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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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