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In an exclusive excerpt from Spiel magazine, noted typographer Paul Barnes discusses the use—and importance—of type in football.

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Would you rather endure bad football or bad typography?

Bad typography seems to be more subjective than bad football to me, so I guess bad typography (in my eyes) would be easier to deal with than being forced to watch some bad football.

It would also depend on what the bad typography was applied to or who was playing the bad football! It’s easier to ignore bad typography (or bad design for that matter) if you don’t have any need to relate to it, but some bad typography applied to a favorite building, or a bad signage system at an airport can cause huge irritation.

With football if I watch a game which I am not emotionally involved in, the quality is very important, otherwise you just disengage. If I am emotionally involved and the football is poor, you still watch, hoping somehow the result will go the way you want to, and that can to some degree compensate for the lack of quality. Poor football and a bad result is unbearable.

Typography has a long association with football but how much does this form a ‘football type’ tradition? Is football type today influenced more by current trends or this tradition?

When letters first appeared on shirts they were in a style that you might expect: easy to ready sans serif, condensed so they were large enough to be read and condensed enough to fit on the shirt. The tradition of functional type this started still has an influence upon shirt numbers to this day. Trends come and go but even at the current World Cup you still see lots of condensed sans serifs.

The regulations of FIFA and UEFA, I think, dictate that the letters should be a certain level of condensation and also a particular weight. The fashions you see in lettering on shirts tend to be cyclical (as do the shirt designs), going between between very contemporary and very classical. Of course this also depends on where the team comes from. It’s hard to imagine England playing in shirts like Cameroon did and vice versa; the same would apply to the style of letters.

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Are there any instances of football type which have stood out to you?

I didn’t see that much of the World Cup, so I am not that up to speed on what all the national teams are wearing. I did see Brazil and Croatia, though, and I have to say that to me the Brazilian numbers looked light and pretty badly spaced. When you look on the website they look fine. As a designer you try to make it easy for the person applying the number to do it well but it’s always a bit of lottery. I’ve seen W as M and vice versa.

One of the issues now is that kits are issued so frequently that there is also too much new type. As a designer you do feel the pressure of having to try and reinvent the wheel every time!

Football audiences are (in general) not design educated, does this factor when designing for a football?

No, not really. I think football does have an aesthetic, as all sports do, but it’s quite often conservative. You can work within these boundaries and fans will generally understand it but I don’t think you need to stick within what is expected all the time, you can try different things.

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Is the football shirt a viable medium for typographic expression?

It depends how much you need freedom. The rules that UEFA and FIFA apply mean that you have limited scope but sometimes that can be good thing. It forces you to think more about what you are doing.

Interview by Dan Byrne

This article originally appeared in SPIEL: Football + Visual Culture. Pick up their latest issue here, or follow them on twitter at @spiel_magazine

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