Building Custom Typefaces for Sports Teams


Nike’s creative team is often charged with a unique challenge: designing custom typefaces for sports teams.

The brick façade on the University of Michigan’s stadium, The Big House, a unique look for the area, defined the geometry and proportion of the new alpha and number set of the Wolverines’ athletic department under Nike’s Jordan Brand.


The creation of Florida State’s custom typeface, a bit more stylized than many others across the country, carries connections to the Seminole tribe.



And then there’s the University of North Carolina and its loved argyle pattern. When it came time to devise a new custom typeface for the Tar Heels, Nike designers took argyle built in a two-three proportion—a tie to Michael Jordan’s uniform number—to build the primary logo, which carries into the typeface.



“It all has behind-the-scenes math and geometry to it,” Clint Shaner, Nike art director, tells HOW.

Shaner, a seven-year Nike vet, works with Nike’s Ryan Wilmot and Matt Smith to build NCAA program identities. Designing custom typefaces sits as a featured aspect.

“We see it as a system and the type is a huge part of that system, especially how it expresses itself on product, merchandise and uniforms,” Shaner says. “Type, including the number sets, are a huge part.”

Shaner has worked on about 35 NCAA program rebrands and every one of them received custom typefaces. “For me, personally, type is an exercise in nuance,” Shaner says. “There is a lot to be said for the details that may or may not be apparent. We want it to have longevity and stand the test of time like any great typeface outside the world of sport.”

The process starts with research and understanding the institution’s brand. Finding that identity will help define the logo and especially the type, a unifying element for all sports across a campus. And with the type sitting next to the Nike Swoosh, this co-branding exercise has Shaner looking to create the best expression possible, saying his team spends as much effort on creating type as identity marks.

While working within the “aesthetic of sport,” Shaner says Nike brings a modern interpretation of that aesthetic without forgoing school traditions. Just like the brickwork for the heavily blocked Michigan type.

“They are all a little different,” Shaner says. “What we did for Michigan was right for Michigan. There is a lot of tradition infused in that typeface, as opposed to something a bit more modern like Virginia Teach, speaking to the future. They all play within the parameters of sports.”


That parameter, Shaner says, expresses visual boldness and readability, but with unique touches to stand the test of time. And too much stylization can limit the longevity. “You are creating an identity, not a marketing company,” he says.

For Michigan’s fresh 2016 identity, Wilmot tells HOW there was no way they were touching the iconic “M” mark, but instead they took letter width and geometry and translated it into a classic bold typeface, similar to what the school has had for more than a century. Using the brick geometry gave it nuance “very fitting for that brand.”

And sometimes the limitations of history become a way to define modern type. “When you look at old-school block letters, it was harder to achieve square corners,” Wilmot says, “so we have some really beautiful rounded pieces on the interior to bring those nuances into present day.”

Shaner says the typeface serves as another “lever we can pull to tell a piece of their story,” whether the stencil type done recently for the United States Military Academy’s Army West Point Athletics, the argyle-inspired North Carolina type or the brick from Michigan Stadium.

nike_army_basketball3_original nike_army_football7_originalWhen designing, the team starts with the uniform. “If we can get it to fit 12 inches across the chest, we can get it to fit anywhere,” Shaner says.

“There are certain elements of sport that you bring in, such as strength and speed,” says Wilmot. “Also, you want it to sing as one family, so nuances you may bring into the marks with curved or sharp edges, you bring those together in the font as well.”

Throughout the process they have constant checks and balances in terms of scale, distance and color contrasts. “Even letter heights and serif heights, six inches wide is something different than 10 feet tall in an end zone,” Shaner says. “It helps us vet viable solutions.”

Building small—such as the uniform—will only accentuate the nuances when the type takes a larger stage, such as a football field’s end zone. Wilmot says he appreciates how the subtle nuances become that much more accentuated when huge, saying the common fan may find more of the story in the type the larger it gets. The bigger the type, the more it spotlights the “personality and style.”

A personality using custom type to express stories, from argyle to brick.

Learn more about the use of typography in identity and logo design in Logo Design Basics, an online course from HOW Design University, or earn a certificate in branding to amp up your career and skill set.