Numbers on sports shirts are meant to help the public, journalists and the referee to identify players. They should be big, but what else can you say about them?
As a typographic designer I got interested in shirt numbers and I tried to find out why certain typefaces are chosen by shirt designers. I also designed my own shirt numbers, trying to combine legibility and beauty.
Even though this project started purely as an exercise in type design, I discovered that shirt numbers do matter to certain people. The soccer team of Willem II (Tilburg, the Netherlands) agreed to use my shirt numbers in the competition 2002-2003, because they are better recognised from great distance than the ones they used before.
But many soccer teams can’t freely choose their own shirt numbers, because the sports wear company that designs the shirts urges them to use a prescribed typeface. Or, as seen in England, all teams playing in the premier league are obliged to use the same shirt numbers. In this way shirt numbers become a kind of brand.
Still, many typefaces used for shirt numbering are odd, dull and/or ugly. Some typographical insights can help in judging which typefaces are better suited for shirt numbers than others.