As I typed the headline to this blog post it struck me how fast time flies. I still think of the Denver Broncos Logo as “new” even though it’s been around for fifteen years. When I look at the horse logo on the side of the helmet it still seems new and modern. Back in 1996 I was a 26-year old assistant designer at NIKE in a department called Team Sports. Team Sports was part of NIKE Apparel, and our mission was to outfit players on field head to toe with NIKE stuff. We created all the on field authentic apparel as well as sideline hats, sweatshirts, t-shirts, pants, jackets and other team gear. To strengthen partnerships with teams, we sometimes redesigned and rebranded them like we did for the Denver Broncos.
Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos came to us at NIKE and asked us to design him a horse equivalent of the NIKE swoosh. In his words he said, “I want a horse that looks like it’s going to kick your ass”. That February a core team came together to give Mr. Bowlen what he wanted. Todd Van Horne was the Creative Director, Ken Black was the Art Director, David Odusanya was Lead Designer and I was the Assistant Designer.
Here’s a little trivia: our Creative Director, Todd Van Horne was also the Creative Director on the Seattle Seahawks uniform update in 2010. Wonder who he’s rooting for?
Research and Uncontrollable Forces
Throughout the project we worked with other creatives from NIKE including my good friend Rodney Richardson who went on to design the Houston Texans identity, but the four of us made up the nucleus of the rebrand team. The first thing we did in the creative process was research. We spent a month getting to know the Broncos as well as they knew themselves (or better). I had grown up in Denver watching the team since the early 1970’s but there was so much more to dig up about the team when we visited the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton. The entire existence of the team was compiled into a brand research book.
Our research led us to identify uncontrollable forces in nature such as lightning, tidal waves, volcanoes and fire. We came across a Native American legend of a “ghost horse” of the plains. The legend of this ghost horse was that it was so spirited it couldn’t be tamed or broken by man. The ghost horse eventually became the icon on the side of the helmet.
Its fiery orange eyes symbolize the windows to the soul and the fire in its belly. That’s where the color orange comes from.
Before we arrived at the final logo of the ghost horse we started with sketches. Lots and lots of sketches. After we compiled research we spent a week sketching thousands of horses and letters. My job was to whittle those down into a handful of useable concepts that I then scanned in and outlined in Adobe Illustrator.
Finalizing the Horse Head Logo
Over the course of five months we focused on refining about 6 logo concepts. We kept pushing each of those ideas in different directions over time to see how they felt. One thing that stood out to us was the horse’s neck. That’s where a horse generates its power from. We really wanted to symbolize this graphically which is apparent in the final logo.
While we honed in on an icon that would depict the ghost horse of the plains our apparel designer, David Turner was creating a futuristic uniform. His cut lines of the uniform were unlike anything in existence at that time. He worked to make sure the uniform fit tightly to the player’s body, especially under the arms. That’s where old uniforms have loose fabric that opposing teams could grab onto. David emphasized the functionality by making it a different color. Below the blue stripes going up the sides were a stretchy material that help the jersey stick closer to body even as the arms were raised like a hinge.
People thought NIKE was subliminally putting a swoosh into the uniforms (or in the horses nostril) which was a story created by the Denver media. We didn’t see it until everyone else did after the fact. If the journalists back then knew how stringent NIKE was about the swoosh they would know it was never an intention. Just a coincidence.
You can see how the final logo became a combination of elements from various concepts. The helmet image above is what it almost became on field, but ultimately we stylized the logo more to make it a free standing icon. When you look at the final logo, you can see how the neck muscles are emphasized, and the eyes are orange.
Once the logo, colors, uniforms, font and overall graphic language were complete, we created a Brand Bible for the Broncos to use. The Broncos organization has done an excellent job maintaing the brand consistency over the years which has led to exceptional brand equity.
The Broncos helped us out by winning back to back Super Bowls in the new identity. It created an immediate legacy that represents what the logo and organization are about to this day. Fifteen years after John Elway brought the Lombardi Trophy to Denver, he still embodies that spirit in his front office role. Now Peyton “PFM” Manning is taking the team back to the Super Bowl—now more than ever the timeless brand identity stands up to what it was originally designed to be.