Penalty! Unnecessary Blandness! Redesigning the Worst NFL Helmet Graphics

The conservative columnist George Will once said football combines the two worst things about America: violence punctuated by committee meetings. As a designer who occasionally gets caught up in the fury of the game, I'd like to add graphic design to what's wrong with football.

nfl samuraiWith the help of Skycam I spend as much time enjoying the color, patterns and graphics that add to the spectacle of the sport, as I do enjoying a deftly-completed pass. Now that the Yankees have won the World Series and the season shifts from batting balls to banging heads, I've been musing about NFL helmet design. For inspiration (and some truly bizarre helmet design), I visited the Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Created centuries ago, these designs (left) are more about shock and awe than waging battle but are truly extraordinary.

Today's high-tech helmet with its wireless headset and polycarbonate visor has come a long way from the padded leather ones of yesterday. It not only serves its essential protective function but is also a gleaming sign for a team's brand. Yet in many cases the graphics are blunt and formulaic, usually involving slapping the team's primary logo on both sides of the helmet.

This bilateral approach is sometimes successful for teams such as the Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles. Horns and wings usually come in twos making these symmetrical designs feel natural.

vikingsramseagles

The Dallas Cowboys' blue star on a silver field is crisp and a clear reference to the Lone Star state. As for simplicity, I guess the Cleveland Browns score highest. They use no logo at all but why do the Browns have orange helmets?

cowboysbrowns

However, the absolutely best team helmet belongs to the Cincinnati Bengals. The tiger stripe pattern embraces the whole spherical form. There is nothing else like it in the NFL. It looks fierce from any angle and boldly breaks from tradition.

bengals

Among the weakest designs are the Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers , whose visually complicated logos become a graphic mess when televised and, I imagine, even if you're sitting on the fifty-yard line. At the very the bottom of the list are the New England Patriots. The Patriots' helmet is plastered with their logo, which comes dangerously close to looking like a wind-swept John Kerry dressed up like a Minute Man. If there was ever a time to go with the obvious this is it. Why not really play the patriotic card and star and stripe the helmet?

redskinbucpats

Working with visual elements of each of these team brands, I asked illustrator and retouching whiz Mike Racz, to render a few of my suggested graphic design improvements for what I considered to be The Helmets In Need.

nfl sketch
My initial sketches provided to Mike Racz.

For the Washington Redskins I tried a design direction that might be considered more politically correct in most circles by removing the Native American portrait, emphasizing the feather motif from the headdress and using it more dynamically on the helmet.

wash red

I amplified the "Jolly Roger" feature of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers helmet to make it more telegenic while retaining the overall team color scheme.

bucs

A team as legendary as the New England Patriots deserves a more celebratory helmet. Here I totally disregarded the existing design and offered a strong, boldly colored alternative that would look triumphant in the end zone.

pats

For dedicated football fans, messing with the team brand in any fashion is "verboten." However, I offer these design suggestions simply as brand enhancements to make these helmets work harder for these hard working teams.

[Original helmet images from Fans Edge, where they are also available for purchase]

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Ken Carbone is among America's most respected graphic designers, whose work is renowned for its clarity and intelligence. He has built an international reputation creating outstanding programs for world-class clients, including Tiffany & Co., W.L Gore, Herman Miller, PBS, Christie's, Nonesuch Records, the W Hotel Group, and The Taubman Company. His clients also include celebrated cultural institutions such as the Museé du Louvre, The Museum of Modern Art, The Pierpont Morgan Library, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the High Museum of Art.

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70 Comments

  • Mengxing Shen

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  • SteveFeser

    I was expecting to read an old article on basic design concepts behind all 32 team helmets. Ugh! This article isn't even half baked. Aside from Ken Carbone's musing observations and god awful redesigns, the Cincinnati Bengals' helmet design is still the worst in the league.

    The Bengals' so-called tiger stripe pattern that embraces the whole spherical form does nothing to denote waging battle or allow for brand recognition. In fact, the stripes of a Bengal tiger are for camouflage. Camouflage patterns are meant to conceal and confuse. By incorporating this design pattern to the whole helmet, one would be hard pressed to visualize a brand. Brand designs usually have borders that encompass a company's brand. Even when a good design goes borderless, it is confined by its size and placement. And almost always, the borderless design will have a center attraction that draws the viewer's attention. A good example would be the defunct Frankfurt Galaxy helmet.
    Yes, it's back to the drawing for the Bengals.

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  • Matt

    cool, i like the redskin helmet a lot. and the drawing of the bucs helmet kinda reminds me of the boise st. helmets with the logo on one side.

  • Megan

    Can I just say... UGH. The only one I like is the Skins. But that is a classic helmet just like the Cowboys. No way will it ever change. 

  • Jimmy Carl Black

    Wow. Just... wow. The Bengals as the BEST helmet in the NFL??? Are you f-in' kidding me??? The Bengals helmets are the absolute worst helmets in the history of the NFL (and there have been some BAAAAD helmets in that group). How do you admire a helmet that looks like it was designed by David Lee Roth ca. 1984? 

    Well, I guess seeing your redesigns, I get why. The worst thing about the Bucs helmet is that ridiculous metallic pewter color that was trendy in the '90s and looks about as stylish as a Plymouth Neon today. This is why teams should eschew trendy colors (yes, we're looking squarely at you Jacksonville and Baltimore!) and stick with tradition. For all intents and purposes, the Cowboys' and Giants' helmets are "plain" and "boring," but they're among the best in the league because they respect tradition and simplicity. Where Oregon, Maryland, arena football, NFL Europe, and nearly every expansion team that came into the league after the AFL-NFL merger has gone wrong is not understanding that football is a traditional sport. It's not soccer, it's not motocross, it's not beach volleyball. After baseball, football is the most traditional and conservative sport, and uniforms should pay homage to that. 

    The only thing I agree with in this article is that the Bucs and Pats desperately need new helmets. The Patriots "Flying Elvis" is an embarrassment. Their old "Pat Patriot" white helmets were much classier. 

    The other teams that badly need new helmets – in fact, complete new uniforms – are:

    • Baltimore Ravens (black and purple is SO played out, and it didn't even look good in 1993).

    • Tennessee Titans (looks like it was designed by an indoor soccer team).

    • Denver Broncos (like the Pats, they had one of the best uniforms in the league and ditched them for some of the worst; their current uniforms look like they should be for the Barcelona Dragons).

    • Jacksonville Jaguars (see: Baltimore Ravens above).

    • Cincinnati Bengals (Richard Simmons should never design NFL uniforms).

    • Seattle Seahawks (the logo is fine, but the new color scheme is dismal. Go back to the silver, blue, and green).

    • Atlanta Falcons (looks like they're in the Russian mafia). 

    Best helmets/uniforms (in no particular order):
    Giants
    Cowboys
    Packers
    Chargers
    Colts (even though the concept of "Indianapolis Colts" is as silly as "Utah Jazz" or "LA Lakers" – teams with regional names should always change them when they move – Baltimore should have been able to retain the rights to the Colts' name and uniforms as the Browns did.)

  • Usualk

    this is an absolutely horrible article with really poor judgement and perspective.  

  • Tom O'Grady

    Stick to annual report and Jello pudding packaging. These helmet examples make the Maryland Terrapins UnderArmor designs look classy. Jesus, that Redskins helmet is atrocious. 

  • Todd Pence

    Anyone who thinks the Bengals have the best helmet in the NFL is either a brain damaged idiot or on drugs.

  • Gordon Gant

    Bengals is the best. I really like the Washington and Tampa Bay's Designs in need.