Interview with: Drake Ramberg - Nike Football 1990-96
We caught up with one of the most influential designers in football shirt history, Drake Ramberg. Drake designed shirts for Nike between 1990-96 and produced some of the greatest and iconic jerseys in history.
How did you get into kit design and Nike's design team?
DR: I grew up in Portland and loved art and sports, and Nike just happened to be in my hometown. I got a job as a Graphic Designer in 1987 and soon they assigned me to work on some Nike Premier soccer training collections. In 1990 I was transferred over to Europe as an ex-pat to set up the Design studio and work on the clubs we had signed. I grew up playing soccer and watching the Portland Timbers in the NASL, but had no exposure to the European teams. The only Euro football on American TV back then was a weekly German Soccer game on Public Television on Saturday mornings! The Same channel that we were 'exposed' to Benny Hill, that other important Euro export....
How much freedom did you have with clubs and Nike? Were there any challenges?
DR: Looking back, it seems like we had a lot of freedom, especially when you look at all the kits from the 80's and 90's. It appears that designers had no guardrails and were encouraged to push the limits with regards to prints, patterns, and colours. But of course you still had to work with the Presidents and Directors of each club, and as an American coming from an American company, I'm sure there was some suspicion that we didn't "get football."
Kits were (and still are) such a big business, so as long as we were outselling the previous season's kit we were doing ok. The emphasis was clearly on designing a shirt that the fan would like to wear in the terrace, in the pub, or even at church.
In addition to bold prints, the formula was also to incorporate a matte/gloss jacquard pattern in the material. It wasn't until the mid-90's when we refocused on designing for the athlete. When I worked on my second Nike kit for the Italian team, it was quite a radical shift to go with a clean, solid-colour jersey utilising NIKE Dri-FIT fabric. I think that was when the pendulum shifted for us to emphasising performance materials and ensuring that we were providing the football player with a product that was comfortable and enhanced their performance.
Can you talk us through the design process?
DR: Ideally we would shop the local retail for that club, research past kits, tour their facility, locker room, and trophy room to become fully immersed in their history and culture. It's kind of like an anthropological dig to learn about what makes them unique from other clubs. We also got ideas and feedback from the team, and from local Nike employees that might have a history with the club. Then we would develop a story and concepts. The goal was to bring to life the club's brand identity and legacy in a fresh, new, iconic way. We would have internal reviews and align as a product team on the direction we planned to take, and then we'd create a presentation that brought to life the research, story, and design solution. Then we'd pitch the work to the Club leadership and get their approval or feedback. Once the design is approved, there's a lengthy commercialisation process of course.
As a Designer, your job is to ensure that what you presented gets made into a kit properly, and you are dependent on the rest of your Nike teammates to work with the factory and execute the design. Many rounds of samples and reviews before it shows up at retail. (I could tell stories about this part of the process, as it was 'pre-computer' so the graphics were created 'by hand', doing the separations using a large camera and darkroom)
What was your first design?
DR: My first kit design was for Borussia Dortmund in 1991-92, followed by Paris St-Germain 1992-93 season I believe.
Was there a particularly proud moment?
DR: It was always exciting to see your kit design on the pitch at a big game, or on hundreds of fans, or hanging on a rack at a store. It's humbling. You realize you've made a contribution to the world of sport, to that club's history, and if they win a big match or lift a trophy in it, that kit will always be remembered. What I didn't expect is to see it come full circle, with so much interest now in kits from that era.
I'm proud of my contribution to football culture, and thankful that Nike provided me with the opportunity that I never dreamed of having. I was working in Europe from 1990-96 and had the good fortune to visit some amazing clubs, meet incredible managers and athletes, and pursue my passion for art and design.
Do you have a favourite design?
DR: I would have to say that my favourite kit is the second Arsenal design, the blue lightning bolt away shirt. The season before we had introduced the lightning bolt motif as an interpretation of an arsenal, and of the word gunners. I created a subtle jacquard pattern for the jersey and a lightning bolt stripe down the side of the short.
But the next season, I decided to make more of a statement and enlarged the lighting bolt and split the jersey into navy and light blue. The club loved it and it became quite an iconic shirt. And ever since I've been a Gooner!
I also had fun creating a distinctive wings sleeve design for Dortmund, which I then re-purposed for the Super Eagles of Nigeria.
As a kit designer is there a holy grail kit that you wish you'd have been involved in?
DR: Of course it would be fun to be able to work on some of the clubs that Nike works with now, like Barca, France, Holland, etc. But as an American, it would've been an honour to design a kit for the US team and see them wear it at a World Cup.
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Which is your favourite early 90's Nike design? Let us know on social media or in the comments below.