As an experienced graphic designer and creative director for the past decade, Justin Thomas Kay learned long ago that there are infinite ways to earn a buck in artistic design. Last summer, Kay learned the same freedom applies in drawing one, too.
The Brooklyn-based design firm Doubleday & Cartwright, where Kay serves as managing creative director, was selected by the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks to create a new set of team logos and color combinations that would be used for the 2015-16 season. The Bucks were sold last April to Manhattan hedge-fund billionaires Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry for a cool $550 million, and the new ownership group wanted to start making good on that investment by updating the team's look with a younger and more vibrant aesthetic.
"I laughed because it just seemed so ridiculous," Kay says, not because he and his colleagues weren't up to the task, but because of the sheer serendipity of the whole affair. Kay had grown up in the Milwaukee suburb of New Berlin, Wisconsin. After high school, he went to the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and then moved to New York, where he would work at several magazines over the next few years. Even in the land of Knicks and Nets, Kay, now 34, has held strong to his Bucks fandom.
But the other reason that gave Kay pause was something more subliminal: the knowledge that redesigning a team logo is fraught with potential peril. Historically, changing a team's look is anathema to both fans and management. It can confuse team identity and brand awareness. Fans can also easily loathe any new look simply because it is different. That kind of misstep, which already comes at a cost of months of planning, could cost a team millions in lost merchandise sales, unrenewed season tickets and plummeting TV ratings. But also factor in that Doubleday & Cartwright had never specifically designed a team's logo before. And that the Bucks play in a smaller media market and embrace their regionalism like few other franchises.
Kay and his coworkers felt no small amount of pressure. "People take this stuff very personal," he says. "There are certain teams you just don't touch, but then there are certain teams that have changed." Those are usually the ones most in need of a makeover, and teams these days are not hesitating to see that process through – because a new look, if pulled off correctly, can be quite lucrative, with a whole new array of $30 shirts, $100 jerseys and assorted other merch the end result.
Though this was D&C's first crack at a pro team's logo, the firm already had oodles of sports and design cred. Chris Isenberg launched the sports-centric streetwear company No Mas in 2004, five years before co-founding D&C with Aaron Amaro and Kimou Meyer. In 2010, the firm started publishing Victory Journal, a biannual sports publication that places a heavy emphasis on design and photography. Kay, who was creative director of The FADER magazine, came aboard the following year as managing creative director. Even the firm's name – a reference to the two men (Abner Doubleday quite wrongly and Alexander Cartwright somewhat sorta correctly) credited with inventing the sport of baseball – is a deeply rooted New York sports reference.
The offer to D&C came through last year when an acquaintance of Meyer's mentioned the firm's expertise in sports design to Alex Lasry, son of new Bucks co-owner Marc. The younger Lasry relayed the recommendation to his father and that set the entire process in motion. Kay's Milwaukee roots weren't a selling point in the initial pitch, but they became indispensable once Meyer's team of seven designers went to work on the initial sketches, which would number in the hundreds.
"The deer and the color, for us, were the two things that were really worth holding on to," Kay says. "There's been this evolution of the deer, and the green wasn't going anywhere; the green feels beyond appropriate for Milwaukee and the entire state of Wisconsin. As someone who grew up there – and even as an objective designer – the purple never totally made sense."
Two frantic weeks of what Kay calls "a lot of intense hand-sketching and deliberation and investigation" ended with a presentation made in Lasry's Manhattan office. The new owners were immediately taken with D&C's vision, and the next two months were a slightly more relaxed time, with Meyer's team refining everything from font size to the curvature of the eyeballs to the angle of the nose on the logo's front-facing buck, which became the focal point of the entire effort.
"We did hundreds and hundreds of sketches and iterations, and landing on the orientation that we did required these micro-movements of the nose, clenching a little more upward or downward," Kay says. "There's a lot of difficulty in there. A buck can very quickly turn into a camel or a dog or a satanic goat. It changes the face so fast. For us, it became an intense character study – 'How do we settle on a buck that we feel strongly about?' There was a lot of minutiae in that process."
That process Kay describes has long lived within an ad-hoc industry that has traditionally existed along sports' periphery. Patrick McDarby, a prominent Connecticut-based logo artist who created more than 200 emblems for teams across all major sports, passed away in March at the age of 57 and was one of the most prolific and successful people in his field. But in today's hypersensitive age of branding and social media, the practice is evolving into projects born primarily of synergy and advertising dollars, even directly from the apparel or shoe companies who themselves have much invested in teams' outward appearances. For the moment, the Bucks owners' decision to partner with an upstart firm is not readily the norm.
The Bucks haven't been the only NBA team to redo its logo in recent months, but they appear to be the only one that hasn't left most fans scratching their heads in bewilderment. The Washington Wizards released a new logo in mid-April that leaned heavily on the patriotic, red-white-and-blue theme of being a team in the nation's capital, but the lack of any visible wizardry was problematic. And if the leaked designs for the Los Angeles Clippers' new logos are to be believed, then team owner Steve Ballmer's design instincts are exactly what you'd expect from a former Microsoft CEO. As noted by ESPN's Paul Lukas, who writes full-time about sports logos and uniforms: "The 'sweeping lines' on the logo pertaining to 'the horizon as seen from the bridge of a ship, signifying the Los Angeles Clippers steering boldly into the future' has got to be history's lamest, most pathetically willful attempt to inject 'story' into a team design."
It's no wonder that teams have historically been hesitant to change their logos, and as society's tastes evolve, a logo can, after decades of wear, also become a glaring anachronism. MLB's Cleveland Indians have used the Native American caricature known as Chief Wahoo for nearly 70 years, and the team has thus far resisted all public pleas to change its look. Walter Goldbach, who was 17 years old when he designed the image in 1946 at the behest of team owner Bill Veeck, said in a radio interview last year that changing the logo would be "100-percent wrong." Though the team has taken steps in recent years to de-emphasize Wahoo's importance, he still appears atop the team's official cap, largely unchanged since the early '50s.
The team at D&C didn't have to delve into such heady matters, but there was still immense pressure from within. "When you're dealing with a sports logo, it has to be hyperlocalized and feel like it's really speaking to the place that you're creating it for," Kay says. "We really hit something that the NBA felt strongly about, beyond just the Bucks. We were lucky in that we all felt good about what was happening. And if you had given us another year, we would've ended up in the same place."
D&C's lead designers were in Milwaukee last month for the official unveiling and plan to be there again this fall for the 2015-16 season home opener that will mark the official on-court debut of the firm's iconographic efforts. For Kay, it will be the culmination of the most personal and rewarding design process of his career.
"There were some crazy things that happened in graphic design in the '90s and it just doesn't carry over to now," he says. "So you have to think, if this is going to last forever, can we really stand behind it?"