Font scandal at FIFA World Cup

While millions of people are enjoying the excitement and drama of the World Cup matches, the type design community is outraged at the low level of the event’s typography. We have undertaken to shed light on the situation, adopting a broader approach to the issue and seeking the opinions of two highly-qualified professionals: Dino dos Santos, co-author of the Dusha typeface, and Christoph Koeberlin, type designer and one of the World Cup typography bashers.

July 10, 2018

The typography of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia includes two independent areas: the corporate typography of the event itself and the typography used on players’ equipment. The latter, in its turn, encompasses a variety of visual concepts provided by the national teams’ suppliers.

The World Cup’s global identity was developed by Brandia Central, a Portuguese brand agency that had won the competition and presented its graphic design concept back in 2014. The first design-related scandal was triggered by the similarities between the Russian World Cup designs and those of the previous World Cup in Brazil. The agency had to deal with accusations of self-plagiarism, and a number of industry experts remarked on the general mediocrity of the graphics.

logos Article at Underconsideration questioning the originality of the emblem

Dusha typeface

In the same year of 2014, Brandia Central presented the World Cup logo and a concept of its corporate typeface, Dusha (the Russian for “soul”). The typeface was immediately subjected to criticism, but the agency was expected to improve it shortly after and to present a satisfactory final version. Sadly, it never happened. To get to the bottom of the issue, Ilya Ruderman spoke to Portuguese designer Dino dos Santos for an insider’s perspective on the project.

Ilya Ruderman: Hi, Dino. Could you explain how the project came to you and what happened? I know it was about four years ago, probably even earlier.

Dino dos Santos: Yes. Well, basically, I was asked to be a part of this project for the World Cup in Russia in 2014. And when we started working with them, we were provided with the drawings of the basic character set, approved by FIFA and the World Cup Committee.

dusha_figures Figures of Dusha typeface with our comments, highlighting some questionable in our opinion details

IR: And those drawing had been made by the agency or…?

DS: They had been made by the agency; we didn’t make them ourselves. We didn’t draw all the letters; we had a series of letters in Illustrator files, and they simply asked us, “Is it possible to put them into a typeface?” — “Yes, it is.” This project was executed by a Portuguese agency called Brandia Central, which was one of the largest Portuguese agencies at the time, not only in terms of publicity but also thanks to its graphic design projects for major institutions, corporations, and initiatives worldwide. Later they simply vanished. They no longer exist as a company. When they approached us back in 2014, I believe, it was the first time we worked with them. Later we collaborated on another project, Dubai 2020; you know, the World Expo Exhibition in Dubai, but that’s another story. These projects were very different. When we started working on the first one, for the World Cup, they came to me with basic drawings. They had drawn a logo inspired by sputnik and interstellar sci-fi graphic design or whatever — a World Cup trophy embellished with viewports, stars, and all that crap. So when they approached us, they already had a very specific idea of what they needed regarding the typeface. They just wanted our help to make the drawings more uniform, because there were some inconsistencies between the drawings. The letters were the next step, and by then… When I first saw the letters, the first thing I did was ask: “Is it possible to change this?” And they said: “No, it’s not. This has been approved. So it’s going to be Russia 2018, just like this, and the letters are going to look just like this. All we need is to make them more uniform, to harmonize the Latin and the Cyrillic shapes.”

dusha_latin Latin uppercases of Dusha typeface with our comments, highlighting some questionable in our opinion details

IR: Can I ask you at this point if you remember how many characters had been drawn? I imagine, not all of them…

DS: No, not all of them, but basically most characters were drawn. We just had to turn them into a functional typeface. So, they had been working with an intern inside the studio; I don’t recall her name, she was young, and they introduced her as an expert because she was Russian. I don’t know why; I suppose it had something to do with the fact that they were working on a Cyrillic typeface. She was the one in charge of developing certain Cyrillic letters for the World Cup. We just expanded the character set by adding Western European glyphs, and we had to make the old things much more balanced between the Latin and the Cyrillics.

dusha_cyrillic Cyrillic uppercases of Dusha typeface with our comments, highlighting some questionable in our opinion details

IR: So, basically, what you’re saying is they used you as a font production studio, providing all the graphics, which had been created by the agency itself.

DS: Yes, they delivered the graphics in Adobe Illustrator files.

IR: At the same time, you were limited in changes and it wasn’t possible to invite a Cyrillic expert, was it?

DS: Absolutely not. According to them, they already had an in-house Cyrillic expert.

IR: All right. Now I’ve got a much better understanding of how this came to life. Okay, next question. What do you think about the typeface?

DS: Well, my first thought was “What the hell am I going to do?” But it doesn’t matter because, as type designers, we have to keep in mind that a typeface might become much more interesting because of the way it’s used. This typeface is very likely to become a lot more powerful because of the sheer number of times people will see it in action and perceive it as the corporate typeface of the Russia World Cup. My first thought was “This is quite strange; this is quite weird.” However, I did some research — not because it was asked of me, as my role was limited to the studio’s “hired muscle”; I was simply expected to produce the typeface, to curve it, to space it, and to uniformize everything, just to make it… well, not completely different from the sketches but close enough to the sketches so that they wouldn’t realize that we made a few subtle changes. But we weren’t always successful.

dusha_lc Latin and Cyrillic lowercases of Dusha typeface with our comments, highlighting some questionable in our opinion details

In that regard, what do I think about the typeface? Had it been up to me, I would have never made a typeface like that. I thought they were going to use the typeface in a more decorative way instead of a more informative way. When I first saw it last year — I suppose it was last year — at the champions’ leagues of the South American, Asian, and European championships and used by guys who had won the previous World Cup and so on, I thought the font was going to be used just like this: just to do “Saint Petersburg” or “Moscow.”

IR: Headlines, yeah.

DS: Yeah. I never expected the font to be used for team names in small sizes, because the capital A is not very legible. The confusions between the K and the R are pretty evident. I made that mistake maybe 18 years ago, when working on a brand design, and said to myself, “No, I’m not going to repeat this anymore.” When I saw it again, I said “No, this is going to be quite a mess.” I don’t know what they were expecting… That said I probably have to admit that not even the Latin is well done. The Latin had issues, and the issues of the Latin version later reflected in the drawbacks of the Cyrillics. I don’t know how they started doing this and whether they started with the Cyrillics. In the Cyrillic counterpart, I can find some visual references to certain Cyrillics that were drawn in the late 19th century. Even so, I’m not sure of anything about the font.

IR: Okay, probably my last question, because we’ve covered almost everything from different angles, and I just want to clarify for better understanding: you were unhappy even with the Latin part and might have had some doubts about the Cyrillic part as well. So, when you shared your concerns with the agency, did they just ignore it?

DS: It wasn’t possible to change a thing because everything had been approved. So I just had to work with what we had. “This is approved and for them this is right. I think this is wrong. How can I make this a little bit better without them noticing that I’ve changed a few things on each character?” One thing is the typeface that you see right now. Another thing is the sketches I received, the ones that had previously been approved by the FIFA board. Those sketches… Well, if you think this is bad, you should have seen those, because those were really weird; it was some really weird stuff. This is a creative nightmare, because you cannot create much. You have to create, but you have a fence that doesn’t let you move much. You just have to make all the things work within that kind of structure.


So. Apparently, the Dusha typeface was doomed from the very start. When the process is carried out without a type expert until the very last stage and none of the project participants are invested in the quality of the result, chances of creating a good typeface are less than slim. European brand agencies share a number of misconceptions, one of them being the myth that any graphic designer can develop graphics for a typeface, while a type designer’s job is limited to transforming graphic vectors from Adobe Illustrator into a functional typeface. Another popular misconception is that any Russian-speaking person is capable of creating a Cyrillic character set for a typeface. Both misconceptions are detrimental. Russian companies often have to deal with subpar Cyrillic support, but that is beyond the point. For now, let us conclude the discussion of the Dusha typeface with a brief statement of our position. Dusha’s graphics are based on two typographic styles with a very distant, if any, connection to Russia — Carolingian minuscule and Uncial. Carolingian minuscule never had anything to do with Cyrillic, while the Uncial is believed to be the ancestor of Ustav, an early form of Cyrillic writing. However, it is safe to say that in the 21st century neither of them have anything in common with Cyrillic typography. The authors were far off the mark. Then the problems started to snowball. The ambiguous Latin character set, well-suited only for large-size display use, was carelessly, negligently complemented with an atrocious Cyrillic counterpart, which suffered from warped proportions, faulty constructions, and inconsistent contrasts. While the Latin version of the typeface looks ambiguous, its Cyrillic version is an unequivocal failure.

Typography on the players’ kits

Match broadcasts encompass two layers of typography; we have already addressed Dusha, the typeface used for on-screen captions. The other layer is more diverse and includes typefaces used on football shirts. The organization is slightly different here, with kits being designed by the teams’ sponsors. Each team is sponsored by one of the major sports equipment suppliers: Adidas, Nike, Puma, and a few other. Laymen may fail to realize the scope of the trade, but sponsorships and kit production are a huge business opportunity for the three market giants. To get an idea, take a look at Adidas’ list of sponsorships.

2018-world-cup-kit-overview-2 World Cup kits by sponsors

Adidas is sponsoring the largest number of teams at the Cup — 12, namely Germany, Spain, Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Russia, and Sweden.

Nike is sponsoring 10 teams — Brazil, France, Portugal, England, Australia, Croatia, Nigeria, Poland, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.

Nike_fonts Nike Fonts for WC2018

Puma, which normally supports the Italy national team, has limited its sponsorship to four other countries this time — Senegal, Serbia, Uruguay and Switzerland.

New Balance is sponsoring two teams as well — Panama and Costa Rica.

New_Balance_Costa-Rica_World_Cup_Kit_Typeface_2018 New Balance typeface for teams of Panama and Costa Rica

Umbro’s Double Diamond is sponsoring the national team of Peru.

Three other national teams have their own sponsors: Erreà for Iceland, Hummel for Denmark, and Uhlsport for Tunisia.

Iceland Typeface for Erreà equipment of Iceland team DgYC3hFW4AEjcrF Typeface for Uhlsport equipment of Tunisia team Denmark_World_cup_2018_FOnt Typeface for Hummel equipment of Denmark team

All these details matter insofar as the kit supplier is the one responsible for shirt designs, including style, color scheme, and, most importantly in our case, choice of typeface. Naturally, each company has its own strategy and preferences when it comes to type design. For instance, Adidas develops a new unified typeface for all of its teams at each championship; this time, they went for a rectangular typeface inspired by Russian Constructivism. Meanwhile, Nike pursues a different strategy. Four years ago the company used a custom version of ITC AvantGarde Gothic on most kits and offered custom typefaces to certain teams, sometimes commissioned them from famous designers. Thus, Wim Crouwel developed a typeface for the Netherlands national team, while Team England’s typeface was created by none other than Neville Brody. Unfortunately this concept was changed and at WC2018 we saw different fonts.

We decided to discuss the matter with Christoph Koeberlin, whose spot-on Tweet (posted at @sportsfonts_com) gained huge popularity, revealing the public bafflement at the quality of fonts used on World Cup shirts.

Ilya Ruderman: Hi, Christoph. You’re probably the one who started the discussion about the sponsors’ fonts, which are the most questionable on Adidas and Puma kits, but Nike designs have some issues as well. I don’t know how invested you are in your Twitter account (@sportsfonts_com) — in fact, I don’t know anything about this side of — and I don’t know how deep you interest goes, but I have a lot of questions about how this came to pass. As I understand, sponsors are responsible for the entire football kit. However, as a branding designer, as a designer with a lot of experience in identities, I realize that it’s absolutely inappropriate to trust them with the design of the entire kit. Even World Cup kits need a unified identity that should stand apart with better-quality, well-implemented designs, with more unified designs that will make everyone happy, because right now we see several groups of teams playing in different designs. Can you share your thoughts or do you maybe have some knowledge about the procedures and how these fonts were produced?

Christoph Koeberlin: Yes, it’s probably a good idea to start with what this thing is about — with the idea behind it. I’m into football and I’m into typefaces, so when you look at their combination, this is on the one hand very interesting, because fonts, typefaces, numbers are so significant, and they can really help differentiate between teams. When you see them, you sometimes can identify a team by their shirt numbers, which is great, I think. But on the other hand, they are mainly bad quality, and I thought “Well, let’s just try doing something where I aim for maybe… better on the one hand, and on the other hand, something really eye-catching, for people to see why such things matter and where you could go wrong.

These were the ideas that I had, so basically it’s like a side project for me and I don’t spend much time on it. The only thing I’ve done is design one retail typeface, Winner, which is a classic athletic model. And I was wondering when I saw that… it’s such a generic design, but there was no family — from condensed to wide, from thin to black — and I was truly wondering why there was nothing like that. Normally, I do custom stuff, but there had to be one family that would be a typical sports family. This is my Winner typeface. I also designed a typeface for my favorite football club when I was a child, so this project meant a lot to me, but it wasn’t really commercial. As a designer, I said: “This is my dream to see my team with these numbers.” I like them a lot.

So, what I was about to say is that I don’t have any experience with actual suppliers. But at least I’ve managed to share with you some of my thoughts on the matter. In general, I think there are two kinds of typefaces: those designed for a specific team and those designed for a specific supplier. I think 12 nations are currently wearing Adidas’ typeface, Puma has four nations, and Nike has the basic typeface.

Adidas One font for each team sponsored by Adidas

The interesting thing about Nike is that they have a basic typeface with five or six themes, and they’ve also made some special ones for bigger teams like France, Brazil, or Portugal. Funnily, Adidas’ and Puma’s typefaces are equally terrible, but Puma’s typeface is all the more terrible once you realize it’s meant to be a typeface not only for the World Cup but for all Puma teams next season. So we’ll be seeing it for another year on many teams, which makes it even worse.

Puma_Jersey_2018_WorldCup_Typeface Font for each team sponsored by Puma

And I’m really wondering why people… if they know, okay, “this is something that will be on almost every shirt we do, so we need something good,” right? And this is pure crap. As for Nike, their basic typeface is quite good — which is more than I can say about their special typefaces. If you take a closer look at Team Brazil, the font’s really not professional in any way. And that’s interesting for me. To conclude my idea, I find the issue fascinating, because it can’t be good for teams, nations, or clubs to have shirt numbers that identify them as belonging to a certain supplier. I don’t understand why it should be good for Spain not to have its own numbers, but the numbers that are clearly recognizable as Adidas. The only one who really gains an advantage from that is the supplier. And they didn’t do a good job.

IR: Having been on the market for a long time, we’ve both seen quite a lot of collaborations where branding agencies or big companies commission new custom fonts. The industry of custom fonts is quite big. We keep seeing new projects that involve quite a lot of our colleagues. My question, what I’m trying to understand, is why it’s working perfectly everywhere except sports. Off the top of my head, I can recall only a couple such projects. For instance, NBA was redesigned with a special custom version of Action typeface by Commercial Type.

NBAWordmark New NBA identity with Action typeface (Commercial Type) by Erik van Blokland

Apart from that, every time I see anything in sports, I’m quite certain it was created by an in-house graphic designer of the brand agency without any experience in type design. And I’m trying to understand why this keeps happening, because custom design works so well with all other industries – luxury brands, fashion brands, magazines. But we hardly ever hear from the clients from sports. I don’t know if you can help me find out why this is the case…

CK: I don’t have any idea. I know of certain cases that testify to the contrary. Speaking about numbers, there was Tal Leming’s project for the U. S. team. It was perfect and perfectly documented, and everybody understands why type design matters in this case.

90-min-display-styles-cnv Great storytelling by Tal Leming about his type design project for U.S. soccer team

Commercial Type also created a lettering for Puma, I think, for the 2010 World Cup or something. It was great too.

Puma_CT Paul Barnes created lettering and numbers for all teams outfitted by Puma in the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations

What I don’t understand, though, is why they went back to some amateur stuff. I really have no idea, because you can plainly see that their current typography is unprofessional. I have the same question as you, and I have no idea why. Apparently, sports are a special case, and the approach that works in any other case is not applicable here, so I don’t know. But this is one of the reasons I tried to do this thing.

IR: Just to highlight this kind of problems, right?

Christoph Christoph’s tweet

CK: Actually you saw my Tweet, which eventually got about 18,000 likes. Interestingly, these things obviously seem to touch people. Therefore, people understand that there’s a problem. Actually it was fascinating to see how people reacted to this, because newspapers reacted to the Tweet and asked: “What’s wrong with these numbers?” And they interviewed a PR guy from Adidas, who had to explain why these numbers were like this. Later, I wrote this guy an email, and he called me. He turned out to be a really nice guy and said: “Great to see it.” And we laughed. Finally, I said: “Well, if you need help… Just let me know.” And he just forwarded the message to their design team, but I haven’t heard from them, just as I’ve expected. Still I’m wondering why that is the case. I don’t know; maybe the suppliers’ designers think they are also good type designers. I don’t know.

IR: But I’m still thinking about the World Cup, the super big event that is happening right now, with billions and billions of people watching the games, and I’m kind of unsure what I’d prefer: whether I’d prefer to see unified designs in terms of fonts and typography, a uniform level of typography, or I’d rather see truly country-specific designs. Would I enjoy seeing Spanish typography on the Spain national team or Russian typography on Team Russia? So, thinking outside box, without any limits, it actually brings me to a fascinating visual space where I can easily recognize the country, maybe even recognize it by the design of the graphics. Of course, I respect the sponsors’ interests — they’re paying money and supporting the team. However, the choice of fonts and typography is super important in this case, because it’s super important to recognize the numbers on shirts: 17 or 77. Of course, we can guess that player number 77 is a rare sight in football, but still. From my opinion, generally speaking, when events like this are organized, it could be super interesting for our industry to contribute a plethora of diverse styles and ideas; it could really boost the growth of the type design community and give birth to many amazing things. If someone could take care… if they just said, “Okay, we’re controlling all the design except fonts, except typography,” and maybe organized one tiny committee inside their organizational structure, which would just say, “Okay, guys, we need to make some gorgeous typography, to create something special for this event.” It could be really helpful for everyone, because the championship is multilingual and embraces many countries from all over the world. Meanwhile, as natives of a Latin or a Cyrillic environment, we don’t have the slightest idea how these designs might look to the Chinese, for instance — to them, the black Russian Constructivist letters might look like something entirely different. A combination of letters might resemble a hieroglyph or another symbol — I don’t know. My idea is that simplified forms can be dangerous in a way. Sorry, I don’t have any question here; I’m just trying to imagine an alternative to what I see because I’m not happy with the situation. That’s the reason why I’m trying to make this article with a perspective like “Hey guys, let’s just take care of that, because it’s not only us who are unhappy. We’re professionals. But there are common people who are dealing with similar problems, struggling to make out a player’s name or number, or just realizing that it’s not good.”

CK: Yeah, this is why I was so thrilled with the success of this specific Tweet — my account had never had such attention before. This made me realize that the issue I had raised really mattered to people, and the suppliers might become aware of it too when they see stuff like that. They could really pay heed to this and maybe even realize that it’s not a shirt designer’s job to do the number; it requires a different skillset and you need to hire a professional in this field. At the World Cup, we have this model of a typeface for nation, typeface for supplier, but if you think of national leagues, in England or Spain, for instance, you have a typeface for the whole league. So a supplier has freedom in terms of shirt design but has to use the typography of the league. And this is quite interesting, because I really came to realize at this World Cup that not only the Adidas typeface is terrible. Almost everything is terrible. So, I like your idea to say. “Okay, is there another way of dealing with it?” Maybe one typeface for the whole World Cup, which then should be good, or could it be that…

IR: If we use one typeface, it could be versatile. We know how fonts may differ within a single typeface. We could use a system of styles to represent different continents or countries, one style each. This could be an option.

CK: This is an interesting point, because when you have one typeface that is identical for all, it’s may get a little bit boring. The advantage is that the typology is uniform, but it gets a little bit boring. I’d really like to be able to recognize the team and the nation just by their numbers and their colors. So, I think your idea is good — to give up the system where every supplier designs something for each of its teams or one thing for all the teams and to establish a committee that would be responsible for the typography on World Cup shirts. You say, “Okay, we’ll try to make something good — first point — something that just works and presents certain characteristics of the countries that are playing. This could be quite good at the end.