Uniform and logo designs are usually attributed to faceless corporations or leagues. You know the usual sound bites: "Nike designed these uniforms," or "The NFL created this logo." It's rare that the specific people involved in a sports design project are identified, and rarer still that those people are made available to discuss their work.
But the Milwaukee Bucks' new redesign -- the first stage of which was officially revealed yesterday, with new uniforms to follow in June -- is different. ESPN.com was given exclusive access to the designers at Doubleday & Cartwright, the Brooklyn, New York, design firm that executed the team's makeover. They provided insights into their creative process for the Bucks project, including preliminary sketches, developmental logos and more.
Here's the behind-the-scenes look at the rebranding of an NBA team, one element at a time.
The exterior of 85 Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn doesn't look like much. The nondescript building is splashed with graffiti. There's no name on the doors, no buzzer, no sign of life. It feels like a dormant relic from Brooklyn's industrial past -- an old garment factory, say, or maybe a place where they used to manufacture nuts and bolts.
Behind those doors, 85 Metropolitan is humming with decidedly non-industrial activity. It is the home of Doubleday & Cartwright, an interdisciplinary creative studio with about 25 employees and an emphasis on sports design. D&C has worked with a wide range of clients and partners, including big names like Nike and Red Bull. But the Bucks redesign is the firm's biggest project so far.
"We don't have anyone dedicated to bringing in new business," says Christopher Isenberg, D&C's co-founder. "Our philosophy is, you make the work, you get it out, and you hope that generates new opportunities. That's what happened here."
Isenberg's partner is D&C co-founder and creative director Kimou Meyer. Meyer, who oversaw the Bucks project, is an unlikely character to be redesigning an NBA team. He was born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland, and went to design school in Belgium. Growing up, he was fascinated by American pop culture, especially skateboarding, streetwear, and hip-hop, but he had no knowledge of the American sports scene or its rich design history.
"When I was 14 I had a Raiders jersey, but I had no idea it was for the Raiders, or even for a team," he says in his heavily accented English. "I just thought it was cool because Eazy-E wore it."
In 1999, when he was 25 and fresh out of design school, Meyer followed a job opportunity to New York, where he fell under the spell of America's freewheeling sports graphics. Thrift store jerseys, Mitchell & Ness throwbacks, the softball teams in the local park -- he'd seen nothing like them in Europe, and they began leading him down the rabbit hole of American sports history.
"It became kind of an obsession," he says. "Why did the Celtics wear the clover? Why did this team wear this patch? I wanted to know all the stories." Meanwhile, his design career was taking off, with high-profile gigs designing apparel for the urbanwear company Echo Unlimited and the skateboard firm Zoo York.
It was during this period that Meyer encountered Isenberg, a native New Yorker with a lifelong fixation on sports visuals. "I made a big cardboard model of Yankee Stadium when I was five years old, and I was making clay Carl Yastrzemskis in art class," says Isenberg, who, like Meyer, is 41.
By the time Meyer met him, Isenberg had founded No Mas, a streetwear-associated brand specializing in clever sports-related gear -- T-shirts, mostly, but also skateboards, gym bags, and even boxing robes. Isenberg and Meyer quickly recognized each other as kindred spirits, and in 2009 they teamed up to co-found Doubleday & Cartwright. (The name refers to Abner Doubleday, who was improperly credited with having invented baseball, and Alexander Cartwright, who really did invent it.)
D&C has worked on a variety of branding and marketing projects for assorted clients, and the company also publishes a sports magazine called Victory Journal. Before the Bucks assignment, however, the only team redesign D&C had done was a pro bono project for a basketball academy in Senegal. "But in our minds, we've been redesigning teams for years," says Isenberg. "That's a big part of the basis for our partnership -- a shared love for team graphics, uniforms, patches, ephemera, chain-stitching." Still, that's all a long way from redesigning the Milwaukee Bucks. How did that opportunity fall into their lap?
As with so many things, the chance to overhaul the Bucks' look came about primarily through a series of lucky connections. One of Meyer's old Zoo York colleagues, a guy named Scott Williams, was friends with Alex Lasry -- the son of billionaire hedge fund manager Marc Lasry, who became the Bucks' co-owner and CEO in April of 2014. Alex Lasry mentioned to Williams that the team had retained two design firms for a possible rebranding but wasn't thrilled with the proposals they had submitted. Williams, who had followed Meyer's work at D&C, suggested that D&C might be a good fit. Alex Lasry sold the idea to his father, and Williams became the intermediary who sent Meyer an email that said, "How would you like to design an NBA team?"
"And I'm like, 'Why not? Sounds interesting,'" Meyer recalls. "But inside I was shaking. I was all excited."
In order to meet the deadlines needed for the redesign to be ready in time for the 2015-16 season, D&C had to whip up a presentation from scratch in just a few weeks. Fortunately, another lucky connection worked in its favor: D&C's 34-year-old managing creative director, Justin Kay, is a lifelong Bucks fan from Milwaukee. A key member of the creative team on the project, he basically served as an in-house Milwaukee focus group. He also provided local cred in case anyone asked, "Why is a team from Milwaukee being redesigned by a guy from Switzerland?"
After two weeks of frantic, full-immersion work, the D&C team brought its presentation to Marc Lasry's hedge fund office ("Very intimidating, like being on the set of 'The Wolf of Wall Street,'" says Meyer), where the response was enthusiastically positive. "This type of thing usually takes two years, not a few weeks," says Dustin Godsey, the Bucks' vice president of marketing. "The fact that they were able to do that in such a compressed time frame really speaks to their creativity and vision."
But D&C's designs still had to be approved by the NBA, which led to another tense meeting, this time with Christopher Arena, the league's vice president for apparel. "We were very nervous, but he said, 'You guys are 75 to 80 percent there -- I'm impressed,'" recalls Meyer. "That was a huge relief."
Several revisions and tweaks still had to be done, but at this point D&C was basically in the door -- not bad for a small shop in Brooklyn. But Isenberg says it's not as much of a stretch as it may initially seem.
"When people think of the Bucks' history, they think of Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], who grew up here in New York," he says. "So a big part of the team's DNA came from here. And another big part of their DNA is that famous floor design by Robert Indiana, who's also a New York guy. So there's definitely some cross-pollination there. And on a practical level, we have six people in this office who can freehand draw a deer. Seriously, I'd go toe-to-toe with anyone in terms of our justification to work on this project."
The Bucks had made it clear that they wanted to retain green as their primary color, but they didn't want to use red anymore.
"When you use red with green, you end up with that Christmas effect," says Godsey, the Bucks' marketing VP. "And red is such a powerful, dominant color. Even if you have 75 percent green and 25 percent red, the red can overwhelm the green."
So a new secondary color was needed, and the D&C team quickly determined that it should be cream -- an unusual choice for a pro sports team but one that makes sense for the Bucks. For starters, Milwaukee is known as the Cream City, because of the pale yellow bricks used in many of the city's buildings. Wisconsin is also known as America's Dairyland. "And besides," says Kay, the Milwaukee-born creative director, "if you know color theory, cream complements green really well. It's a natural pairing."
Team executives agreed, but they also wanted blue added to the mix, to represent Milwaukee's location on the shore of Lake Michigan and Wisconsin's many rivers. "It's not an obvious choice, especially in terms of color theory," says Meyer. "But it actually provides a very interesting accent, and it also provokes the question: 'Why blue?' And then you get to tell the story of the water." Black was also added as an accent color.
But once the new color scheme was settled, some adjustments still had to be made because of dye restrictions. "The reality of the tight deadline is that we were not able to use our preferred shade of green, which was much darker," says Meyer. "The NBA people said, 'Look, if this was six months earlier, we could have done it. But because it's so late in the game, here are the three greens you can choose from.' It was the same with the blue -- we had a choice of the Knicks' blue, the Thunder's blue or a Carolina blue. We went with the Thunder."
The primary and secondary logos
The Bucks made it clear from the outset of the project that their deer's head logo was the only thing from their existing visual package that they liked. They wanted an updated version -- more modern, a bit tougher-looking.
This presented a challenge. Most of the sports world's animal mascots are predators -- jaguars, hawks, tigers -- but a deer is viewed more as prey. And the designers had to be careful not to render a deer's head that looked like it had already been mounted on the wall as a hunter's trophy.
Meyer began by identifying the problems with the existing logo. "The proportions were wrong -- the antlers were way too small compared to the head," he says. "Also the negative eyeballs, the pig-ish nose, the comical frown that was supposed to make it look tough, the giant ears that looked like Bambi. And the shoulders don't look sleek or elegant -- it looks like a bodybuilder who did too many steroids."
Meyer, Kay and their team scoured the Internet for photos and illustrations of deer, giving themselves a crash course in the animal's physical characteristics. Then they created and evaluated a series of experimental sketches, tinkering with various elements: How slanted should the eyes be? How much should the ears be flared out? Should the nostrils be outlined or should they just blend in with the rest of the nose?
The nose turned out to be surprisingly tricky to get right. "If you're not careful, it can look more like a dog's nose, or a bear, or a pig, or even a camel," Meyer says. "We also had a guy who just did research on antlers. We told him to go ahead and get weird, try things out. We just wanted to explore the possibilities. Then we were like, 'This one looks too much like a menorah, this one looks like a gardening tool.'"
Eventually they stumbled upon something serendipitous: The inner antlers in some of the renderings were beginning to suggest the shape and pattern of a basketball. The Bucks hadn't asked for a ball to be included in the new logo, but when it started to emerge, D&C decided to develop it a bit more. Once the ball was established within the primary logo, it helped serve as the basis for the secondary logo.
Another happy accident developed as they were working on the deer's chest, where they came up with a pattern that, by coincidence, looked a bit like an "M" -- perfect for a Milwaukee-based team. So they tweaked the design to accentuate the "M" a bit more. The Bucks execs loved it.
The state logo
After the primary and secondary logos were done, the creative team turned its attention to the tertiary logo. The Bucks had asked for something that would appeal to the entire state, not just Milwaukee, and they also said it would be good if this logo could somehow reference Wisconsin's strong heritage of college sports -- an unusual request for a pro team.
"That's how we went with the shape of Wisconsin and the diagonal lettering, because it feels a bit more collegiate," says Meyer. "I thought it was really cool of them to trust us on that and to go along with it, because it's something you don't often see in basketball."
The Bucks also asked for this logo to include some blue, which was added at all the points where the state is bordered by water.
"Our current marks, with all their beveling, feel pretty dated now, and they're hard to work with," Godsey says. "We wanted something with more of a timeless blue-collar industrial feel to it."
The D&C team responded with a very straightforward block typeface -- a big departure from the futuristic-looking custom typefaces currently in vogue in the sports world. At one point the designers tinkered with giving it a drop shadow, but they ultimately decided to let it remain flat.
"Milwaukee gets caricatured as kitsch, with this kind of beer and 'Laverne & Shirley' approach," says Kay, who did a lot of the work on the lettering. "But there's also this tool-and-die heritage, and Harley-Davidson still makes motorcycles there. That's what we were looking for -- a workhorse-industrial feel, almost like if you had a carton and used a stencil to spray-paint something onto it."
Along the way, the Bucks made an interesting suggestion. "They said years ago, before computerized fonts, there were a few inconsistencies in the team's lettering that provided a bit of charm," Meyer says. "They challenged us to come up with something like that. That's how we ended up with those little notches in the '3' and '8,' for example. Those are technically wrong, but that was intentional. A controlled mistake."
The typeface will also be used for lettering and numbering on the team's new uniforms, which will be released in June.
Paul Lukas will write about the Bucks' uniforms once they're unveiled. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.