouldn't use that term, necessarily, but I worry that there may be a certain, let's say, identifiable commonality in your work, or in any single person's work, and that tends to work against the notion of distinctiveness. And I think it's safe to say that if those older logos that I just mentioned hadn't already been created, none of them would stand a chance of making it through the focus-group process we have today.
TR: I totally agree. The Yankees' top hat logo if you were to put that in front of a focus group, without any of the equity that it's built up over 50 years, it would get laughed out of the room. No question about it. But that's the era we live in it's the way things work.
UW: Does that trouble you at all?
TR: Well, it benefits me, so it can't trouble me too much.
UW: Yeah, but is it part of that Faustian bargain you mentioned earlier? I mean, you obviously respect where this all came from, and you're a serious sports-design historian. But does it trouble you to be part of a system that works differently, and that turns out a different kind of work?
TR: I think it is what it is. I think there's obviously something wonderful about the naivete or innocence of those old logos. But I think the way the designs are created now is just part of the larger world.
UW: What do you mean when you say "naivete"?
TR: I mean they're not slick, they're not overthought. I met the guy who designed the original Chief Wahoo which is a terrible, really racist-looking Wahoo, from 1948. But the guy was very young at the time, probably around 18 years old! He was working in advertising and it never occurred to him how people would react to it. And look at the old St. Louis Browns Brownie character it's totally innocent, you'd never do that today. You'd have to give him gritted teeth or something.
UW: So is that something that's been lost, that gentle, homespun sense of innocence?
UW: Well, then I ask again: As somebody participating in a less innocent, more overthought, focus group-driven system, does that trouble you?
TR: Again, I say it is what it is. I'm a 21st-century man and you react to the times that you live in. Also, remember, this is commercial art, and commercial art is exactly what it says it is it's not fine art.
UW: Yeah, but you think of it as fine art. A little while ago you were showing me some early logos and old designs, and there was love in your voice as you talked about them.
TR: Well, it is and it isn't. It's going to touch people's passions, but it's not going to change the world, and it's meant to sell a product. I can't get too wrapped up in the fact that a client asks me to revise something 50 times, because they're the client, and it's commercial in nature. If I couldn't handle that, I'd be a fine artist. And this is how graphic designers are trained to be.
UW: Somewhat connected to this same point, my impression is that all the leagues these days are much more interested in creating a cohesive league identity than they are in having distinctive team identities. Not to the point where each team in a league feels like it was cut from the same template, but something close to that. Do you agree?
TR: Absolutely. And the big bang of that was in 1963, when the NFL formed NFL Properties. The guy who did that essentially said, "We can better sell our brands if we work as a cohesive unit." They understood branding at a very early date.
UW: Right, that's why Pete Rozelle had all the teams come up with a helmet logo once the league got its first national TV contract.
TR: Exactly. And now it's the same with all the leagues. They all have properties divisions, so they need standardized approaches not just for what you see on the field, but for merchandising.
UW: How big a role does merchandising play in team design these days?
TR: It's big, very big.
UW: And that's part of what you're thinking about when you do a design for a team?
TR: Sure. First and foremost, an identity for a professional sports team has to sell a product. That's a big part of what it is.
UW: Do you have a personal stake in the merchandising? Like, if the Angels sell a lot of merch, do you get a piece of that pie?
TR: No. I get a flat fee.
UW: In Europe, it's common to see advertising on uniforms, but the American fan base has resisted it. Do you think we'll ever have advertising on uniforms?
TR: Absolutely. I think it's inevitable, probably within the next five years. But I think baseball will be the last holdout, because it's so tradition-based. People are very sensitive to what happens between the lines. In the NHL, you can put an ad out at center ice and nobody bats an eye. And who knows, when the NHL finally comes back, you might see a Pepsi logo on the Rangers' jersey.
UW: You already see that in minor league hockey, where the jerseys have those ugly ad patches.
TR: It's all predicated on revenue streams. As revenue sources get tapped out club seats, signage in ballparks I think eventually they'll turn to uniform ads.
UW: I find it amusing that Europeans often criticize America for being so commercial and materialistic, but this is one area where they've sold out and we haven't.
TR: The first time it happens here, it'll look funny and there'll be an outcry, but then people will get used to it and move on. It was the same with corporate names for stadiums.
UW: Yeah, but there was already a long history of that I mean, Wrigley Field!
TR: OK, but you know what happened when August Busch bought the Cardinals in the late 1950s, right? He said, "I'm gonna change the name of the stadium from Sportsman's Park to Budweiser Stadium." And the other owners were up in arms about it. So he said, "OK, I'll call it Busch Stadium." And, the story goes, the next day he called the brewery and said, "We're gonna start making a new brand of beer, called Busch."
UW: And today they'd probably just let him call it Budweiser Stadium.
TR: When they build the new Yankee Stadium and call it Verizon Stadium and it's gonna happen that's when you'll really see people up in arms.
UW: So if uniforms do start having advertising, I assume you think that's a bad idea?
TR: Well, for starters, it diminishes the team's brand. Like, during the Super Bowl, the TV network marries up their logo to the Super Bowl logo. And Fox does a good job of it, actually they make a good match of the fonts, and it matches up nicely. But the second they do that, it dilutes the Super Bowl brand.
UW: Any other predictions?
TR: I think we're in the midst of this back-to-basics period, which began in 1987, when the Braves brought back their tomahawk jersey.
UW: Just like stadiums are back to basics now.
TR: Yeah, but while the stadiums are retro, they're actually quite complex, with all sorts of signs and graphics. With the uniforms, a lot of them are getting very simple it's what I call devolving. Look at the most recent NBA logos, like the Memphis Grizzlies it's a nice mark, but it's quite simple, and their jerseys are quite unembellished, devoid of detail. I think we're going to see more of this less trim, less outlines, more simplicity. I don't know how much longer it'll go on, but it hasn't crested yet. And I do think we're going to keep seeing more third jerseys and alternate logos they're here to stay, and they obviously drive merchandise sales.
UW: What's your dream assignment?
TR: That's an interesting question. I like to think I'm ready for anything. There is no single dream assignment.
UW: There's no one team you'd love to get your hands on?
UW: Anything we haven't talked about that you want to discuss?
TR: Baseball caps. I hate the tall silhouette they use now. They're totally blocky ...
UW: You prefer the slouchy profile?
TR: Yeah, I like the more rounded look. And I find that when it comes to today's headwear, the dimension of the embroidery drives me nuts.
UW: You mean the three-dimensional cap logos, the way they "pop" forward from the cap?
TR: Yeah. The logo used to be flush with the cap, but now they use foam to make it project. It's ridiculous! It's gotten to the point where it's so dimensional that details are lost, and as a result it can inhibit your design.