NFL on Fox Sports Redesign by Michael Cina Q&A

Can you give us a little background on how this project started and the approach you took with it?

Around four years ago we were approached by Fox Sports to rebrand all their information graphics for television. This would include all their sports graphics, including Nascar. Fox Sports was somewhat an innovator in the “TV sports look” and they were cognizant that almost all TV sports graphics looks the same now. This all made sense to me, fully knowing that sports graphics needed a facelift.

What I was not prepared for is that they were looking for a clean, modern, typographic, timeless look. Normally a client will say they want something generic or meaningless like cutting edge, sexy, fun, cool and I have to extract what they are “really” saying. I specifically remember asking them about them about their brief because I was sure they were thinking just a small step towards the clean side, like clean up the bevels or something. They were very specific about wanting something that would look good a decade later, something that would stand the test of time, a look totally different from what they had. Clean typography, easy to read, interesting, bold, etc. It was exciting to think of seeing some grid systems in use with clean sans, simple colors, etc when you watched sports. Sounded like something that would make me almost want to watch sports again.

The first thing I did was draw out grids and had a lot of issues with trying to figure it out what was needed and the NTSC zones, etc. I work with grids a lot different than most, more loose. From there I remember just working on some clean and typographic layouts. In the back of my mind, I always felt like I was making it too accessible for the general population. I remember wrestling questions like “would the common man even understand the beauty in simplicity?” Looking back at it, that was probably the hardest part, finding your bearings on how ‘clean’ is clean or too clean.

So after developing a grid to base some of the typographic elements on, what did you do? What was the rest of your process like? And what did you explore to arrive at the direction we’ve seen?

I specifically remember doing a simple Swiss typographic layout and staring at it for a while. It was so foreign to me and still is. Almost like two things that have never been married before, then you add the sports element into it and it just was uncomfortable, but amazing. Normally I work and think at the same time, but I remember pondering about it a lot and staring at simple type over a screen capture of the football field. What gets me still to this day is what if they really DID want to go that far? It would be unfathomable. I know I never saved a lot of the early work, thinking “this will never go over.” I still struggle with the idea of traditional design living in mainstream culture and being accepted as good or desirable.

What I am showing was the result of the first and some of the second round. I know we kept trying to come up with something familiar with how the data functioned, but putting it on a grid with solid colors. So stripping down the look and using color and form to break sections apart, but not too much. It was a big curve to learn how the data worked, and trying how to think how it could work better. It’s more than just showing the data, it’s how the information works as a system and how it animates. So let’s say there is a touchdown, how does the new data function in the layout? What if they want to feature a player or talk about another game going on at the same time? How do you show that with the info that you have designed? So it’s not as simple as it may seem. It’s a complex system and needs to work seamlessly. What you see is the result of those considerations. It was a lot to wrap your head around.

And when you started presenting your work, how was it received? Did they pull back from the brief or encourage you to keep going in that direction?

This is where my memory gets a little foggy on their tone. We showed them more “safe” work. Things that we felt were clean and simple, yet had some commercial appeal to it. They liked it, but did the “what about this” or ‘”try this” which is totally fine, it’s their project. I remember the overall tone being “what if you took what you did and married it with what we have.”

I am positive they asked for a three dimensional element to the work. They did not ask for us to keep going the simple route because of the look of the next round. We tried doing some faux 3D and that actually had some appealing outcomes, but was always distracting to the information.

One of the main things they wanted to achieve was ‘the bar test’ which is basically means you can see it across a smokey bar after you have had a couple of drinks. This is the main thing that always made me scratch my head because I would turn on the TV, stand back, and I could never see the stats because of all the noise around the information. Besides that, you have to fight for every pixel, so why not make it simple? I saw some clips of their college football this year and they made some major improvements over the previous years, but my eyes still freak out trying to read the information.

What’s really interesting is how clearly the information is presented, but also how much of the game you can see in your examples. It seems to me, that it makes the image of the game-play even more compelling and readable.

Yeah, I think so too. I never got to explore things like color systems and how it would all work on a minimal level. One of the ideas that I had was make the information large at critical moments, so you wouldn’t have to have it up so long. You could do simple bars that would just show, score, time, and logo. That is all you would need… seems simple to me. There are many ways you could do it “better.”

Ah, changing the scale! That seems like a great idea. Simple, but it would be very effective. Were there any other ideas that you explored in presenting the game information in a clean, minimal way?

I tried one idea that represented the players as dots on the field to show how a play functioned. Or put little icons over their heads as they ran the play. I don’t know if it was successful, but I like the idea of simplification. That is what I tried to do through the whole project, reduce it down to the minimum elements. At the time we did the project, they were just doing things like making lines on the field in perspective, etc.

We also did stat screens too. Those were after the project went in another direction so they were not in this vision. I thought how amazing would it be to have a live portrait on a solid color or logo in the background with some simple text below it showing stats?

Sounds really cool, but I can see how this is really miles away from conventional sports graphics. And after you did these explorations, in 2006 Fox went on to introduce Cleatus the Fox Sports robot, introducing a whole other level of complexity to the broadcast of NFL games. Now it seems like they’ve got a lot invested in that character and in all of the cross-promotional things they can do with it, using the robot character to fight Iron Man, promote the baseball season and other shows like the Sarah Connor Chronicles during last year’s Superbowl… So it seems like instead of shying away from a 3D look, they’ve gone more and more towards it. How do you think their current on-screen graphics work now? Functionally and aesthetically?

I appreciate that you brought this up. What we did was galaxies away from what they had at the time and where they went that next season. It seems like they needed to see something like this to know they didn’t want to go down that route and wanted to make robots crash through TV’s. I wonder if there was a small uprising at FOX at the time to try and go away from what they were seeing internally, a push to go to Cleatus.

I have a different vision than most people. Personally, I love to push graphic design and have my whole career. I don’t think I can put into words what I think about what is going on right now on television and beyond. It is another interview and I don’t think it is even about what FOX Sports is doing. There is an insatiable hunger for aesthetics over content, even in the news, so how do you expect sports to be a beacon of light? People want FUN, not FACTS, so I think they went in the right direction.

On that note, they did clean up their information graphics dramatically in the last 4 years and I would like to think that we played a small part in that.

I have noticed the use of Avant Garde as well on Fox News, which seems so wrong to me personally. Oh well. Thanks so much for the insight on this project and your process. And good luck with the new solo studio!