READ THIS FIRST!
Some feathers may be ruffled and some feelings hurt by what I’m about to say about the need for rebranding in the world of roller derby, so before we get into all this, let me clarify a few things.
1. I am a fan of roller derby
I’ve been a regular attendee at roller derby bouts for several years. I’m not a fan of roller derby because I have lots of friends who play (I do) or because I’m dating a derby girl (I am), but because I genuinely enjoy the sport. When I still lived in north east Ohio I never missed a bout by the Burning River Roller Girls, and often made it to Rubber City Rollergirls and NEO Roller Derby bouts as well. Since moving to Asheville, NC, the only home bouts I’ve missed were when I was on tour, or out of town for another reason. I made the trip to Atlanta for championships last year. I screamed myself hoarse for Sandrine Rangeon in the bronze medal match, and teared up when she won 2012 MVP jammer.
2. I am a professional branding consultant
When I’m not being a touring singer-songwriter, my mild-mannered alter-ego is a professional graphic designer and branding consultant. I received a 5-year degree in Visual Communication Design from Kent State University. I have paid the bills for the past 7 years running my own company (yes, shocker, playing music is not yet paying the bills. Okay, it’s paying my cell phone bill. Next goal: make enough money from playing music to pay for cell phone AND motorcycle insurance). I do, however, try to keep the two sides of my life separate, I’m not trying to parlay this into additional business, and I prefer this forum over my business’s website for a personal soapbox, so I won’t link to my professional portfolio here.
3. I’m doing this because I care
This is is the friend who, when you’ve been trying for hours to get your motorcycle to run right, says “maybe you should have a mechanic check that out.” This is the teacher who grades your work and points out what you did wrong because he wants you to do better. This is an intervention. I’m not trying to be condescending, snarky, or mean, and if you belong to one of the leagues I mention here, the inclusion means that I’ve paid enough attention to have noticed, and I’ve probably cheered for your team. I would never think of trying to tell you how to skate, but this is something that I know about. I’m here to help.
Okay, let’s get started!
With all that out of the way, it must be said that roller derby as a whole has a lot of problems with branding. Take a look through the WFTDA Member League list and you’ll quickly see some of the issues. One of the biggest is that a good 50% of the logos are entirely illegible at that thumbnail size. The reasons for the branding issues are myriad, but if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because most of them were designed in-house at the league. In my experience, roller derby leagues tend to contain a lot of talented, creative people, often including some fantastic artists. Unfortunately, there’s a world of difference between a great tattoo design (which a lot of these logos look like) and a successful branding/identity system.
Why does it matter?
In a word, credibility. Roller derby is still an emerging sport, striving for respect and recognition in the athletics world. I’ve heard many friends who play roller derby wishing that the championship bouts were covered in some way on television. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but even producers at EPSN 8 (“The Ocho”) would look at most of these logos and say, “There’s no way we can use that on air.” If roller derby as a sport wants to be taken seriously, the member leagues need to look professional – I use the term in the “having your act together” sense, not the “getting paid” sense – and when your first impression is a logo that does not look like it belongs to a serious athletic organization, then the battle’s already lost. With a small business, there’s a time when, if the business wishes to continue growing and reaching a larger market, they have to move past their in-house designed logo to something that looks like they’re ready to play in the big leagues.
For roller derby, that time has come.
Cool, so we need to redesign our logo?
This is the first preconception that needs to be squashed. A logo does not a branding system make. A logo is one piece of a branding system. Just like Froot Loops are part of your complete breakfast, you still need the apple, the glass of orange juice, the bran muffin and the milk. A branding system is a complete kit of parts that can be used in any situation the organization needs to be visually represented.
I’ll use the recent rebranding of the Erie Seawolves (The Double-A Minor League Baseball affiliate of the Detroit Tigers) as an example.
The improvement is immediately obvious – one looks like a page from a bad coloring book, the other looks like a professional sports team. But the one logo wasn’t all the Seawolves got. Check out this picture from when they announced the rebranding:
And I’m sure they also have a graphic that’s just the “Erie Seawolves” text, and a set of brand guidelines on how/where the graphics are to be used, the amount of space to allow around the elements, and a complete color palette for use in promotional pieces. In addition, each of the individual elements are set up to look good on dark or light backgrounds (which is important to note – WFTDA requires that leagues competing in playoff and championship tournaments have both light and dark uniforms). Now head over to their online store, and check out how all those different elements are used:
Erie Seawolves New 2013 Merchandise
Starting to get the picture? You may have to spend some money at the beginning to get a complete branding system, though it’s entirely possible that you could find a consultant or firm willing to do the work in trade for tickets or sponsorship. It’s money that’s well worth spending to look professional and have graphics ready to go for any application.
Got it. So what’s wrong with the current league logos?
The same things that were wrong with the first 30 or so logos I designed in my Corporate Identity class – a class I wasn’t allowed to take until halfway through my third year in the design program at Kent State. Even with all that background in design, I still made most every mistake in this list. Well, except for putting a roller girl in all my logos.
No matter how great a piece of artwork may be, if you can’t understand what it’s trying to communicate when it’s shrunk down to the size of a quarter, it’s not a good logo. You want people’s eyes to be able to rest on your flyers, posters, or t-shirts for no more than a second, and be able to understand what’s being represented. There are a lot of things that go into legibility; line weight, type size, and clarity of form are some of the big ones.
Trying to cram too many things into a logo is one of the biggest mistakes in branding and identity design. The Charm City logo has a horseshoe (presumably referencing the Preakness), a girl, a ribbon, a spade with the Maryland flag on it, and the name of the league, all presented in a traditional tattoo style. The Rose City logo has knuckle tattoos, a skate wheel as an “o”, a clipart rose and some script fonts. By trying to say too many things at once, they end up saying nothing.
Where’s The Roller Girl?
Going back through the WFTDA member league list, 101 out of 172 logos feature a roller girl in one way or another. That means that if your league’s logo has a roller girl in it, that’s a feature you share with about 60% of all the other leagues. If you’re going for an instantly recognizable design, doing the same thing that everyone else is doing isn’t the best way to achieve that.
Historically, there is a reason for this trend; when modern roller derby was just beginning to emerge as a legitimate sport, most people didn’t know much about it. The roller-girl-in-the-logo thing served to instantly explain that this is a sport involving tough women – thus all the black eyes, tattoos, and sneers – and roller skates. At this point, however, the sport’s grown beyond the need for that explanation. Even if they haven’t been to a bout and haven’t a clue about the rules, most people have at least heard of modern roller derby. They might not realize it’s happening in their town, but they don’t need a badass pin-up-style illustration of a derby girl on every logo to know what the sport’s about.
This is one that makes me shake my head every time I see it. “Rollers”, “Rollergirls”, “Derby Dames”, “Derby Dolls”, and all the other variations are not your league name. They are simply an indicator of what sport your league plays. They should not be larger than the name of your league.
Can you imagine what logos would look like in other sports if they all treated their hierarchy this way? As a Cleveland fan, I’d feel a little silly sporting this on a shirt:
Though prime examples of the heirarchy issue I just mentioned, as far as visual execution these two logos are some of the better ones among the WFTDA member leagues. They’re clean, easy to read, scale down well, and would reproduce well in many different situations. Unfortunately, neither of them actually says anything about the team or where they’re from. Remove “Atlanta” or “Des Moines”, and would you have any clue where they were based? If your league name is your city, then your logo should pay homage to what’s unique about that city.
Rebranding Case Studies
Just for funsies, I decided to redesign some logos. I did all these in an afternoon (though one I’d had most of lying around for a while), and didn’t spend more than an hour on each. My goal was simple: take 8 existing logos that had deficiencies, and redesign each to meet the criteria of Legibility, Heirarchy, and Uniqueness. The Kitchen Sink and Where’s The Roller Girl issues would necessarily be resolved by the necessity for Legibility and Uniqueness, so I didn’t feel the need to specifically require those.
I didn’t take the time to separate out the additional branding components, but using the SeaWolves example above, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine how that could work with any of these.
In spite of being graphically well-executed, the Minnesota RollerGirls logo falls short in the categories of uniqueness and heirarchy. There’s nothing about it that says “we’re from Minnesota.” You’ve got your standard black-eyed rollergirl, and the text emphasizes RollerGirls over Minnesota.
My solution? Mooses make everything better!
I’ve got lots of family in Minnesota, and apart from the bitterly cold winters, the two things that come to mind when I think of the state are lakes and moose. And moose are more fun to illustrate.
Is it goofy? Sure! But it’s also memorable. And if you think serious athletes can’t play for a team whose logo makes you grin a little bit, you need to check out some of these Minor League Baseball logos.
Charm City Roller Girls
I already spoke a little bit about this logo’s shortcomings – in addition the kitchen-sinkiness, it also has a generic roller girl, some heirarchy issues, and some pretty terrible gradients.
When I started thinking about what I mentally associate with Charm City, the solution to this logo became instantly clear. If you’ve ever seen them skate, you know that it’s impossible to forget their helmets – they’re one of the most unique uniform elements in all of roller derby.
And if you doubt that a clean graphical execution of a helmet can be considered a logo, try heading over to www.clevelandbrowns.com.
Rose City Rollers
You can probably pick the issues out here – legibility on “Rose City” goes away very quickly, there are too many disparate elements, “ROLLERS” jumps way out in the heirarchy, none of the elements work together stylistically. This one’s kind of a mess.
It was also one of the more challenging ones to find a solution for, and of all of these, it’s probably the one I’m least thrilled with the final result. Coming up with anything that didn’t look like a florist’s logo was difficult, and I’m not sure I succeeded in shaking that fully. I thought focusing on the rose element was the only thing that made sense, however, and a great American poet once told me that every rose has its thorn. Thorns make you bleed, blood’s red like a rose, and the blood drop from the thorn just happened to line up with the bowl in the “O”.
Burning River Roller Girls
In the grand scheme of roller derby logos, the Burning River logo actually has a lot going for it. It’s unique – the two-color white/red execution is eyecatching, it relates to the history of the city (for those who don’t know, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire a few times back in the day, kickstarting a little thing called the environmental movement), and it’s instantly recognizable. Unfortunately, it falls into a special category of derby logos I call the “parody logos” – and in this case is a bit too literal in its aping of the hazmat “Flammable Liquids” placards.
This one was an easy fix – the “flammable” symbol is one that’s universally recognizable, so I just cleaned that up, layered it on top of Ohio, and separated out a type treatment for the logo.
Confession – I actually designed the main icon for this one a few years back, and screenprinted a few bootleg shirts for myself. When I wore one of those to the next bout, I had more than a few people ask me where they could purchase shirts with the new design.
Brew City Bruisers
Well, at least this one’s legible…
This is another perfect example of a “parody logo”, but this time without any discernable reason for that parody. Brew City Bruisers is such a fantastic, evocative name, but instead it receives a “parental advisory” label treatment.
Sometimes, when I begin designing something, I get a flash of inspiration. It’s rare when that inspiration makes me laugh out loud. This logo is one of those rare cases. The moment I had the visual of an anthropomorphized pilsner glass in a roller skate, I cracked up. From there it was just a matter of transforming that mental image into a logo.
As with the Minnesota design – yes, it’s a little goofy. But it’s unique and certainly memorable.
Silicon Valley Roller Girls
When I first started bouncing around the idea of writing this blog and doing this project, I was given a few suggestions of logos I should tackle for a re-design. This was one of those, and it’s not hard to see why – it’s lacking in any discernable character whatsoever. Unless people already know who you are, an acronym like SVRG is not going to set off lightbulbs over anyone’s head, so all you’re left with is some black text to tell you what this represents.
My solution on this one may be a little trite – a circuit-board rollerskate and some 8-bit text (in the same greens as the commodore 64 monitor I spent my early formative years learning BASIC on) – but it meets the criteria I set out for myself. Onward!
Blue Ridge Roller Girls
I debated whether to tackle this one, as it’s the team I most actively follow and root for (they’re based in Asheville, NC where I live), but I decided that it hardly seemed fair to criticize the logos of teams whose members I don’t personally know, and not do the same to my home team.
This is a case where I actually like having a roller girl in the logo – she’s recently been redesigned, and it’s a very well executed illustration, but still falls short in the areas of legibility (the Blue Ridge text all but disappears as it scales down – script fonts in general are difficult in that regard), the heirarchy’s off, and while the girl-with-the-braids has the potential to be iconic, it’s not quite there yet.
I decided this one just needed a sprucing up, not a full-on redesign, so I cleaned it up, tweaked the browline, put a gleam in her eye and some blue ridge mountains in the background. That’ll do!
Bay Area Derby Girls
This was another request, suggested by a former San Francisco resident, who thought the “heels and wheels” logo said nothing about the bay area. That, and the fact that it becomes entirely illegible from any distance (I watched them skate at the championships and had no idea what the logo was supposed to be until I saw a larger version on their website), pushed this one onto the list.
The B.A.D. thing, while clever, doesn’t really work. When the crowd is singing “BAAAY AAAREEEAAAAAA” in support of your team, that’s what your logo should be showcasing. That and, you know, something about the bay.
Thus, the Golden Gate Bridge on rollerskate wheels. I tried using the bay bridge, but the towers of the Golden Gate are far more iconic, and since gold is the primary Bay Area uniform color, that subtle tie-in seemed to make sense as well.
There you have it!
I’m not trying to say that this is the direction these leagues should definitely go with a rebranding, or even that any of these logos is very good; conceiving of and executing a logo in the course of an hour isn’t likely to yield world-class results. Every one of these rebrandings, however, fits the self-assigned criteria of Legibility, Hierarchy, and Uniqueness, and every one could be used as the basis for a comprehensive branding system. More than anything, I’m trying to get people in the derby world thinking about their brand. I’ve got my fingers crossed that in the next few years we’ll see some major rebrandings of roller derby organizations.
It’s time to join the big leagues.
Edit: I just stumbled across another great blog on this same subject, that touches on a lot of additional nuances of team colors, the different sub-teams on leagues, and other issues that I didn’t get around to including in this. Check it out:
Roller Derby & Branding, or, We Love the Petty Stuff