The NBA redesign business is booming. In January 2013, the New Orleans Pelicans unveiled a new logo to go with their new name, and in November of the same year, the Charlotte Bobcats followed suit with a new emblem that has served the franchise well on its journey to take back the Hornets nam (which had traveled to New Orleans a decade earlier). In 2015, the looks of the Hawks, Bucks, Wizards, Raptors, 76ers, and Clippers underwent major overhauls during the off-season. And not to be outdone, the Nets, Magic, Thunder, and Golden State Warriors have also tweaked, polished, and embraced their branding redos. Of the NBA’s 30 teams, nearly every one has unveiled a new uniform, logo, or court design over the past few years. And in the digital world, the NBA is launching the NBA 2K e-sport League in May with 17 franchises.
So how did a single designer, Rodney Richardson, founder of the Hattiesburg, Mississippi-based RARE Design, play such an outsized role in the NBA rebranding frenzy? With a small team of seven, he’s responsible for the brand identities of the Sacramento Kings, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, and Minnesota Timberwolves, as well as all 17 teams, and the league itself, in the NBA 2K League.
We spoke with Richardson, whose company’s office is located in a restored bakery building from the 1920s, about what goes into redesigning an NBA team identity, how his small team takes on such big projects, and how a regular guy from Mississippi came to have such an impact on the NBA.
How did you get involved with the NBA?
I was in Nike’s Organized Team Sports division in the mid-’90s. Team sports apparel was blowing up during that time: football jerseys, hockey jerseys, basketball jerseys. It was part of the fashion. One of the first projects I had the opportunity to be a part of was the Denver Broncos redesign, and, as a young designer, I felt blessed just to be able to get the printouts off the printer for the big guys, you know? Looking back, what I could see them working through, and what I was learning, was how you take what Nike has done so successfully, which is knowing and being able to clarify and communicate its brand story, and apply that to someone else.
Most of my time at Nike was spent in the basketball division, specifically the NBA group, and our team managed 10 NBA team brands. A profound moment, at least for me, happened during this time. I was traveling with a guy from Kentucky whose dad was a legendary coach at Alabama and athletic director at Kentucky. We were on our flight, having a good time, and poking fun at ourselves saying:
And then my buddy got serious. “Look,” he said, “I’ve seen too many kids from our part of the world come out here, and they get embarrassed and intimidated because of where they’re from, and they start trying to hide it. They forget who they are and the character and values that have been instilled in them. It’s true you’re going to walk into one of these meetings, and they’re going to hear your accent, and someone’s going to think you’re an idiot. You can see it on their face. But by the time they realize they’re wrong, you’ve already won.”
That stuck with me, not because I didn’t expect that kind of interaction—I had already experienced that—but because it caused me to reflect on and remember those values he was talking about. I took that and channeled it into RARE, and I think it’s that ethic that helps us continue to work with folks like the NBA.
How do you design, or redesign, an NBA team’s brand identity?
There are four steps that we go through. It’s to Understand, Think, Create, and Manage. When people see the outcomes of our process, the identities themselves, they tend to only think about the Create phase. “You’re a designer; you draw things. You drew this wolf. Let’s critique your drawing.” But that’s not what a brand is. In the work of discovering and building a brand identity, it can be several months into the process before we get to the Create phase, because we have a lot of work to do—some of the hardest work, frankly—prior to that.
For instance, every one of these teams is located in a special place in the world. We need to be able to understand that place and learn how its uniqueness impacts the story and identity of the team in a way that we can define. Then we look at their totem. We want to know why and what that totem represents. And then there’s the organization itself. What are they about? What do they value? What’s important to them? As we understand the traits and characteristics of each of these areas, we’ll start to see things rise to the surface and find threads of consistency through them. That’s usually where the sweet spot of their brand story resides.
How closely do you work with the NBA? What about the players?
The NBA is usually involved every step of the way. The league and the teams work closely together and with us. Every time we’re talking about things, we’re usually participating in the meetings together. It just helps ease communication and ensures that we’re all aware of everything as decisions are being made. We can explore, expand, and do all sorts of things, but there’s also accountability, because these identities have to represent the teams, the league, and the game of basketball.
With color palettes and how they’re brought to life, graphic styles that are authentic to the game and the culture of the game, and what parts of the story get them fired up. We want to know how they see these things authentically lived out in a way that’s going to impact the game.
There seems to be a heavy focus on research for RARE Design. How does the design team work?
We’re a tiny shop. We do it all. My account manager is doing research, and the designers are doing research. As everyone does their own research, you notice creatives are going to look at things differently than the account folks. As the story develops, I want everybody to learn and know the narrative of how important this story is. It can be hard work, and quite honestly, I’ve had people quit working for me, saying, “I don’t want to work this hard.” So we have our in-house team, and, depending on what kind of work we’re doing, different contractors we’ve worked with throughout the years. If I need to expand and be a little more agency-like, we have the relationships to do that. But I don’t keep all those people on staff, as our involvement in some of those areas of the industry is not as consistent.
As a younger designer you said you compared your work to others. Do you still do that sometimes?
No, I don’t compare our work to others, especially as a form of judgement, because there are simply too many variables and people involved in the process. Designers don’t get to make the exclusive decisions on these projects that people often think we do. We are working within the context of a larger team. We’re working with decision makers from each of the involved organizations. The relationship dynamics are vitally important, as we’re working with unique personalities from each team, their ownership, and the league. There are a lot of factors at play in the development of these identities and why they’re designed the way they are.
It’s not fair, and probably a little naive, to look at someone else’s work in this arena and critique it based solely on your own unlearned opinion. In fact, I tell my folks here: Our opinions don’t matter. People aren’t hiring us for our opinions. They’re hiring us because they believe we can work with them to help discover, understand, and bring to life their right story in ways that will convey who they are. You must get beyond yourself to do that.
Of course, as a creative, you can’t help but evaluate the work you see coming out. But rather than espousing a subjective opinion, I want to first know the story. When you know the story, then maybe you have the merits on which to critique.
Most recently, you led your team in completing the logo, the jersey, and the gyms for the Timberwolves, along with other pieces of collateral. How did you master the continuity of the brand across the different platforms?
Part of what we try to help teams understand is the value of taking some of the pressure off the primary logo. Too often, when evaluating a potential logo, people say, “But it doesn’t show this small part of who I am,” or “It doesn’t say this or that.” And they end up trying to make the primary logo do and say everything. It can’t, and it shouldn’t, and if we try to make a primary logo do everything, it does none of them well. That’s where the continuity of the brand across the entire identity system, and the different platforms on which that system is brought to life, comes into play. The personality of an organization, much like our own individual personalities, is complex.
What I mean by that is, sometimes we’re silly and sometimes we’re serious, sometimes we’re happy and sometimes we’re sad, sometimes we’re contrary and sometimes we’re congenial, but we’re never all of those things all the time. But there are parts of our character and personality that we are most of the time—sort of our “steady.” Understanding what that “steady” is for an organization is what that primary mark should represent—the day-in and day-out core of who they are. Then by knowing the other aspects of who they are, we can create the additional marks and elements within the system to allow them to live out those aspects. Then it’s all about knowing what parts of your story the collateral, the courts, the experiences should tell, and building them so that they work in concert to tell those stories.
Do you plan on expanding your team anytime soon?
I’ve always said that my desire for RARE is to have a small team of passionate and talented people with the ability to wear different hats, and who are willing to dig in and do the hard work, and we really do operate and create best that way. As for whether we expand anytime soon—if we continue into this year the way we closed out last year, we just might have to do that.
How does a small team take on such big projects?
For us, it goes back to that willingness and ability to wear multiple hats. When you’re a small agency, you can’t just say, “This is what I do, this is all I do, and it’s all I’m going to do.” Of course everyone has their own unique area of talent and giftedness, and that will be their greatest area of influence, but, at the same time, we all must be willing to pitch in and contribute where necessary. In fact, one of the things I tell folks whenever they want to come and be a part of this, is: There’s no such thing as “That’s not my job” here. It’s all hands on deck. And, of course, we work a lot of overtime!
Why do you choose to stay in Mississippi as opposed to moving to a major city as you continue working with the NBA?
I was in a major city—an amazing city—when I was with Nike and lived in Portland, Oregon. The decision to move back to Mississippi was a life move. My wife and I are both from this area, and we’re both from large, close families. Family is very important to us, and we wanted to raise our kids where they would be around and know their’s and experience the value of that.
When we first left Mississippi, I left like most kids leaving any sort of smaller rural area of the country. I said, “I’m outta here!” We were going to live in all the fun cities. At the time, I didn’t recognize or respect what it means to live life and be a part of a place like this: the character traits I was taught and the heritage that’s ingrained in those traits. And this isn’t unique to my place in the world, obviously. We all have a rich inheritance from whatever unique place in the world we’re from, if we would just recognize and embrace it.
Part of what I appreciate here is the creativity and ingenuity that perseveres and springs from this place. Historically, we’re one of the poorest and most downtrodden in the country, and very often that’s only a result of our own actions. So how do you overcome that? You have to make the decision to overcome it, to not be defined by the stereotypes, and to push through.
You can look across our culture here—the flavors, the textures [of art], the sounds [of music] that have originated from this place. I mean, not only did we give the world fried catfish, the Blues, and Rock & Roll (no kidding: Rolling Stone, in its Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, traced the birthplace to right here in Hattiesburg), but innovations in medicine, science, and technology have also sprung from here.
Probably what’s most special about this place is what’s behind all those things, and it’s this grit that, if you’re willing to do the hard work, drives you. That’s where that ingenuity comes from, and it can be very beautiful and very real whenever we learn to embrace it.
*With additional reporting from Dan Friedell.