The Resurgence of Retro Sports Design; A Conversation with Charles Nix

Posted inDesigner Interviews

The New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox played against each other this past August, which by itself isn’t much to write home about.  

But this wasn’t just any baseball game. Instead, it was the MLB’s first-ever “Field of Dreams” game. Played in Dyersville, Iowa, it took place on an infamous baseball diamond built in a cornfield for the beloved 1989 flick, Field of Dreams.  

The much-hyped game serves as a hallmark of a growing trend in professional sports toward nostalgia and nods to a franchise’s past. One of the ways this retro resurgence has manifested is within the sports design industry, with throwback jerseys and allusions to vintage sports branding on the rise across professional leagues. In the past year, the San Diego Padres returned to their brown and gold pinstripe roots while the Green Bay Packers unleashed a “new” vintage-inspired look that harkens back to their 50s uniforms. The NBA also recently unveiled designs for “Classic Edition” uniforms to mark their 75th anniversary in the 2021-22 season, which the league’s three original franchises—the Celtics, Knicks, and Warriors—will wear.

To help us better understand the resurgence of retro aesthetics in the sports world, I chatted with the ever-insightful Charles Nix. Nix serves as the Creative Type Director at Monotype, where he has been part of design teams that have created fonts for sports juggernauts like the English Premier League and MotoGP.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

First off, can you share a bit about your relationship to sports and your interest in the sports design industry? 

I grew up in the midwest in the 70s, and it was a time when everyone played little league, football, and basketball. Like most people steeped in sports, I spent a lot of time in the street in front of my house playing catch with my dad. When I think of the pull of sports for me, it’s a religion of sorts—that might be heretical to say—but in the US, especially, baseball is very much like an organized religion. It has that devoted following and a long tradition. 

That’s part of what fascinates me about sports. Beyond that, there is the spectacle of live sports. From the moment you arrive at the stadium or the arena, there is this grandeur to it that far outweighs its utility. In the same way that there’s no utility in a marching band either, they can grip at your heart when you witness that orchestration of that many people. I feel that same draw when I go to sporting events and when I watch sports. It’s a combination of it having been a part of my childhood, but also the play of it that’s grand.

I recently spoke to the designer of the new crest for the NWSL team coming to LA in 2022, Angel City FC, and what was so interesting to me is how the actual team doesn’t even exist yet, but they already have a dedicated fanbase and sense of community, a crest, and a team in all of these other senses. Sports design is about so much more than the game itself. You’re designing the community, the look, and the feel of the franchise. The game almost feels beside the point, with the team becoming more of a brand outside of the sport itself. 

That’s interesting to me too. To put it in a branding perspective, there are so many touchpoints and so many places in which you can convey the team’s ethos. But mainly, what makes one team different from another is spelled out in all those touchpoints, from knit scarves to digital apps. It’s pretty crazy. 

I think that’s why the sports design industry is particularly ripe for this kind of vintage, retro design resurgence because of the sense of nostalgia inherent to being a fan of a team. There’s a legacy of fandom within a franchise. I grew up a Yankees fan because my dad grew up a Yankees fan, so I have this life-long love for this team tied to my love for my dad. 

To me, it makes a lot of sense. If you look back at the last year—and here’s where branding comes in line with larger social forces—just before and during the pandemic, during that highly contentious presidential campaign, and the surrounding culture war going on at the same time, there was this moment for all of us when we felt a bit untethered collectively. And some of us individually, too. Nostalgia is a beautiful way to be anchored in a time before now, and it brings the past into the present to assure us there is some future. 

Nostalgia unto itself is a disease. It’s a problem to live too much in the past, but in times of incredible strife and self-searching and doubt and worry, it’s a great way to say there was a time in our collective memory when things were different, and we felt solid. We can bring that feeling to now, and it will help us get to the next stage.

In that respect, I think branding and broader social consciousness and the events that we’re going through are all bound together. Sports exist as a sort of entertainment outside of life, as a mini-play. Teddy Roosevelt talked about football as a way of experiencing war without having to ever go to war. So it’s almost this play-act of a much more dangerous game. It’s something we can all escape into twice a week or even seven days a week, depending on how avidly you follow a sports franchise. It helps us to not just forget but to live emotions differently. 

I hadn’t even thought about it in the context of the boiling point we reached in our country last year and how that has undoubtedly fed into this thirst to look to the past where we felt more secure. There’s definitely a bit of looking back with rose-colored glasses, too, though. 

This whole idea of nostalgia and rose-colored glasses leaves us prone to cherry-picking—ignoring sexism, racism, and social inequality. Ignoring sexism, racism, and social inequality and saying, “Well, there was a time when white men were able to go play baseball!”

Like a highlight reel!

In Field of Dreams, there’s this James Earl Jones quote where he talks about how people will come back to the game to “cheer their heroes.” 

They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

It’s a beautiful, magical realism exposition about why the game of baseball and why sports generally are important to people, and I think it’s super germane to this idea of us feeling untethered and looking for a way to find center again. 

What I’m picking up on in what we’re saying is how we look to both sports and nostalgia as forms of escapism. And they can work hand in hand with each other, almost like layers of escapism. 

Sports might have that momentary elixir quality of us being able to step out of everything that is going on in our life and momentarily alleviate us and change us and allow us to experience highs and lows without the trauma. 

Can you talk a bit about the sports teams who are dipping their toes in this vintage sports design style and what they’re doing specifically?

There are the true throwbacks, like what the Green Bay Packers were doing which involved very little typography and instead was much more about echoing the overall look and feel. In the case of the Packers, that is pretty much devoid of anything except color and form, which is beautiful unto itself. But then you look at something like what the 76ers are doing, their aesthetic when you say throwback is to the 70s. So there are earmarks for each franchise that are slightly different, but I like the Sixers one the most because they’re taking it to the arena also. They’re bringing in this look and feel that’s more informed by a moment in typography when things were in flux. When things were moving from metal to film to digital. It was a feverishly flux period. There was also still a lot of handcraft involved with solid washes and modified letterforms. A lot of things that we peg as 70s-style design is a part of a shift in technology in the 70s that was pretty massive and led right into the digital revolution of typography in the 80s.

The Sixers are at the front of my mind because the era that they’re nostalgic about is more recent. I love the idea that decades pass, and what would not have been nostalgic, like the 90s or the 80s, is suddenly fodder for nostalgia. It’s not that Eisenhauer-era, post-World War II, or even 60s version; it’s a real gritty 70s version. That team in the 70s and that franchise and that city have a nice swagger and grit that I find very appealing, and I think that’s coming through in the uniforms.

Have you noticed a difference across different sports in these retro design trends? 

Football has been dancing with nostalgia for the last ten years. Throwback uniforms have been part of the game for the past decade, at least—you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers “bumblebee” uniforms. American sports might be very different in this respect from European sports, but I think about the much more forward-looking and evolutionary quality of football (soccer) kits in Europe and how the announcement of a new kit with its typography and design of uniforms is an arrival. It’s a future thing. Meanwhile, in the States, evolutions in uniforms are pretty micro year to year, but then we do these radical looks back. 

Why do you think we in America are more prone to looking backward, whereas, in Europe, they’re looking forward in terms of sports design?

The role of modernism in the US was very different than it was in Europe. Also, ours has been a very diversified population from the get-go, at least in theory. The idea of the melting pot has been a part of our national story. Whereas Britain is Britain. The Netherlands is The Netherlands. Germany is Germany. So their national soccer teams are more homogenous in their make-up, at least traditionally. And the way modernism affected those nations individually allowed them to remake themselves post-World War II. Whereas for us, it was another commercial movement in a way. It never really overhauled our culture. I don’t know if that’s fully baked as an idea, but I think that would have something to do with it. 

We’re so young, too. I wonder if we have an upstart complex that we’re trying to satisfy by constantly being nostalgic. Saying, “We have history too, but we don’t have 3,000-year-old cities.” 

Where do you see this retro sports design trend going? Do you think it will continue to build momentum or plateau and drop off?

I think it will plateau. We’re certainly not out of the woods yet politically or pandemically, but I would hope that the worst is behind us and that we’re finding stability and a way forward. Things that will carry us forward, like rethinking our infrastructure, rethinking our relationship to the environment, all of these things will give us fodder for more modern and contemporary thought so that we’re less prone to stepping back. The more progressive we get as a culture, the more of a role forward-looking design will play in it. I think this is a moment where we’re protecting ourselves in a way.

I’ve always gravitated toward retro design and aesthetics, so now you have me questioning my own mental health.

I think nostalgia was defined after World War I as a term to describe a longing that people felt for the place that they weren’t, as a way of escaping the place they were in. The view on it has certainly softened since then. 

The way that we use it now is almost the same reason we eat chocolate chip cookies when we’re watching television—it feels good. Pop-Tarts, boxed cereal—all of these things allow us to escape for a moment. There’s nothing harmful about it. But the thing that moves us forward collectively and individually is confronting the things that are wanting in our world and designing—whether it be in graphic design, product design, or just the design of our lives—toward some ideal rooted in the past but is looking forward to what we’re going to leave behind, or what we’re going to make for ourselves and our offspring. 

Maybe there’s a happy medium where we’re blending all of these things.

There’s a certain respect for elders that comes with this idea of nostalgia too. We’re paying homage to those who built before us. 

What I circle back to when I think about this blend of the old and new is how I love old-world handcrafts—bookmaking and calligraphy—yet I am very much a millennial who grew up on social media, so I do feel native to that space. I’m interested in how those two things can support one another in a way. I’ve learned so much about calligraphy, for example, by watching process videos on Instagram. It’s almost as if because of this rise in the dominance of the digital space and things that we can’t physically hold onto, there’s an equal and opposite reaction to desire tangible things that we can touch. Those two things seem at odds, but they work together in tandemas one rises, so too does the other. 

I think you just described it perfectly. Our digital selves confronting a version of us collectively as humanity that we’ve never confronted before. What does it mean to live digitally? Especially this last year—we’ve lived very digitally. I’m thinking about my experience as a youth listening to the NFL on the radio versus my experience yesterday watching the Octobox on RedZone seeing eight teams at the same time. What kind of crazy whiplash is that? 

But it’s precisely the weird, new future that we’re in, married to the nostalgia for that same me that was listening to the AM radio in the 70s. You’re living in social media and handcraft; one is informing the other. One is helping you navigate what it means to be yourself now. 

I think that we can probably say the same about nostalgia and sports. It’s helping guide its future through this digital time that it’s facing. Like what does it mean to have 5G in sports stadiums? You’re going to be watching your phone and watching a live sporting event at the same time so that you can get the referee’s reaction to a fight? Your example of social media and handcraft being tied to one another is very much parallel to the way nostalgia and sports in its digital iteration are behaving.