I was recently interviewed by the folks at NFL Films, who were shooting a feature about football uniforms. At one point I asked the producer who else they were interviewing, and he rattled off a few names. Then he said, “Oh, and we’re trying to get the guy who designed the Bengals’ helmet, Bruce Claypool, but we haven’t been able to nail him down yet.”
I’d never heard of Claypool (or anyone else) being credited with the Bengals’ striped helmet design, but I was intrigued, so I wrote down his name and googled it later. Sure enough, there was a Bruce Claypool listed as an instructor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where his faculty bio listed “Cincinnati Bengals Helmet Design, NFL Properties, Inc.” among his accomplishments. I contacted him and asked if we could chat, and he readily agreed.
This is the second time in a month that a largely anonymous uni designer from the early 1980s has come across my field of vision (the first was Joe Petruccio). It’s a good reminder that although we often ascribe designs to institutions — “The Bengals went with a striped concept” or “Nike came up with a really stupid design” or whatever — the reality is that uniforms are the result of specific people making specific design decisions. But those people are almost never named (in part because the psychology of branding is based on companies wanting us to ascribe things to institutions), so it’s been a rare treat to encounter two uni designers in such a short span.
Bruce Claypool turned out to be an interesting interview. Here’s how it went:
Uni Watch: Tell me a bit about your background and how you got into art direction and design.
Bruce Claypool: I originally graduated from the Art Center, where I teach now. Right out of school, I went to work for some graphic design companies full-time, doing annual reports, logo design, all that good graphic design kind of stuff.
UW: So that was in the 1970s?
BC: The late ’70s, yes. At the same time, I was doing freelance work, and I got hold of Dave Boss, who was the creative director at NFL Properties. He liked my stuff, so he gave me some work. And he liked what I did, so he gave me more work. And around that time, the Bengals’ helmet design came up, and I thought, “Wow, it would be an honor to work on that, a great opportunity.”
UW: Were you already a football fan at that point?
BC: Indirectly. I wasn’t a huge football fan, but I couldn’t help but be around it, through my family and all. But I wouldn’t sit down and watch a weekend game unless it was a really important game.
UW: Do you think that affected the work you did for the NFL — either positively, because you had an outsider’s perspective, or negatively, because you didn’t eat, sleep, breathe the game?
BC: I don’t think either way. I don’t think you have to be a football fan to do good design. But I don’t think it hurts, either. I think it’s two separate things, being a fan and coming up with a good graphic solution.
UW: When you say the Bengals assignment “came up,” how did that happen? Like, did the team want it done, or the NFL wanted it done, or what?
BC: The way Properties worked at that time, the team came to Properties. Maybe it’s still that way, I don’t know. So Dave Boss came to me and asked if I’d like to work this, and I said, “Great!”
UW: Were you still freelancing for them at this time, or were you on staff?
BC: I think I was still freelancing then. I was doing several projects at the same time, so I’m not positive about that. Eventually I became a full-time art director for them.
UW: The original Bengals helmet was obviously quite plain. What did you think of that?
BC: I basically thought it was an opportunity, because a new design could be a real positive advantage for them. And that new design took them all the way to the Super Bowl.
UW: I know! We’ll get to that in a minute.
BC: Newsweek and Sports Illustrated had set up interviews with me, in the event that they won that Super Bowl. I was pretty disappointed when they didn’t win that game. Maybe I would’ve become a bit more famous. But that’s okay.
UW: The solution you arrived at, with the tiger stripes, is much different than a standard football helmet design with a logo on each side. Was that your intention all along?
BC: I was strongly influenced at that time by the Rams. I thought they had the strongest helmet, and I really liked the way the horns wrapped the helmet and worked with the shape of the helmet, and I wanted to do the same thing with the stripes. The stripes were an obvious motif, I thought, because of their strong association with bengal tigers.
UW: Tell me about the process, how you got from here to there.
BC: I prefer to work in three dimensions, instead of 2-D, because something totally different happens. So I asked Dave Boss to get me a plain orange helmet, and then I took marking pens and I would be working on it — front to back, side to side, take a design off, put a new one on — until I got to a point where I felt it was working really well.
UW: Were there several iterations of the concept before you arrived at the one that was eventually approved?
BC: I think we did three or four iterations on it. But they basically loved it, and they took it from there. I was a little disappointed in the uniform design that went with the helmet, but that was out of my hands.
UW: You only did the helmet?
UW: When you were marking the stripe patterns on that orange helmet, how did you develop the specific stripe patterns that you used? Like, did you look at photographs of tigers and things like that?
BC: Yeah, exactly, that was part of the research. I was trying to come up with a stripe that everyone would recognize, the most common denominator form of a stripe itself, with all the subtleties and nuances. And then simplifying that so it becomes graphic and strong, a symbol.
UW: How long did the whole process take?
BC: I think it was about a six-month job. Different stages went through different approvals, and that sometimes took awhile to get back to me.
UW: Do you have any of your original sketches or other original materials?
BC: No. I was looking through my records, trying to find even a little piece of evidence that I designed the helmet, in case I was ever challenged on it and had to prove that I was the designer. And it turns out I don’t have anything except my own word. Dave Boss knows I did it, but I don’t even know if he’s still alive — I haven’t been in touch with him in about 20 years. [Boss died in 1999. -- PL]
UW: There’s an early photo of Paul Brown reviewing an assortment of helmet prototypes that were presented to him around the time of the franchise’s founding, and one of those early prototypes looks like a simpler version of the striped concept that you came up with. Were you aware of that photo, and did it help inspire your design?
BC: No, I’m not aware of that. Maybe he was looking at one of my early prototypes.
UW: No, it’s definitely from the ’60s. [For the record, the AP caption for the photo read, "Paul Brown, President of the New Cincinnati Bengals of the American Football League, is trying to select the design, helmets, Jan. 3, 1968 in Cincinnati, to be worn by his team when it starts play in the A.F.L. next fall. Brown hasn’t made up his mind yet which helmet it will be." -- PL] Let me e-mail the photo to you right now.
[Slight pause while photo is in transit.]
BC [upon seeing the photo]: Oh! Interesting. I’ve never seen — I don’t recall seeing this photo.
UW: The one he’s holding looks like a more primitive version of your design.
BC: You know, I may have seen this photo, and it might have influenced me, but I don’t recall it. It’s very interesting, though. I wonder why they didn’t go with that one originally.
UW: Speaking of Paul Brown, there’s a longstanding rumor, or maybe an urban legend, that he decided to switch to a striped helmet so he could tell the difference between the Browns and Bengals from the owner’s box. Or on a more general level, there was just widespread feeling that the Bengals’ and Browns’ helmets were too similar. Did you ever hear anything like that?
BC: Yes. When the redesign was presented to me, I distinctly remember that one of the main problems with the old helmet was that it was too hard to distinguish from the plain Browns helmet. I remember that this was an issue with Paul Brown and the redesign project was a high priority for him.
UW: Did he provide any input or direction for your design?
BC: Not directly. It was always through the chain of command of NFL Properties.
UW: Since the design was so unconventional, was there any pushback from the league, or the team, or from anywhere else?
BC: Not that I’m aware of. I knew it was unconventional, and it took them awhile to approve it, but the feedback I got was pretty positive, and I was told that the Bengals’ officials liked it.
UW: So the team starts wearing your helmet design in 1981 and boom, they go straight to the Super Bowl. I assume you took full credit for that, right?
BC: I would have loved to take credit for it. But I don’t think so, no.
UW: Is there any small flaw in the design that bugs you, or something you’d do differently if you could go back and do it over?
BC: That wouldn’t be out of the question, but it never occurred to me to go back and change anything. At the time, I think I was very happy with it. We did plenty of refinements to it during the design process, so I was very satisfied with how it turned out. Dave Boss was such a great guy — he always said, “Whatever you think, Bruce. If you like it, I’ll submit it.” He trusted me 100%.
UW: The striped helmet is now one of the longest-lasting helmet designs in the league. Are you surprised by how durable it’s turned out to be?
BC: Probably so. That is pretty surprising. What about the Rams?
UW: Well, they still have the horns, but their color scheme has changed a bit, whereas the Bengals’ helmet is pretty much exactly the same as what you designed.
BC: Yeah. You know, one of my students showed me some poll in which it was voted the number one helmet design in the NFL. And my name was never mentioned, I should point out.
UW: Actually, it seems to be a very polarizing design. I’ve seen it show up on lists of the best helmets in the league and also lists of the worst helmets. How do you feel about those polarized responses?
BC: Well, critics are going to say whatever they say, and we can’t let ourselves be too affected by that. But it’s great to get positive response, obviously.
UW: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t design the jersey and pants that went with the helmet. Do you know who did design them?
BC: I think it was done by the team. It didn’t go through Properties.
UW: Which came first, the helmet or the rest of the uniform?
BC: The helmet. I remember that when I saw the uniform, I was pretty disappointed. It looked like they kind of bastardized the stripes [from the helmet] and just slapped them on the shoulder pads somehow. But I kinda shrugged my shoulders and said, “Well, I don’t have any control over that.” And of course they’ve changed the uniform since then.
UW: Yeah, but they’ve kept the helmet. Do you feel it still works as well today with their current uniform?
BC: I think it does, yeah. And whenever I tell someone that I was the designer, they’re usually pretty impressed. It’s sort of my main claim to fame.
UW: You know, that brings up a point: I write about uniforms for a living, but I’d never heard your name until very recently, which sort of fits the pattern of designers in the sports realm rarely receiving public credit for their designs. Does it bother you that your connection to the Bengals’ helmet isn’t more widely known?
BC: Not really, no. If I was an egomaniac, it would bother me. I mean, it’s nice to get the recognition, and it’s nice that you located me after all these years. But it’s not a big issue.
UW: Do you have any contact or communication with the Bengals?
BC: No I don’t. They probably don’t even know who I am. At one point a few years ago I was considering e-mailing them. I would love to just have a physical helmet.
UW [incredulous]: You don’t even have one?
UW: Oh, wow. That does seem like something that should be addressed.
BC: But how would I approach them? They don’t know who I am, and I don’t have any proof. I could just be a fan who wants a free helmet.
UW: After all these years, are they sort of your sentimental favorite team?
BC: They are. And I’m always disappointed that they haven’t, you know, done better.
UW: Yeah, they’ve had some rough stretches. Was that painful for you, to see your helmet as the iconic symbol of a team that had essentially become a laughingstock?
BC: It was disappointing, but I was okay with it, since the helmet had already gone straight to the Super Bowl in its first year.
UW: I’ve seen prototypes of a reverse-field version of your design. Have you seen that?:
BC: No. But that could work.
UW: How long did you end up working for NFL Properties, and what other projects did you work on for them?
BC: I think it was a couple of years. There was no dissatisfaction on either side — I was just ready to move on. I think it was probably the best corporate environment I ever worked in. But I had this urge to teach, so I went in that direction.
UW: Did you ever design any other helmet or uniform elements for any of the other NFL teams?
BC: Dave Boss had me work on some Italian team helmets. I don’t think any of them were ever actually used — there were various problems with the teams or something like that. Nothing ever came of it. And I was working on some USC stuff for him — a couple of books. Nothing regarding their uniforms, though. Most of what I did for NFL Properties was editorial graphic design.
UW: For publications?
UW: Do you still follow football?
BC: I’d follow it more if the Bengals started doing really well. You know, I’m here in L.A. and we don’t even have a team. As a kid, I used to be a huge Rams fan. And I played in several junior leagues, although I don’t think I was cut out to be a football player — I almost got killed several times. But I had the uniforms that I loved wearing.
UW: So were you one of these kids who were sketching logos in the margins of your notebooks and stuff like that?
BC: Not really, no. But I was really into car design. In fact, that’s what I wanted to do initially — I actually won a scholarship from General Motors, which put me through school.
UW: And bankrupted them.
BC [laughing]: No, that came later. This was back when GM was throwing a lot of money into Art Center. I think they still do a little. Back then they were putting a lot of designers through school, because they wanted those designers to come work for them.
UW: Have you followed the current state of helmet design enough to offer any opinions on it?
BC: Probably not. I’d have to do some research.
UW: What about the updating of the NFL logo, the overhaul of the Super Bowl logo, and stuff like that?
BC: Those seem to change pretty regularly. Again, I’d have to do some research to get up-to-date on that.
UW: Do you think there’s any difference between sports designs created by designers like yourself, who were trained in the analog era, and ones created by designers who work exclusively on computers?
BC: That’s a good question. It depends on the product. For a two-dimensional design, the computer expedites things so well — you couldn’t live without it. But for a three-dimensional design, like a helmet, working in three dimensions is still the way to go.
Major thanks to Bruce for sharing his time and expertise. And if anyone connected to the Bengals is reading this, send the guy a helmet already.
Would this little guy’s father please stand up?: Speaking of designers who’ve never gotten their due, the vintage Mr. Met decal featured in Brinke Guthrie’s most recent installment of Collector’s Corner got me wondering: Who designed Mr. Met? The live mascot began appearing at Shea Stadium in 1964, but the cartoon character made his debut a year earlier, on the cover of the 1963 yearbook. Who drew him? I’ve asked quite a few people lately, including Mets scholar Matt Silverman and illustrator Joe Petruccio, but nobody seems to know.
Sadly but somewhat predictably, that includes the folks at Wilponics Inc. A Mets PR guy who I spoke with yesterday said that the team has no records of Mr. Met’s creator. The person who probably would have known was the team’s first promotions director, Julius Ochs Adler, who died in 2003. I thought maybe I’d find the answer inside the 1976 yearbook, whose cover design appears to have been drawn by the original Mr. Met artist, but the credits for that yearbook are maddeningly incomplete, with no mention of the illustrator.
Whoever the designer was, he was clever. Look closely and you’ll see that Mr. Met’s pupils were originally depicted as miniature baseball diamonds. And as I’ve been pointing out lately here on the site, Mr. Met always — always — wore a cap with an orange brim. Yes, that’s uni-inaccurate, but it speaks to an impressively programmatic approach to creating a telltale visual calling card (much like how Mr. Redlegs is always shown with one upturned collar point).
Mr. Met deserves better than to be an orphan. Nearly 50 years after his birth, he remains an integral part of the team’s branding, and it is nothing short of a travesty that we don’t know who created him. So now I’m officially obsessed: We must determine who designed Mr. Met. If you have any info or leads, you know what to do.
Uni Watch Lunch Report: Hopped in the car yesterday afternoon with NYC’s finest soul DJ, Mr. Finewine, and headed out to Queens. Our destination was Von Westernhagen’s, a neighborhood German joint that’s been slinging the spaetzle since 1964. It turned out to be the best lunch I’ve had in ages — excellent turnip soup, amazing house-made bratwurst with German potato salad (I liked the brat so much that I took a half-dozen links to go), very solid square hamburgers (that’s just half of one, because Finewine and I were splitting it), plenty of German beer on tap, and an owner named Connie who’s the bee’s lederhosen. I’m telling ya, it was like being in Wisconsin.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Von Westernhagen’s is closing its doors for good “at the end of this week” (which among other things means they have served their last Tuesday luncheon special). We couldn’t get them to say whether that means the final day will be Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, but whatever — it’s soon. So you NYCers should cancel whatever plans you had for the next 48ish hours and haul your keisters straight to 71-28 Cooper Ave. in Glendale. You can thank me later. (Need more convincing? There’s a really sweet Von Westernhagen’s video clip here.)
Giveaway Reminder: Today’s the last day to enter the giveaway for the Africa Unity jersey. Full details here.
Stirrup Club Reminder: Robert Marshall is now taking orders for the next round of Uni Watch Stirrup Club designs. Details here.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Boy, this almost makes Chief Wahoo look politically correct by comparison. … Chicago isn’t the only city that can spell things out on buildings. That’s a building in Tokyo, spelling out “Banzai Nippon” (“Congratulations Japan”) after Japan’s World Cup win on Monday (with thanks to Jeremy Brahm). … I hear through the grapevine that next year’s MLB BP jerseys will be full button-fronts but will also have “almost Edge-like stripping up the sides and under arms.” … Hard not to like the name of this page (thanks, Phil). … Got a spare million burning a hole in your pocket? You could do a lot worse than spending it on this super-cool eatery (big thanks to longtime Uni Watch pal Tim Adams). … More news about that upcoming A’s throwback game: Joe Rudi will throw out the first pitch with an orange baseball (a Charlie Finley idea that never caught on) — a nice touch. Meanwhile, A’s equipment manager and Uni Watch reader Steve Vucinich appears in the video clip embedded on this page (with thanks to Mike Rowinski). … Dan Cichalski has come up with something really special: If you go to this page, you’ll find the audio that was broadcast on a Washington radio station on September 21, 1939. If you scroll down to track #11, you’ll get most of the play-by-play of the Indians/Senators game that was played that day. It picks up in the 4th inning and continues through the end of the game. An amazing time capsule. … Also from Dan: As many of you know, the Pittsfield Colonials are wearing super-old-timey uniforms this season. There’s some really good coverage of them, including lots of photos, here. … New throwbacks for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and they’re already a source of controversy (with thanks to Doug Brei). … Mike Lafferty isn’t fond of the orange/gray Nike cleats being worn by many World Cup players, and I’d have to agree with him there. … In case you haven’t seen it already, Wally Backman’s fully mic’d tantrum makes for very entertaining viewing. … The Warriors will be unveiling their new look, which has already been leaked all over the place, at their draft party next Thursday. … Giants closer Brian Wilson got a rare at-bat yesterday. Apparently he doesn’t have his own helmet, because he wore Matt Downs’s lid (good spot by Christopher Rogers). … See the gap toward the bottom of this kid’s jersey? That’s Jeremy Schneden of Burlington High in Iowa. “He has a button missing, but he thinks it’s good luck, so he’s not replacing it,” says his coach, Scott Mason. … Here’s something new, at least to me: a baseball-themed corset (big thanks to Rob Harrigan). … Cash Collins has founded a charitable group to provide equipment for Little Leaguers in South Carolina and the Dominican Republic. How does he intend to do this? Through the power of stirrups, of course. … The Bucs will wear their creamsicle throwbacks on December 5th. … You definitely shouldn’t go see the Brooklyn Cyclones on Monday, unless you wanna subject yourself to this (Dan Cichalski yet again). … Very nice blousing last night by Jimmy Rollins, who was on a minor league rehab assignment. Looks like he was going double-flapped, too (photos by Jim Taggart, and forwarded my way by Adam Brodsky). … You know what product category is often blessed with spectacular package design? Crayons (thanks, Kirsten). … Here’s a ranking of all the Detroit area’s uniforms (with thanks to Patrick Coletta). … A theater company in Cambridge, Mass., is currently performing a show called Johnny Baseball, in which Red Sox history is set to music, complete with uniforms.