SEATTLE, UNITED STATES: Seattle Supersonics Gary Payton (C), Vin Baker (L) and Shammond Williams (R) endure the final seconds of their team’s 102-75 defeat to the San Antonio Spurs in Seattle, 27 April 2002. The Sonics fall behind 2-1 in their best of five Western Conference playoffs. AFP PHOTO/Dan LEVINE (Photo credit should read DAN LEVINE/AFP via Getty Images)
Graphic designer Todd Radom gives his thoughts on what NBA logos.
NBA logos are a crucial part of the game. They give hoops fans something to identify with and are a vital element of historic rivalries between franchises. Professional basketball, whether the NBA, its antecedents or rivals, is filled with beloved design work. Some of these trademarks have stood the test of time and are still used to this day, while others, like an insect trapped in amber, are firmly tied to an era.
NBA logos shape how a franchise is perceived. Consider the original logo for the Milwaukee Bucks, whimsical and non-threatening in comparison to the more modern NBA logos the franchise has employed.
And sometimes, NBA logos predict the future.
They usually have strong ties with fashion, particularly streetwear. Fashion plays a big part in the league, whether it’s what players wear to games, the looks they sport at post-game press conferences or the gear worn by devoted fans. NBA logos are a way to make a statement, something as simple as what team you support.
Design preferences change as aesthetic preferences shift and change, reflecting the hopes, fears, dreams and wants of an era. NBA logos and designs are shaped by the era, whether by new developments in technology, major world events or simply shifts in fashion taste.
Should the league add more teams, would it be worthwhile for these franchises to revive defunct NBA logos and trademarks or those trapped in the past?
To learn more about what works and doesn’t work in the current climate, I reached out to designer Todd Radom on the subject. Radom has previously spoken to FanSided about the new uniform designs when Nike took over from Adidas as the apparel partner for the NBA.
Radom is a real authority on the aesthetics of sports. He designed the logos for the Big3 and wrote a book on baseball uniforms, 2018’s Winning Ugly: A Visual History of the Most Bizarre Baseball Uniforms Ever Worn.
I chatted with him via email about what NBA logos are ripe for revival, what makes design
What follows is a transcript of our email exchanges, edited for clarity.
FanSided: Hypothetically, if the NBA were to add an expansion team or two, what are some defunct logos and schemes you’d consider reviving? For example, I think the Spirits of St. Louis or Kentucky Colonels might be worth a modern take.
Todd Radom: I think the list begins with the Seattle SuperSonics and their 1980s look. Stream of consciousness here:
- How about the Buffalo Braves? A modern approach that would hold up really well today. Orange and black, a solid color combination that’s up for grabs in the NBA right now.
- Spirits: The look is so baked into a particular moment in time, I’m not sure how you could bring it into the 21st century without losing all of the personality and charm.
- The Colonels’ final logo is akin to Buffalo’s in some respects. I think the chore would be to build a uniform set around it that didn’t scream “Nixon administration era!”
FWIW, I wrote a post about some of the best logos of that era.
Fansided: The SuperSonics are a must, a lot of great visual elements to work with. The skyline logo is iconic. That’s definitely a no-brainer in terms of defunct teams/looks to revive. And there’s obviously a hunger for an NBA team in Seattle.
I agree with you on the Braves, the throwback jerseys the Clippers have worn look great. And you’re right about orange and black as a combo, it’s not one that I can recall being used too much for professional hoops.
So many NBA teams have common color schemes. Do you feel that tendency — along with the requirement that teams make use of a basketball in at least one logo — stifles some of the creative potential for design?
I see what you mean about those two former ABA teams being a challenge to update for the modern era.
That’s a great blog post and you picked out some iconic logos that have really stood the test of time.
It seems like a real challenge to design a logo that doesn’t get dated quickly or otherwise get locked into a set period of time. The ’90s Detroit Pistons look comes to mind. What’s the trick for creating a look that is timeless and also evokes the era of its creation?
When it comes to reviving past looks, what are some recent examples you feel succeeded in updating the look while keeping the spirit of the past? I feel that the Charlotte Hornets’ current look captures the feel of the ’90s design while not feeling like a complete retread.
Todd Radom: On common color schemes — a few things to point out, including some unpleasant facts. Nike is, of course, driving the process. They are Nike, and they employ a bunch of talented people. But Nike is all about propelling apparel sales forward, as opposed to building a 360-degree visual brand. Their interests are merch-based, and ease of production is undoubtedly at the forefront of things, hence the limited color palette that you have referenced.
As you probably know, I have created all the graphics and uniform designs for Big3. It’s not the NBA, but it’s a nationally televised league that plays in NBA buildings. I’ve intentionally stepped outside of the box for a few team palettes, with vibrancy and a diverse set of color matchups in mind. Color is everything to fans of all sports, it’s what connects us to our teams in a tribal way, and sometimes our colors are passed down generationally. The Los Angeles Lakers are yellow and purple, the Boston Celtics are green, the Chicago Bulls are red and black.
As far as the inclusion of a basketball, I don’t think it’s necessarily an impossible thing to get around, but it does tend to lead to some sameness from team to team.
On trends and shelf life — we live at a moment where attention spans are diminished and trends are more fleeting than ever before. Think of the way that we interact with our mobile devices. Now think about what that experience was like three years ago, much less five or 10 years ago. Project three, five and 10 years forward — it’s safe to say that predicting trends is a very difficult task. Building a visual identity for a sports franchise means that you need to think about long-term infrastructure, in stadiums and arenas, in terms of investment in brand impressions of all kinds.
’90s logos. This happened because of a perfect storm of circumstances, and the looks were destined to be short-lived (if fun.) We designers began to create digitally, via computers, in 1992-93. All of the sudden we could do things that we couldn’t do with traditional means. Multiple outlines, gradients, increased complexity. Let’s go crazy, let’s get nuts.
Additionally, sports licensing began to boom at this time, with a defined appeal to youth at the forefront. One more thing: A ton of expansion teams came on board at this time, a laboratory or experiment at the perfect moment in time.
Colors — the Charlotte Hornets gave us teal in the late ’80s. The LA Kings and Chicago White Sox rolled out black and silver identities that were carefully conceived and based on trends. Purple, black, silver, teal, along with metallic colors via threads and twill that became widely available at this time. Boom. (I wrote about this at length in my book Winning Ugly.)
The pendulum began to shift back, like it always does, starting in 1999-00. The dot com bust and 9/11 effectively ended the era, and comfort food became the meal of choice. Distilling things down, getting simpler — this is where the secret sauce is when it comes to creating looks that have the potential for some longevity.
The Hornets example you reference is a really good one when it comes to maintaining and building upon the visual DNA of a franchise while pushing it forward. Throw out all the City Edition looks, because they are all about the short-term, literally designed to disappear after a year. And they are, in so many cases, so off-brand. NBA teams that have done a good job of building something solid that references the visual heritage of the franchise include Sacramento, Portland and Washington. Milwaukee too. I can nitpick elements within each, but these have the potential to hang around for a while, in a good way.
Fansided: I’m glad you mentioned Nike! Yes, there’s a definite sameness to some aspects of their approach across the league. I know one complaint I’ve seen about their uniforms is that some of the designs, beyond just color scheme, have a similar feel or are too generic or plain-looking. Sort of interesting that it parallels the league trending toward a similar style of play.
Those designs are great! A lot of thought and craft went into the designs and I appreciate the allusions to the NBA and the playing careers of the athletes in the league. For instance, the Ghost Ballers logo makes me think of Mike Bobby’s days as a Sacramento King. I see what you mean about color! Games between teams with similar schemes aren’t as pleasing to the eye as, say, the clash of Laker purple and gold against Celtic green.
That’s a great way of looking at the relative impermanence of culture and the challenge that presents designers.
Thank you for the added context on ’90s designs and weaving in other influences such as the growth of sports licensing and shifts in culture like 9/11 and the dot com bust.
Those are all excellent choices as far as teams that use their heritage and past designs well.
What trends would you say are shaping design work these days?
Comfort food, as you put it, was where design work headed following 9/11, do you feel that we may be in for another such shift following the end of the pandemic?
What sort of moods or themes do you feel sum up the current era of design?
Todd Radom: Nike — that’s what you get when you absolutely need to keep rotating designs in and out on an annual basis.
Thanks for the kind words on Big3, always always so much fun collaborating with Cube. A real passion project and a great partnership.
On trends: streetwear, now more than ever.
On post-pandemic: Who knows what happens after all this changes? It’s either going to be comfort food or a forceful explosion of innovation and energy, but I suspect it’s going to be the former. Risk-taking and nimbleness are likely not going to be on the agenda going forward.
On the current era of design: I believe that the big theme of “constant change” negates influential trends. Again, licensee-led design programs are always going to be necessarily invested in short-term thinking for short-term gain. It’s about the sugar rush, not about innovation, even if the two sometimes crossover.