The Football Atlas Project Pairs Analog Design with Digital to Celebrate Passion

Charcoal sketches of famous football (soccer, for most Americans) players littered Michael Raisch’s studio floor. Producing so many sketches on his own time and growing so tired he remembers one night stepping on the face of Argentina star Lio Messi (“which is bad”). But even in the mad rush to produce more in his popular The Football Atlas series ahead of and during the World Cup in Russia, Raisch has kept his focus and continued to excite passionate fan bases by merging analog design through digital means.

Raisch Studio Raisch Studio

Raisch, senior design and new media director at well-known sports design studio Fanbrandz, also runs Raisch Studios. After creating an artistic design of a famous football athlete laid over top a map of their country taken from a 1971 atlas outgrew Raisch’s normal Twitter popularity, he knew he was on to something.

“There is something original in the idea that is literally mapping these people over their nations,” he says. “Using the physicality of an old atlas, it is a throwback thing.”

Credit the atlas with much of the inspiration. “I like reframing something into my own context or style,” he says. “You always put something of yourself in the piece and always have some sort of point of view that is uniquely yours. The atlas is this throwback to something I always found interesting as a kid.”

When The Football Atlas project started for Raisch, it was just weeks ahead of the World Cup in Russia. With 32 teams in the tournament, he had plenty of material to work with for his passion project.

Each design takes just about 90 minutes. He sets a timer on his phone so he doesn’t get too wrapped up into every detail. Using charcoal, he spends about 60 minutes drawing the nation’s biggest star, taking into account how their image will overlay on a map of the country. For Messi, he says he knew Argentina’s peninsula-style shape required a vertical take on Messi to marry up to the shape of the country. The Saudi Arabia image, though, shows outstretched arms connecting two oceans. He calls the illustrations quick and gestural with tight work in the faces that spin out into body positions. Once drawn, Raisch sets up two soft boxes and takes a high-res photo of the drawing, loading the file into the Adobe cloud.

Raisch StudioRaisch Studio

During the drawing portion of the project, he was struck with how drawing differing ethnic backgrounds provided an interesting way to look at the world and a “fascinating” portrait study.

Having already built a digital archive of the 1971 atlas—the company that produced the book no longer exists—he can easily grab files from the Adobe cloud and merge them together. The way an old atlas map offers a design document of its own, gives a powerful background, he says. With the player and atlas combined, Raisch then eyeballs the creation of the World Cup kit to give proper design and color to the uniform. He works on painting in flag colors and proper layering so you see the cities of the country coming through the athlete. “To me, the towns become the jersey,” Raisch says. “They become the fabric (of the country), literally.” He then puts the finishing touches on the design with the final underpainting and tweaking of placements, wrapping up less than 30 minutes of “very fun” digital work to complete the design.

With the World Cup in full swing, Raisch has continued his project, with more than a dozen of the countries represented. The feedback of encouragement comes from all types of people and in all languages. The Raisch designs have resonated. It could be tapping into the national pride with the use of the map. It could be the looseness of charcoal drawings that come so unlike what the sports world typically offers or maybe the visual language of print analog and drawing analog merging into a digital design.

The engagement Raisch has seen on Twitter on both his @RaischStudios and @footballatlas_ accounts have far surpassed typical organic impressions. “I think something in the fabric of maps and sense of place captures scale and prestige of playing for your home nation,” he says.

Moving forward, Raisch still has a few major countries he hopes to draw—Spain and Brazil, for example—even as he gets requests for some of the countries not as popular on the sports stage, such as Switzerland and Serbia. Working with major sports leagues, especially the NHL and MLB, Raisch says he has enjoyed this give and take with fans during the process, something not normally part of his work. He’s programmed to have everything completely done, polished and locked down before anything goes public.

“I just started putting them out and they took off,” he says. “An eighth of the way in and people are fired up. It has been fun that it hasn’t been a pressure thing (to do all 32). I don’t want to turn it into a chore.”

Tim Newcomb covers sports design for HOW. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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