Uni Watch Q&A: Under Armour design chief

Adam Clement says uniforms like Maryland's flag-inspired design "help the school gain visibility." AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

From the Maryland "pride" football uniform and the new Northwestern football uniforms to the Brooklyn Dodgers-inspired design for the Maryland basketball team, Under Armour's uniforms have been causing a stir over the past few years. Some fans have loved the new designs, others have hated them, but very few people know the identity of the man who created them.

That man is Adam Clement, Under Armour's senior design manager for on-field product. Clement recently agreed to sit down for a wide-ranging Uni Watch interview, which we'll be presenting in two parts. Today's installment deals with his most famous (or, if you prefer, infamous) design. Tomorrow we'll talk about his design background, how he got into the business, and how he deals with the competition.

Here's how this segment of our conversation went:

Let's talk about your most famous design, the Maryland flag design. How did that come about?

The school had a new athletic director, a new coach, and they wanted to make a statement that would put Maryland football back on the map. We wanted to find something that would really evoke and celebrate the entire state, and we decided the best way to do that was with the flag.

Which is obviously one of the most unique state flags.

Right. It's the only state flag based on English heraldry, and its quadrant-based design was really interesting to us.

Normally, we start either with the footwear to uniform or the uniform to the footwear. But with this design, we started with the helmet. We drew that bisected helmet, and it really resonated. We showed it to the school, and they liked it, so we built the other components of the uniform to go along with it.

How long did the whole process take?

It was really fast -- under six months, which is really unusual. But we had a really good design team working on it, and Maryland was fast with their approvals, our factories did great work, and it all came together.

Were there even more "out there" versions of the design that ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak?

Yes. When you do a project like this, you always want to go a little further than maybe you're even comfortable with yourself, and then you can bring it back a little. I always have to remember that I am not the target audience. You're aiming toward this young athlete. With these kids, the more flash, the better. We took maybe a step and a half back from the furthest one, but I think we ended up in a good spot.

Isn't your target audience also all the fans who'll be watching the game? Like, there are only about 100 players, but there are tens of thousands of people in the stadium, and lots more watching on TV. Aren't they the target audience too?

We want the players to feel strong, powerful, and invincible when they wear the uniforms. We know there will always be fans who like what or dislike what we do, but we don't build the uniforms to impress the viewer. We build them to help the school gain visibility, to help them catch the eye of the potential recruits, and to make the current players feel special when they come out of the tunnel.

Did you get input from any of the Maryland players on this design?

Not on this one, because this was supposed to be a surprise for them. But for certain uniforms, yes, we do involve the student-athletes themselves.

When the flag design debuted on Labor Day of 2011, were you nervous?

I was. Not so much about people's reactions, because that's subjective -- people are either going to love it or hate it, you can't control that. If we had pleased everyone, that might mean I wasn't doing my job the right way. But we did want the school's fans, and also the athletes, to love the uniforms. So yeah, I was nervous about that. But in that respect, it turned out to be a success.

Maryland won that game. Do you think the design would have been perceived differently if it had lost?

You know, everything fit together for that game. It was the only game being played that night, it was against a conference rival, and they won. If they had lost, there still would have been a lot of buzz. But anytime a team wears a special uniform and doesn't win, you run the risk of it being perceived as a jinx. And I think the desire to see the design worn again was helped a lot by the fact that they won.

Many people pointed out that the design could have been stronger if the pattern blocking on the helmet and shoulders had been staggered to more closely reflect the actual pattern of the Maryland flag. Did you consider doing it that way?

We did. But the flag has four quadrants. And if you split the uniform down the middle, you have six fields, or sections: the helmet, the jersey, and the pant, times two for each side. So the six doesn't match up with the four, which means there's no way to make the uniform perfectly match up with the flag.

What we really wanted was that when players were running on and off the field for substitutions, we wanted them to look almost like they were on different teams. In other words, we wanted the uniforms to look completely different depending on whether you were looking at them from the left or the right. And the approach we took gave us that effect.

When everyone saw the design for the first time, their eyes bugged out and they couldn't believe it and all of that. Now, more than a year later, do you think everyone's kind of gotten used to it, and so the standard for what qualifies as outrageous has changed as a result?

Good question. I don't know if people are used to it, but they're coming to expect something like that. Not just from us, but from other schools and companies as well. There's an expectation that teams will do something beyond the limits of what they would have previously done.

What does that mean for you as a designer? I mean, that puts pressure on you, right? Like, how do you top a design like that? How do you outdo yourself next time?

It definitely poses a challenge. But it's also very exciting. An alternate uniform used to be just a different color, right? But now alternate designs are truly alternate. It's allowing schools that are steeped in tradition to step outside the box, even if it's only for just one game.

What do you say to people who say that the design was just an attention-getting device?

I heard that perspective a lot. For us, if it's an attention-getting device for the university, that's great. If we get some attention as well, for our brand, that's secondary. For us, everything we do has its foundation with the university. We'll never do art for art's sake. Back in college, I had this professor, and I would show her these designs and she'd say, "What's the concept behind this?" And I'd say, "I don't have a concept; I just think it looks cool." And she'd say, "Take it down off the wall and come back to me when you have a concept, a basis for your design." That lesson has really stuck with me. And that's how we approach things here at Under Armour. Specifically with Maryland, our rebrand for them is mapped out as a five-year process, and we're currently in the second year, so it has a long way to go.

When a uniform gets a lot of attention like this one got, people say, "Oh, Under Armour did this" or "Nike did that" or "Maryland did such-and-such." But of course it isn't a disembodied company or a university that did the design -- it was a real person, and in this case it was you. Designers don't usually get public credit for their work, though. How do you feel when people talk about your work, either positively or negatively, and don't know that you're the person behind it?

I'm OK with it. I may have been the one who put pen to paper, but I'm just one person at this large company, and I'm not the only person who worked on that uniform. To be singled out would be a discredit to all those other people -- the product manager, the people who worked with our factories, and everyone else. Also, I certainly don't mind that people don't know my name when they say something negative about the uniform!

What about [Under Armour founder] Kevin Plank -- how much was he involved in this design, and how big a role does he have in your work in general?

He takes as much of an interest in every single school I work on as he does with Maryland. It's an equal playing field. He just wants to put the best product on the field, so he's involved in everything we do. His passion for this business trickles down to all of us. And I'm not just saying that -- he walks through this building with a purpose, and it's very, very contagious.

The common perception is that Plank, Under Armour and Maryland are essentially copying Phil Knight, Nike and Oregon, in terms of the relationship between the company and its founder to the founder's alma mater and the use of outrageous design for that school. How do you feel about that?

I understand why people would feel that way, since Kevin attended Maryland and Phil Knight attended Oregon. But it's not a copycat thing. Kevin wants us to do the best we can with every school. But he was no more involved with the Maryland design than he was with, say, the Northwestern design that we did for this season. So I understand why that perception exists, but that's not how it works.

Part II: Adam Clement's design philosophy and how he keeps up with those other uniform companies.

Paul Lukas would like to see designers receive more credit (or, when applicable, blame) for their designs. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch web site, 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.