The ball as a brand: From simple function to an explosion of surface graphic design and artFootballs today are more than just the physical embodiment of the game, they are increasingly becoming a unique canvas for graphic designers and artists. Adidas / FIFA World Cup balls, football graphic design evolution From a purely functional point of view, bold graphics printed on balls are there so that players can play better. It’s an innovation first introduced into the professional game around January 1962. Before then, balls were typically plain brown leather coloured, constructed of panels printed with simple word marks, logos and text, in black ink. A series of ‘patterned’ or repetitive graphics printed onto a ball allows players to track the speed and movement, spin amount, curve, bounce, trajectory and flight of the ball. In 1962, in the German Oberliga, this was a crucial development and it was the same year the Bundesliga was to be launched. A brand new unified league, bringing the best of the regional clubs into one league. It was a fundamental part of a revolution in German football, in their aim for European and global success. But all the details mattered, and to get the best out of players, in terms of equipment, the ball had to not only be better build quality, but it needed to be visibly better. It was the start of a revolution in football design too. Think for a moment, of the ‘classic’ football, with its black pentagons set against the white ball. In early 1962 it was the development of a radical new ball design, but the introduction of the black pattern was purely functional. At this stage, the design of the ball was about aiding player visibility of the ball in play, rather than creating a ball as a brand. But this all changed in 1968 with the introduction of the first ball to go worldwide, with the help of TV. It was the Adidas Telstar Elast, used in the 1968 Euros in Italy and the Mexico Olympics the same year. This ball was branded and set the scene for what was to follow. It was its successor, the Telstar Durlast, used for the Mexico 1970 World Cup that was really the very beginning of the ball as a brand. This was further cemented by Adidas’s contract to become the sole provider and sponsor of FIFA World Cup balls. It was a commercial success for Adidas that still continues today. A television audience of millions around the world, collectively watched the World Cup live for the first time, all with their eyes on this cool patterned black and white ball with Adidas Telstar branding. It was the star of the show and ‘that goal’ by Brazil in the final planted it well and truly in the minds of a captive audience. It was the first branded ball to go global. In 1978, for the Argentina World Cup, Adidas launched the Tango Durlast, with a striking and bold interconnecting curved pattern. It was a further innovation and it was an evolution of the pentagon pattern concept. But black pentagons can’t be trademarked as they are too simple and the design not distinctive enough. For a ball to be a brand, it needed more unique graphics. Graphics that could be trademarked. By the early to mid 1980s simple graphics intended to aid player performance started to go beyond functionality. This period was really the very start of the journey into more elaborate designs with decorative elements and cultural themes. They used graphics that could be considered a ‘brand’. The official ball used in the Mexico World Cup in 1986 is a case in point. The design used the ‘template’ of the original Tango pattern and evolved it into an azteca patterned design, to reflect the culture of the country of where the tournament was being held. The ball was of course branded the ‘Azteca’. Adidas are still using this same concept today for some elite match balls, adding graphics to balls that reflect and represent game venues and host cities. The same Tango template treatment was repeated in 1990, with the design of the Etrusco Unico and its Roman influenced pattern, reflecting the culture and heritage of Italy. The Questra ball designed for USA 1994 was a nod to space exploration. But in 1998 the Tricolore design was created for the France World Cup, and this was the start of a visible departure from a figurative symbolic connection with each hosting nation to something more abstract, simply by using the colours of the flag. The balls from here on, certainly for World Cups, started to become more graphic, more decorative, with the occasional inclusion of cultural elements or cultural colour references. The ball for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is an abstract design. According to Adidas it is inspired by the “culture, architecture, iconic sailing boats and the flag of Qatar”. Branding is of course at the core of all the development of modern balls. The design brief is two-fold; the ball has to perform at the highest level and it has to appeal to a mass global market of football fans. Functionality and performance is combined with unique graphic design. From 1978 onwards, Adidas were looking for new ways to create unique designs that could be trademarked and then marketed across the world as replicas of tournament balls. All other sports brands followed and now balls are big business. By the mid to late 1980s, the match ball became a desirable object by fans wanting to emulate their heroes on the local fields and recreational grounds. Today balls, created by sports brands such as Adidas, Nike, Select, Mitre and more, create and release a plethora of diverse designs every season. From geometric shapes and elaborate gradients to bold colours, line art, illustrations and layered typography treatments. They are really cool objects, and it’s no wonder that some fans really want to collect their favourites, for their ‘ball wall’ galleries. Advances in ball production technology has allowed for these more elaborate constructions and designs to come about. There is still a tradition of hand-stitched balls, even for balls approved by FIFA for use at the top level of football, but more recent advances have allowed for new and innovative ball ‘engineering’, resulting in unusual panel combinations and surface profiles. This is due to the mechanical bonding of the balls and the new inner and outer synthetic materials used. Ball engineering and manufacture has been combined with automated screen-printing too. Machines can mass produce balls with many colours, Pantone® special colours and layers of graphics, with special coatings, creating raised textures that are tactile and better for grip. Balls are now a unique canvas for graphic designers and artists to constantly create new creations. And they are a unique and powerful marketing tool and product for brands, from the balls used on match day to balls created for art projects, fashion brands, awareness campaigns, corporate giveaways and charity fundraising events. Nike Strike, Premier League ball Mitre EFL ball 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia ball, the ‘Telstar 18’ 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil ball, the ‘Brazuka’ Nike Netherlands Ball UEFA Champions League Ball UEFA Champions League Ball Floral ball by Versace Ball art by Craig Black Charity fundraising ball by AKFC Credits All images are the copyright of their respective owners.