Designing New Caps for the World Baseball Classic

Author’s note: I published this piece last week on my own website, and it got a ton of attention. Turns out a lot of you want to wear these caps. So: my apparel company, Clean Sheet Co., is making them. We’re starting with a version of the USA cap I write about below. Want one? Read on for details (or just skip over to cleansheet.co, check it out, and then come back here.) Thanks! –M.

I like to find the places where established systems and traditions smash into one another. For instance: what happens if you mix the visual cultures of soccer and baseball? I made the Soccer out of Context project to figure it out. How about if you combine a consistent, minimal design aesthetic with the World Cup? I created the 32 Nations series of designs to see. It was while working on 32 Nations that I realized I didn’t just have to imagine the places where these mashups were “real.” I could bring them to life.

That’s when I started Clean Sheet Co.

We began with t-shirts, then moved on to scarves and hats. (There’s even more on tap.) Along the way, I learned a few things. One of the biggest: the best way to demonstrate that something can be improved is to make something new. Another: national identity is something everybody cares about, but nobody owns. (Those specific lessons led us to create the People’s Crest, an open-source crest design for American soccer fans that’s free to download, use and remix.)

This is where it gets fun. With design series like Soccer out of Context, I’ve established a platform for interesting projects in this space. With Clean Sheet Co., I’ve got an apparel company ready to bring those projects to life. And my favorite things to design around are national identity, sports, interesting crossovers, and existing concepts that could be improved.

Well hey there, World Baseball Classic.

A World Cup-style baseball tournament. Yeah, I’m on board.

The WBC checks all the boxes. Sports + national symbolism + a unique cultural crossover (baseball in a soccer-style international tournament). Oh, and there’s some definite potential for improvement.

Sounds like a design project to me.

So I started with the question: What if Clean Sheet Co. designed caps for all 16 participants in the 2017 World Baseball Classic? We’ve been circling around the idea of making baseball caps (snapbacks, naturally) for a while now. This is a great opportunity to test those waters. The 16 designs you’ll see here are still concepts, but we want to know if we should bring any of them to life.

All of our design projects have guidelines, and this one is no exception. Here are the guidelines that informed this exercise:

  1. No language characters. Sure, letters on baseball caps have a long and prominent tradition. Sure, they can look good. Sure, they can even be creative. All that said, we’re not using language elements in our designs. The idea is that the designs themselves should communicate the national identity without “spelling it out”, so to speak.
  2. Also, guideline #1 solves a thorny problem — namely, what language system to use for what team? Currently, WBC designs use mostly english language characters. Teams like the Netherlands and Italy can use their own native spellings (Nederlands and Italia, respectively). But none of the Asian countries even use their own character sets. I understand why (marketing, audience expectation, tradition), but I don’t quite approve. For caps, we can do better. (And anyhow, initials on international ballcaps have always looked kind of cheesy to me — while initials work really well for cities and club teams, national identity somehow seems too potent to be represented up by a letter or two on a ballcap).
  3. All caps have to be items Clean Sheet Co. could theoretically produce and sell. If you want one, let us know here.
  4. We reserve the right to approach these guidelines creatively.

All set? Let’s get to it.

Pool A: Israel, South Korea, the Netherlands, Chinese Taipei

Israel is one of several WBC participants with a fantastic visual pedigree. Two strong colors (royal blue, white) and a universally-recognized symbol (the Star of David). The team’s current WBC cap is really good, with some extra adornment (the “I” initial and squiggly lines). The classic Star of David mark can also stand on its own. The Clean Sheet Co. version of the cap introduces a white front panel, but otherwise, it’s easy to leave perfection alone.

Like their group-mates Israel, this iteration of the South Korean team wears royal blue and white. And while Korea has always worn blue in these competitions (a departure from their soccer compatriots), they don’t always wear the same exact shade. Korea sometimes wears a lighter shade of blue — bordering on Carolina blue. It plays well, and we haven’t forgotten it. The South Korea ballcap features light blue accents — the brim, eyelets and button (or squatchee, if you prefer). The logo features the red-blue yin-yang from the country’s beautiful flag. Strong and unique.

The Netherlands

Say what you will about the Netherlands — but they get international branding right. The country’s teams are generally attired in eye-catching orange. Amsterdam owns the “XXX” idea. The Dutch understand the value of a strong brand. One item they don’t always elevate on the national stage is the fantastic rampant lion, very prominent in national heraldry. The lion is beautiful, traditional, and cool. It’s the perfect ballcap emblem. Orange and black complete the package.

Chinese Taipei, the politically diplomatic way to reference the state also called Taiwan or the Republic of China, has a suspect WBC identity. To its credit, it has elements with both eastern and western appeal — but to me it doesn’t add up to a coherent design. I know there are fans of this logo, but I’m not one of them. If Taiwan didn’t already have a strong visual brand, it would be simply be a case of mediocrity filling a vacuum. But take a look at the sun symbol on the flag Chinese Taipei uses in international competition. It’s gorgeous. And it works perfectly on a ballcap. Done.

Pool B: Australia, China, Cuba, Japan

Australia’s baseball identity is, on balance, pretty decent. But it’s got some issues. The most pressing: from the squad’s colors to the letter ‘A’, the current visual package looks way too much like how a video game who couldn’t secure MLB rights might depict the Oakland A’s. This is fixable. The Australian national identity is tied up with that of the kangaroo. This version of the ’roo is inspired by the one used by the Australian air force. Depicted in classic Aussie green and gold, there’s no way this cap is confused for any other team — or nation.

Out of China’s population of 1.4 billion people, apparently a couple dozen can play baseball. Along with soccer, I’m hoping baseball becomes a national obsession in China. How great would that be for the international growth of the game? The current cap isn’t doing much — an olde english “C” has little pedigree or connection to the country. I debated using a dragon mark here — but getting that exactly right would have required some extra-special dedication. In its stead, this cap (inspired by the five stars on the national flag) is both strong and incontrovertibly Chinese.

Cuba will always have one of the most compelling stories in this tournament. The baseball-obsessed country’s own national league continues to exist in a separate universe from the rest of the world, shrouding world-class players in mystery. As Cuba opens up to the world, that might change, and one day, I hope to see an MLB team in Havana. (Los Cubanos de la Habana, with a cigar-inspired logo, if I might put in an early pitch). I don’t know who designed the WBC Cuba caps, but they seem rote. A serif ‘C’ doesn’t begin to evoke this country’s story. We opted for a solitary white star on a triangular front-panel field of red, backed by blue — approximating the famous Cuban flag. It’s a start.

Despite what WBC caps might say, Japan isn’t “J”. If they were an english letter, they’d be “N” — the english-language consonant that begins the word (“Nihon”) that attempts to represent how Japanese verbally express the name of their own country. Or they’d use the japanese glyph for Japan, 日本. But there’s a better, less confusing way: just use the flag. There’s no more recognizably simple symbol in the world than the Japanese flag. Use it! The red sun pairs here with navy blue, which Japan has traditionally worn as a sporting accent color. It’s unmistakably Japanese, and beautiful.

Pool C: Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, USA

This one’s simple. The maple leaf in silvery white on a red background, black brim lending a little edge to the look. Canada already did the heavy lifting here — the iconic leaf is a design masterpiece. All we have to do is get out of its way.

I love that more South American countries are joining the WBC party. Visually, Colombia is challenging not because it lacks for great visuals to pull from, but because of its graphic similarity to neighbors and fellow yellow-red-blue enthusiasts Ecuador and Venezuela. We’ll get to tournament-participant Venezuela in a minute, but for now, we’re leaning on deep yellow to set Colombia apart. A stylized version of the condor, a dominating feature of the Colombian coat of arms, gives the cap some competitive personality.

This one is a favorite. The Dominican Republic has a fantastic flag, with alternating quarter-panels of red and blue, divided by a white cross and a seal. The cap re-creates that — we only see one view here, but the panels alternate in quarters around the entire cap in the harlequin style. No further symbol or decoration is needed here — the look is strong and completely distinctive.

There are a lot of ways to go here (especially when the symbol you’re looking to improve on is this) — but only one we at Clean Sheet Co. could fathom. The People’s Crest is our choice to represent American athletic endeavor, and it happens to look great on a ballcap. We went with a navy front panel and a white body to really help the colors pop.

Update: by popular demand, we’re making this one! The USA Cap, in all navy, is available for pre-order at Clean Sheet Co. right now! You can get it here.

Pool D: Italy, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela

This was a tricky one. Italy doesn’t actually have a wealth of national symbols to pull from. When we designed an Italy World Cup t-shirt, the Stella d’Italia (Star of Italy) was a welcome discovery — but that wasn’t really the right symbol here. In looking at the country’s national crests and symbols, there is one recurring element — the olive branch. It never quite stands on its own, content to be a decorative touch in most applications. Well, we’re changing that. An olive sprig stands in appropriate green against a field of Italian azure blue. A small touch: the green-white-red of the national flag gets a nod at the bottom of the branch. (And yes, the branch kind of looks like a cursive “I” — this is a happy coincidence.)

The current Mexican WBC cap is great, probably the best of the field. It’s hard to improve on it. We went for simplicity — a basic pattern, derived from Aztec textile traditions, creates a distinctive shape. OK, it’s an “X” — but this is a creative violation of our “no characters” rule. I’d argue that “La Equis” has symbolic meaning for Mexico in a way no other letter does to it’s particular country — it’s a point of national pride. It’s also a universally-recognized symbol as much as it is a letter of any particular language. Add in the indigenous pattern (if you squint, you can even see an Aztec temple in the negative space beneath the legs of the “X”) and it’s a no-brainer.

We looked for a while at options for Puerto Rico before finding the island’s crest, topped with a royal crown (to symbolize the island’s Spanish heritage). Simplified, in silver on a field of red, the idea took on surprising strength, so we went with it. A stripe of blue beneath the crown gives a splash of the island’s other national color.

You don’t see looks like this on the field too often. Perhaps that’s for the best, but that didn’t stop us. The Venezuelan national flag is the inspiration for the striped front panel, and the galloping silver horse is taken directly from the country’s coat of arms. Even if this one never takes the field, we really enjoyed imagining the look.

And that’s the field. Like any of these caps? Hit up Clean Sheet Co. in the usual spots and let us know. If there’s enough interest, we may bring a few of these to life. Update: we are, starting with the USA! See cleansheet.co for more.

(And thanks for indulging me. I love projects like this. If you like this kind of stuff, we talk about it every day on the Clean Sheet Co. Inner Circle Slack group. Join! )


Originally published at mwillis.com.

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