Jul
8

Interview with NFL Designer Mark Verlander

Interview with NFL Designer Mark Verlander

I have a treat for you today.

In a previous post about the history of each NFL franchise’s logo, I mentioned a few times that some of my favorite NFL logos were designed by a guy by the name of Mark Verlander. I discovered Mr. Verlander while in design school after being given the task of presenting an inspirational designer  to my classmates. Unlike most graphic designers, I’m a huge sports fan, and my mind instantly went to sports logos. I soon discovered that many of my favorite NFL logos were designed by one man — Mark Verlander.

While writing the NFL logos post, I remembered Verlander had designed so many great logos and thought to myself, “Why not just shoot him an email?” I did, and Mark was gracious enough to answer some questions for me. First, a little bit about Mark.

Mark Verlander runs a design studio, Verlander Design, with his wife in the San Francisco area. In addition to numerous NFL logos and uniforms, Mark designs identity, advertising, packaging, websites, and illustrations for a number of clients. Huuuuuge thanks to Mark for taking the time to answer these questions so we can get a peek into a lot of people’s dream job.

Now to the interview.

How did you get the job to design NFL logos and uniforms?

I was living and working in NYC at the time. One of my wife’s co-workers had a fiance that worked at the NFL in the city. She set up an introduction and they liked my work. The first project I was asked to work on was the Tennessee Titans. I believe I competed with one or two other larger design studios. I was just as surprised and delighted as anyone that my designs were chosen to be be explored further.


Are you a football fan? Do you think it helped or hurt you at all in working on NFL projects?

I’m a casual football fan, but I enjoy a good game. I usually go to a few games a year, love the tailgate parties. The NFL has graciously sent me to a couple of Super Bowls, which I really enjoyed with my Dad.

I have great respect for sports athletes and their fans, it’s a very meaningful passion for hundreds of millions. To see my designs involved in that world is an honor and a bit surreal. I don’t believe it matters one way or another to be an avid fan working on a sports identity project. Any responsible designer is going to detach themselves from that personal level when it comes time to focus on the design criteria and challenge at hand.


What’s your favorite NFL logo (yours and others’)? What about uniforms?

Personally, I like the grace and strength of the Seahawks, Eagles and Patriots symbols. I believe they were all designed by my friend I mentioned above, Marc Debartolomeis, though I can’t be sure.

Uniform designs are usually determined by vendor templates such as Nike or Reebok. It would be nice if the NFL created a more unified league uniform standard. I enjoyed experimenting with the different color panels on the Atlanta Falcons, and picking colors and fabrics for the Houston Texans. Ultimately though, the helmets are the most defining characteristic of an NFL uniform. When I’m designing any logo, I have a helmet in the studio I always work to. It’s the most important logo application, it’s got to look great on the helmet.

Of my logos, each represent a design journey or personal life experience in their creation. In that respect, the Houston Texans are the most meaningful, as I have lived in Houston and still have relatives there. A year before the project started I took my 84 year old grandmother on a research road trip from Houston to Austin. We stayed at the old Stevie Ray Vaughan hangout, the Austin Motel, on South Congress and played pool at The Continental Club. That was the last big trip I took with her. The San Francisco 49ers were another exciting experience, because my dad is a big fan, but my design unfortunately was not used by the team.

I like simple classic designs with strength and character. I like them to celebrate their history. I think the best logo designs are the ones that have good brand experiences built around them for the fans to enjoy. For me, a good NFL logo is one that is well drawn, looks great on a helmet, and is one fans are proud of.

There are a few team designs that fall into the category of non-design, which I’d like to see evolved. I think that the NFL only recently has begun to realize the value of team identity design and brand experience design. The biggest value to the NFL of design has traditionally been as a licensing vehicle. However, in the past few years they’ve really made an effort to define the NFL as a cohesive brand experience.


What different challenges did logo updates (like the Falcons, Cardinals) present than new concepts? Did the teams seeking updates want to see new concepts as well?

Each team name and concept is a puzzle to be solved. Add in team legacy, previous logo history and owner and management likes and dislikes and it can be a Pandora’s box.

For instance, on the Tennessee Titans, Bud Adams, the owner, wanted to incorporate the colors of his previous team the Houston Oilers, which really affected the design results. For the Atlanta Falcons, the logo had never been updated since it’s introduction, so I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to respect the iconic history of that mark. I really pushed for it to remain black and white, but the team wanted to invoke a new era with updated colors. The Arizona Cardinals could be considered a non-design, the existing symbol was a relatively cartoonish bird caricature from the 50′s. However that mark has legacy and meaning to the team and fans, so I focused on making the symbol bold, simple and powerful. It looks great three stories high on the stadium. For the Cincinnati Bengals, they had just renovated their stadium months before deciding to update their identity, so 60,000 seats had been already been installed featuring the existing tiger head logo. So even though I presented a redesigned tiger head, I ultimately had to create an alternate mark.

I always present a broad range of work, from very close in to more evolutionary. Also, it may surprise many that for each team I designed I only worked directly with the NFL creative department in New York. I never presented to or even met any of the team owners or management. I’m sure most of them would be surprised to learn that I had designed their team logos.


How many concepts did you present to each team?

About 10-12. Then two or three chosen directions are refined. The final direction or two many be refined dozens of times over 6-12 months. Most team identities are done in conjunction with large expansion programs, such as a new stadium, or a team relocating.


How much creative freedom were you given by the teams? Did they know pretty much what they wanted going in? And were you given more freedom with a new team (the Texans) than an existing team?

I’m given total freedom to try anything. However I’m motivated by research, history and what’s appropriate to the specific challenge at hand. I want to help teams (and any client) to achieve their goals.

There is no more freedom with a new or an existing team. The difference is history, legacy, but that’s part of the design puzzle. With the Texans, I actually worked on three different names at the same time. I really pushed for the name the Texans though, which I knew would have the most meaning to Texas football fans. I believe the other names were the Stampede and the Comets, though I can’t be sure.


Have you been approached by other leagues or colleges for design work?

I’ve done some work for the NBA and have been approached by a couple of colleges. I’d love to do college football work. There’s a lot of heritage and history there, undoubtably some great stories to tell.


Which team (in any sport) would you most like to do design work for? Who needs it the most?

I’d love to do design work for Formula One, NASCAR, World Cup Soccer, America’s Cup, the Olympics. I’d say no one needs design, it can be a costly expenditure to implement successfully. It could be seen in many ways as a reward to teams and fans that take pride in themselves and their achievements.


Which sports league do you think has the best design?

Good sports design is relative to good fan experiences. Sports leagues that work together to create a unified experience create the best design. A well produced identity brand experience at the venue or stadium level makes fans feel great. Also the ability to keep things fresh every few years helps. For any league, a league identity curator is key. For instance Anne Occi at MLB has worked very hard over the past two decades to ensure that baseball team identities, venues and fan experiences live up to the classic standards of baseball heritage and history as a whole. The NFL has just started doing this. I think the NBA, NHL and NASCAR could benefit from such an approach. By having respect for the sport as a whole, each individual team identity is made stronger.


Do you have a preference between sports and non-sports work?

They are both the same. Each is helping clients and individuals to reach their goals. I create design to help people, to make them feel good. Yes, an NFL team can have more recognition to a larger audience, but Chuck’s Bread baked in a home garage by a local baker needs good design and good customer experiences just as much.


To find out more about Mark Verlander, check out his site, verlanderdesign.com.

6 Responses to “Interview with NFL Designer Mark Verlander”

  1. Connie Stapleton
    July 8th, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Great interview! I love that this man uses personal experiences in all of his work. And I admire your willingness to email him, a man you admire and respect. I’m sure many people are appreciative of you sharing this information! Great work!

  2. Steve L
    July 8th, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Cool that he seemed very willing to share in-depth answers to all of your questions. A lot of good info in the interview, he seems like a guy who puts a lot of heart into his work. Thanks for the insight!

  3. Jon
    July 9th, 2011 at 9:31 am

    I was hoping we would get an explanation for the horrendous white stripe down the side of the Bengals’ home unis.

  4. Brin
    July 11th, 2011 at 4:57 am

    What’s with him using the phrase, “though I can’t be sure” so much? Can this dude really not remember the possible names he worked with for the Houston Texans or whether or not his “friend” produced the Seahawks, Eagles and Patriots symbols?

    Weird. Very weird…

  5. Brandon Moore
    July 21st, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    great stuff! im a huge fan of his work. hes the best

  6. Robert Stepanek
    March 3rd, 2013 at 4:53 am

    What’s the point of having different teams and different team identities when all the branding decisions are made out of the same office and all the graphics and imaging are all done by only a few select designers whose work displays little diversity in imagination, style and approach? (NFL league entities seem more and more to truly be franchises not unlike McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, wherein the consumer experience varies from place to place, no matter in whatever region they operate – and that’s precisely the point, by corporate plan.) Verlander’s wordmarks for the Texans, Falcons, Seahawks and Cardinals are utterly interchangeable – and boring.
    The team IDs he claims are “non-design” are quite to the contrary far more expressive of individuality in character with regards to conveying team identitities; by not routinely having been run through the league brass on Park Avenue and their discrete network of hand-picked consultants so as to control and standardize the corporate “message” of the league as a whole, they reflect greater autonomy and license on the part of the various team decision-makers as well as engendering more diversity in the economics of the sport, given that most teams would formerly choose local artists from their own cities to satisfy their branding needs. (It’s worth noting that consistent with the NFL favoring a top-down management approach over a greater degree of decentralization even in matters involving individual teams, the league’s policy towards any potential team ownership entities is a requirement that they consist of only one or a very few mega-rich guys; the NFL officially discourages ownership consortia such the Green Bay shareholder model – exactly the sort of cross-ownership arrangement that would make unthinkable the relocation of a well-supported franchise due to the financial problems a single owner may have, as was the case of Art modell moving the Browns solely because he faced bankruptcy due to poor personal business decisions and gambling debts.)
    About a decade or so ago I was saying that pro sports is heading towards a point wherein all teams are required to adopt black or navy as their main uniform color, with only minimal use of secondary tones and slight differences in logos and typography to differentiate among them, and the work of hacks like Verlander is facilitating that convergence.
    For the record, the two finalist nicknames Bob McNair considered for his franchise (and which Verlander unaccountably couldn’t remember) weren’t the Stampede and the Comets, but rather the Stallions and the Apollos. The latter name would have been truly unique and distinctive, as opposed to the unimaginative and pedestrian name of Texans – which the current NFL squad became the 5th pro football team in Texas within 40 years to adopt as its nickname (and the second in Houston alone). No surprise that Verlander would push for such a hackneyed brand identity, given the repetitive nature of his own work.
    I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying that anyone who’d think that the Flying Elvis is a superior football logo to Pat the Patriot, or that Verlander Design is doing great work, is just, well, blind to how corporate encroachment and suffusion of the visual landscape in America is intended – by promoting a notion that appreciation of a subtly increased slickness in communications equates to sophistication, at the same time that anything new represents progress over whatever it has replaced simply by dint of being forward in time – to turn the populace from a nation of participants into one of consumers, and thereby abet consolidation of the economic control they already enjoy.

    PS: You could not be more wrong to think that the Browns need some Verlanderesque avatar to enhance the brand and bring it into the 21st Century; the very essence of that team is an unadorned simplicity and straightforwardness that is at once timeless and perfectly attuned to the city the Browns represent – and any forced ‘modernity’ foisted on them from somebody not a part of that community is certain to be met with resistance, if not to say hostility, by that group of fans. Since Haslam has announced he plans to change the uniforms – and with Nike, purveyor of a lot of sartorial ugliness on the gridiron being the outfitter for all NFL teams (in another display of corporate arrogance, the league cut out a number of suppliers who had good relations with various teams, leading to a protracted lawsuit which they defend to this day as a result) – it will be interesting to see what happens when, as seems quite likely, they mess it up.

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