The new MLS logo is between not bad and tolerable, which is probably where they were aiming

The sports media is obsessing over domestic violence. The real media is dealing with other terrible things, like ISIS and Ebola. So, naturally, I want to write about the MLS rebrand they’re calling #MLSNext.

Designing a successful logo is difficult, and it’s even more difficult when a bunch of different people are involved. On Monday, I spoke with Malcolm Buick, whose team at an agency called Athletics NYC designed the logo along with another agency called Berliner Benson and some heavy input from MLS. That’s a bunch of people. And yet they managed to create something that has a couple of surprises—the blank space (which is actually transparent) in the bottom right side of the crest and the dividing line that breaks it in the bottom left, which someone on Twitter called its kickstand.

I could do without both elements, but the league drastically simplified the logo and did away with everything that screamed “soccer” when a suggestive whisper is all it needs to stand out in what Buick described as “a very noisy environment, the world of sport.”

“There are chromes, there are drop shadows, there’s a football to suggest football,” he said.

MLS aspires to join the big four European leagues of England, Spain, Germany, and Italy in terms of quality on the field, but it’s now the only league among them that does not use an overt soccer symbol—a ball in the case of the first three, the center circle in the case of Italy’s Serie A—in its logo.

I’m a graphic design enthusiast, not a practitioner, and I would grade it somewhere between not that bad and relatively decent. That might sound harsh, but if you think about the design problem the logo is supposed to solve, it’s actually pretty comfortable territory. A league is a vessel for competing forces. It’s supposed to be neutral. (Leave your “blind draw” joke in the comments.)

“It’s a mark that needs to have personality, but it’s also a mark that’s not going to compete” with the club logos, Buick said.

There’s little upside to creating a logo that people feel strongly about. Even if the logo is the most beautiful mark they’ve ever seen, fans aren’t going to wear a league symbol on a T-shirt as they would that of their favorite club. An ugly or silly mark, however, can make the league look rinky-dink or down-market. The point of refreshing the identity isn’t to attract new fans with a great logo but to avoid alienating anybody with a bad one.

Attracting new fans is the job of the clubs, and graphic design has largely improved across the league at the club level. Back in 1996, when MLS launched with 10 teams, there were some pretty wacky symbols in play. (I’m still impressed that whoever designed Kansas City’s logo was able to sneak the fatty they were obviously smoking into the very center of the Wiz wordmark.) Three of those original team logos remain largely unchanged today: D.C. United, the New England Revolution, and the Columbus Crew.

D.C.’s mark takes cues from more traditional club logos found elsewhere in the world. It could have been borrowed from a team in the Bundesliga, say, and that made it an anomaly among the other logos in ’96. Looking back from 2014, the Crew’s construction workers seem ready-made for Hipster appropriation. Of all soccer logos anywhere in the world, Columbus’s throws the most obvious nod to “gay style.” It’s also impossible to read without some level of irony, unless the stereotype about Ohio is true.

The Crew’s symbol is bad, but it’s not as bad as New England’s, which incorporates an image of a flag. Both violate Rule No. 1 of the North American Vexillological Association’s Five Basic Principles of Flag Design: Keep it simple. “The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory,” reads the first line of the first principle. Instead, the Revolution logo looks like a child did draw it from memory—from the absence of clean lines and the presence of a smudgy soccer ball/star thing in the top left corner to a typeface for the wordmark that looks like the 1770s version of Comic Sans.

I don’t like all of the modern MLS team logos—particularly those of Kansas City, San Jose, and Salt Lake—but some other teams have managed to create distinctive marks that have real meaning in their cities and still wouldn’t look silly next to some of the most beautiful, historic soccer team logos in the world: Vancouver, Portland, and NYCFC are my favorites.

Toward the end of our conversation, Buick asked what I thought about the logo. I told him I was initially underwhelmed, but that I thought it was more successful when I saw it on the jerseys. Maybe putting it on the shirts alongside some of the more egregious club marks will inspire New England and Columbus to figure out it’s time to update their own. They’ll probably end up paying a lot of money to a fancy branding agency, but honestly, I’d probably start by studying the five principles of the North American Vexillological Association, and those are free.

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