Creative Soccer Culture

Are Fan-Designed Shirts The Way Forward?

Football shirts are such an important part of fandom, representing the team and encapsulating the identity of a club. It’s so important that a design gets it right in the eyes of those that matter, so does it make sense to hand creative control over to those who really care: the fans themselves?

We’re fast approaching that time of the year when European teams start unveiling their new kits for the coming campaign. It’s usually a time that goes one of two ways: either you get a decent design and you’re happy, or you get a stinker and you’re stuck with it for the season. Let’s face it, most teams get at least two, if not three or more chances to get one right. But it remains a tough ask – brands and clubs have to try and satisfy the thousands of people in their fanbase, and what one person may love, another will undoubtedly detest. It’s a fine line and one that is in the balance each and every season. For every Nigeria or Venezia shirt, there's a Spurs home.

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The last decade has seen a rapid acceleration away from a period of “safety” (read: boring) when it comes to design, with the increasing appetite for jersey culture and the influence of the fashion world leading to ever-more extravagant designs and a welcome departure from the dreaded template. Again though, this is something that will always be divisive; that safety – not wanting to upset fans with anything that would be too outrageous or that would break traditions while also not threatening commercial potential – often has a negative effect, leading to drab, unimaginative, and repetitive designs. Even designs that are looked upon favourably lose a little something when their originality is diluted.

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When it comes to the actual shirt design though, while the club have the final say, surely the ultimate aim is to please the fans? Happy fans equals greater sales after all – everyone’s happy! So who better to turn to for inspiration than the fans themselves. That’s the approach Borussia Dortmund have taken for next season’s home shirt, inviting their fans to submit their own designs through their “Design the kit” competition, before whittling them down through a series of votes. Nine options were remaining, and a further round of voting has then chosen the winner, which will be revealed in the coming weeks, ahead of next season.

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It’s a fascinating experiment that not only offers up an unprecedented level of transparency in the selection process, but also one that boosts the connection between the fans and the club – something that has always been strong for the Bundesliga side anyway. It’s something that PUMA, Dortmund’s technical partner, had dabbled with before with Manchester City, when they ran a competition back in 2020 to design a kit. But while a then nine year old Lucy Beth Duffy was probably over the moon to see her shirt in reality, that’s pretty much as far as it went, with the design not appearing on pitch in any form. It's a trend that has seen the likes of Serie B side Pescara and Doncaster Rovers following suit, producing kits on a small scale from younger fans' designs. A nice touch, but not quite the scale we're talking about here.

Fiorentina are one of the latest clubs to have jumped onboard the fan-based shirt designs, announcing the F4NS Kit competition at the beginning of April, inviting designs from their supporters for what will be the club’s fourth kit in 22/23. Now, how much wear Fiorentina will get out of a fourth shirt is open to debate – probably as much as Venezia got out of their outstanding 21/22 range to be fair.

While the competition aspect is quite novel, the idea of allowing fans to design a shirt is not a necessarily a new one, rather it’s one that's been gaining more traction in recent years. Atletico Mineiro produced one of the standout designs of 2021 with the 'Manto da Massa 113' shirt, which was designed to celebrate the club's 113th anniversary – that well known marker. Created by fan Lucas Adriano and produced by Le Coq Sportif, it saw a beige base with a detailed printed map of the Minas Gerais state (of which Belo Horizonte, Atlético Mineiro's home city, is capital) on the front – a similar design coincidently (or not) to one of the Dortmund finalists.

The Atletico Mineiro shirt garnered huge praise and was highly sought after, probably helped by the success that the Brazilian side found on the pitch, spear headed by a daunting Hulk/Diego Costa power pairing up top. But the design was critically well-received as well, and it deservedly took its place in the top five of our ‘best shirts of 2021’ list.

Go back to 2017, and adidas launched the 'Creator Studio' initiative, which allowed fans the chance to design the third kits for their favourite club (Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Juventus) for the 17/18 season. Once submitted, fans were encouraged to vote for their favourite, which led to a shortlist of a top 100. The winners for each club were then chosen by a panel that consisted of some of each clubs most iconic players alongside professional designers – a step that took the eventual say away from the fans, and effectively kept the control with the club.

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Of course, opening things up to the wider fanbase does denote a certain amount of common sense existing within said community (Boaty McBoatface anyone?) but the club pride and additional voting filters should ensure such slip ups do not occur… assuming rival supporters don’t get involved that is.

A club that certainly seem to have struck the right balance in their approach recently is Philadelphia Union, who produced the striking “BY|U” kit ahead of the 2021 MLS season. It was created by the Union Creators’ Collective, a group of fans formed to participate in every step of the jersey design process, including building and creating the creative brief that went to adidas, giving feedback to concepts and art, and reviewing samples well before launch. The Collective met countless times over the course of two years both in the Union’s office and, during COVID, through social distanced home visits by Union employees to solicit feedback on designs and samples.

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The Collective includes season ticket holders, Sons of Ben members, Union super fans, members of the media, and Union employees and players. With such in depth insight into what the fans wanted and what the jersey should be, it’s no surprise that the "BY|U" kit was extremely well received upon its reveal. The process was used again for the 2022 “For U” primary shirt, and is likely to be adopted again going forward. The Union's shirt designs stand out alongside a handful of others in a league that is otherwise dominated by template designs, brought about in part by the arrangement MLS has with adidas. But the Union are proof that it doesn't have to be that way, and the fans can – and should – have an input.

The other aspect to note on fan-led designs is the increase in concept designs in recent years and the vast choice that it brings. This is a world that is not bound only by the constraints of the creators’ imaginations; here there are no rules or regulations, and while this means that some designs simply wouldn’t be allowed to be used, what it does do is open up the realms of possibility. Social media will usually run the rule over these designs, filtering out the best from the rest. Who wouldn’t want to see Soccept’s rich and textured Barcelona or Fiorentina kits made reality? Or Corinthians playing in SETTPACE’s iridescent attire?

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With the increase in technology and the reach of social media, all you have to do is type in "concept football kits" and you are instantly hit with a barrage of unique and inspiring designs. The influence of the concept world is there for all to see, whether it’s acknowledged or not – just look at victorieux’s England concept, produced back in 2020, and line it up alongside the England women’s 2022 training range. Got yourself a nice little game of spot the difference right there. 

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On the whole, fan-led designs certainly tend to hit the mark in a world where templates are scorned and vilified. And if they don’t, well, at least the fans can’t blame it on the club or brands! Including the fans to some extent in the design process appears to be a logical step, the trick looks to be finding the right balance. It allows a deeper connection between the fanbase and the club itself, lending the finished product a much deeper meaning. As we said at the beginning, you're not going to please everyone – sure there's some out there that like the no-nonsense approach offered by bland design – but at least by including the fans a club is hedging its bets.

Watch this space to see which of the nine BVB shirt designs gets the nod...

Daniel Jones

The Creative Soccer Culture Brief

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