Jan10

Five Questions for Eric Rickabaugh

Eric Rickabaugh is the owner of Rickabaugh Graphics, located in the Columbus, Ohio suburb of Gahanna. For over twenty years Rickabaugh Graphics has been creating award-winning logo designs for numerous Fortune 500 companies including Hasbro Toys, Coca-Cola, Toyota, MGM and Clorox. The firm has also worked on pro sports brands for the NFL, the NHL, the NBA and Minor League Baseball. Over the last decade and a half the firm has been applying their extensive logo expertise to the collegiate market.  In this time they have become the leading collegiate branding firm and their clients have included the Big East Conference, the Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin, Seton Hall University, Vanderbilt University, North Carolina State, Baylor, Texas A&M University and many, many others.  Their tremendous success in revitalizing collegiate brands has resulted in the studio becoming the primary firm assisting schools with native American nicknames build new traditons around less controversial icons.  The studio’s collegiate designs have been the subject of feature articles in five major design publications and the firm’s owner, Eric Rickabaugh, has lectured on graphic design and branding issues at conventions for the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, the International Collegiate Licensing Association, Major and Minor League Baseball and at the The Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.

White Boxer (WB):
You’ve been going graphic design professionally for 24 years, but during the last 10-15 years, you’ve really made a name for yourself in rebranding colleges and universities. How did that come about?

Examples of Eric Rickenbaugh's work
Logo designs by Eric Rickenbaugh (Clockwise from upper left): The Ohio State University, Vanderbuilt University, Old Dominion University, Philadelphia 76ers.

Eric:
Our company has always been known as a leading logo/identity firm but early on we primarily did corporate logos. Based on our accomplishments in corporate identity we were selected in 1991 by The Ohio State University to redesign their athletic identity. We applied all that we had learned in doing award-winning corporate identities to that project and it was a real success. In the first couple of years after the new identity was introduced the university saw a 225% increase in licensed income (that represents about one and a half million dollars). Of course with that kind of success other universities took notice and we were soon hired to design athletic identities for the University of Dayton and Xavier University. In 1995 the NBA noticed our work on these three projects and hired us to redesign the identity for the Philadelphia 76ers. It was at this point that I realized we were developing a very positive reputation in the specific field of athletic identity design. I began to actively promote Rickabaugh Graphics as an athletic identity design firm and also started to aggressively seek out clients who might be interested in our expertise. It is now nearly fifteen years later and we have worked for the NBA, the NFL, the NHL, Minor League Baseball and over one hundred universities across the country. Our expertise has also grown quite significantly from just doing athletic branding to also providing academic branding, youth mark and kid’s club programs, identity research and testing, mascot costume design and many other full-range collegiate branding services. Our many years of experience have provided us with the necessary insights to really assist our collegiate clients in dealing with many very challenging branding issues.
WB:
How is working with colleges and universities, and pro sports leagues for that matter, than working with your typical corporation when doing a rebranding project?
Eric:
Working with pro sports leagues is very much like working with any corporate client when creating a retail mark. The pace is fast, the goal is profit and the process is straight forward. Collegiate clients on the other hand are a very unique animal. The attachment to their logos is very emotional. Even a small change must be considered carefully as the response to an improperly handled change can be very negative. In addition, the stakeholders at a university are not only personally connected but they are also very diverse. A university’s audiences include students, faculty, administration, alumni, the community and fans just to name a few. The extreme range of their values, attitudes and age make the collegiate environment very complex and highly political. For this reason it is tremendously important to have a very deliberate branding process that includes involving many members of these audiences in focus groups to get a sense for their reaction to any proposed design. It is a very challenging and demanding branding specialty.
WB:
I would also think another challenge with the collegiate clients is the obscure or historical mascots some schools have that aren’t associated with sports very well (North Carolina Tarheels for example). One client of yours that seems to fit that is the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. How did you go about finding an identity that the university’s audience got behind?

Examples of sports logos
Clockwise from upper left: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Houston Texans, New York Yankees, University of Texas Longhorns.

Eric:
Certainly many colleges have some very interesting nicknames. In addition to the Hilltoppers we have also done Catamounts, Nor’easters, Wonder Boys and of course the Buckeyes. The challenge in coming up with an image for a unique name is part of the fun of what we do. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers is an interesting case. When I arrived on campus they had a poorly drawn image of a “severed” hand holding a red towel as a logo. I was absolutely certain that we would come up with something other than that for the new athletic image. But upon doing the necessary research and talking to the university’s stakeholders it was clear just how “near and dear” that red towel image was to the WKU fans. It is steeped in a tradition which surrounds a famous WKU basketball coach who always waved a red towel at the games. It soon became apparent that we would be re-drawing the red towel logo rather than discarding it. We added a new set of wordmarks to the new red towel logo and the brand was complete. As you can see we let the university audiences help us find the correct image for their school.
WB:
What college or pro team identity do you see out there, besides your work,  that you really admire?
Eric:
There is a lot of wonderful work that exists in the sports identity market. Of course the Yankees logo is a classic that has stood the test of time and is a very identifiable symbol. The Texas longhorn silhouette is another classic that stands out. More recent brands that appeal to me include the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Houston Texans among many, many others.

Comparing the NFL logos
The old NFL logo (left) and new (right).

WB:
Two recent professional logos have been revealed this fall. What’s you opinion of both the updated look of the NFL logo, and the logo for the NBa’s Oklahoma City Thunder?
Eric:
The new NFL logo is an excellent refinement of a very successful brand. The typography has been cleaned up and given a much more contemporary feel. The football illustration looks like a dimensional football rather than the “hamburger” that the NFL players fondly called it. And the eight stars in the blue field now represent the eight divisions in the NFL and should be much easier to embroider. Overall an great job by the designers.I hate criticizing other designer’s work because none of us know the issues that were involved in the design process. Did the client dictate the design or in some other way hinder the design process? We don’t know the inside story. Still the new NBA Thunder logo is somewhat disappointing. Rather than portraying an image of a sport that is fast and exciting the logo looks dated and stagnant. There is very little personality in the design and if you take away the basketball it has very little meaning. There could have been a lot of visual excitement with the use of some lightning or clouds. Seems like a missed opportunity.

© 2017 Chris Kavinsky