The mid 1990’s was a great time to be working at NIKE. Especially for those of us who were working in the NIKE Team Sports (NTS) division of NIKE Apparel. There was a big push to be on-field with marquee professional and college teams in order to add authenticity to NIKE’s licensed apparel business. Often times we worked hand in hand with footwear designers on complete head to toe looks that pushed the boundaries on performance during competition.
As an on field partner, we were in a unique position to not only outfit athletes head to toe with the swoosh, but we strengthened partnerships by designing new identities for a number of teams including the Florida State Seminoles, Georgetown Hoyas, Washington Huskies, Miami Hurricanes, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trailblazers, New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Oregon Ducks.
I was hired as an NTS designer in 1995 under some of the most talented people in the industry. Creative Director, Todd Van Horne was and is the most influential person in my career who gave everyone room to roam and explore the boundaries. He led the redesign efforts of the teams listed above and also led the update of the Seattle Seahawks team look in 2012. One of my friends and fellow designers, Rodney Richardson went on to design the Houston Texans and New Orleans Pelicans team logos.
My first project after being hired was helping redesign the NFL Denver Broncos’ team identity. As one of three core design team members, we had a lot to prove and a lot as we were in new territory. Suffice to say, the resulting Denver Broncos branding not only changed the landscape for Pat Bowlen’s team, but for all of sports. According to an ESPN poll, the Denver Broncos identity was #2 on the Coolest team identities list behind the University of Michigan. It was personally gratifying personally as I grew up in Denver as a Broncos fan my whole life.
After we finished the Denver Broncos identity they went and won back to back Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999. We were feeling pretty good about what we were capable of. That’s when NIKE CEO, Phil Knight approached us about updating the University of Oregon branding. His vision at that time was to raise Oregon’s status as a national title contender by attracting better players, better coaches and grow the Oregon fan base. Plans were under way to expand the size of Autzen stadium and add more seats.
RESPECT THE PAST, REPRESENT THE FUTURE
Nike was born on the track at the University of Oregon. It’s been well documented how Oregon track coach, Bill Bowerman revolutionized the footwear industry when he poured rubber into his wife's waffle iron at home and essentially created a new kind of footwear technology. He and one of the runners he coached—Phil Knight— formed the company that would eventually be known as NIKE.
We had to respect the deep connection between university and global sportswear company. Our task was to capture that Bowerman magic again and revolutionize the college football player with the most advanced head to toe performance technology.
On the Broncos project I was an assistant designer doing a lot of the grunt work of converting sketches to Illustrator files. On the Oregon Ducks project I had the opportunity to step into the lead designer role and explore the boundaries of what the Oregon Ducks could be. Again, it was personally gratifying as I was a student in the University of Oregon’s Architecture program back in the late 1980’s.
We pulled ideas and research from technological advancements made by asian countries around the pacific rim. I was especially interested in things that looked sleek and moved fast, like bullet trains in Japan. They were so light and moved through space effortlessly—a metaphor for future Oregon skill players.
We also dove into researching metaphysical meanings behind natural elements such as lightning (which later became the name of the yellow color used), color changing iridescence of a mallard’s head, and circular flow in nature. The question we kept asking ourselves is, “how do you make a duck look tough?” Oregon’s Donald Duck logo via a hand shake deal with Walt Disney just wasn’t intimidating anyone.
One element was missing. We needed the spirit of irreverence exemplified by legendary Olympic runner and Oregon track star, Steve Prefontaine. His determination is now part of lore and has been made into two movies.
I had to figure out how to put all those elements into a blender and combine them into something that honored the convergence of the university, the track and the people who founded NIKE.
THE BIRTH OF A REVOLUTION
When I see the on field gear worn by the Oregon Ducks today it makes me realize how far Phil Knight’s vision has come. The stadium was expanded in 2002, the football team has been a frequent visitor to the Top 10 in college football rankings over the years and now the Ducks have their first Heisman Trophy winner in Marcus Mariota.
I remember noodling over and over on various ‘O’ logos that captured the soul of the University of Oregon without infringing on the trademark of well known eye wear companies or looking vanilla. One of the options looked like a weapon used on Star Trek. Yet others tried to combine a ‘U’ and and ‘O’ in a traditional interlocking look. One logo option was even meant to look like the angry eye of a duck.
Finally, one day I was visiting Eugene looking at Hayward Field. The shape of the track jumped out at me because of its importance to NIKE and the University. I got to thinking how that shape was circular, so I took the shape of the track and the shape of Autzen Stadium's fooprint and punched the track shape out of the stadium shape. With that, the Oregon 'O' was born.
A few months earlier I had been at a car show in Detroit where color shifting car paint made its first appearance. It seemed gimmicky for cars but I finally got around to developing my photos from the car show in the midst of the Oregon project. One day on lunch I was sitting out on a bench next to the lake on the NIKE campus watching ducks swim. I noticed how a mallards head looked like that color shifting paint. If this were a cartoon, a lightbulb would've appeared above my head. I got to thinking what if we could paint the football helmets with that paint to emulate the iridescence on a mallards head. It just so happened one of the available paint colors was a dark green not far from the green we wanted to use.
I met with footwear designer, Tracy Teague and showed him what we were planning on doing with the helmets. He sourced material that also shifted colors and designed a futuristic football cleat made exclusively for Oregon football players.
The car paint didn't work right away on the helmets. In fact, the compounds in the paint broke down the plastic in the helmets. In initial tests the helmets exploded with minimal contact. We had to work closely with Ridell and Chromaflair paint technologies to augment the paint color so it would work on the helmet.
While juggling helmet/paint issues and footwear applications we not only needed to finalize the logo and typeface, but we also worked with uniform designer, David Turner on his futuristic designs for the uniforms and never-before-used fabrics. David has created many of the groundbreaking uniform designs in football over the past 15 years. He singlehandedly moved the entire industry forward with his 'Cordura' uniform design that not only breathed better than anything, but was lightweight and hugged the player's body.
As final pieces started falling into place, we were left with the helmet design. Originally, there wasn't supposed to be anything on the sides of the helmet, just a small 3-D rubber 'O' on the front. I was overruled and the 'O' went on the side of the helmet.
I left NIKE in 2003, but the Oregon brand was left in good hands. Legendary designer and footwear icon, Tinker Hatfield and his team have taken the original Oregon Ducks identity and have raised the bar each year since its inception.
The only thing missing from the original mission we started in 1999 is a national championship. Hopefully this is Oregon's year to put an exclamation point on the University of Oregon's brand story.