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Merging soccer and design, Clean Sheet Co. sees the World Cup as a time to be bold

Mark Willis turned his love for soccer and his creative skills into a unique business — and the World Cup is the perfect platform for it.

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Graphic designer Mark Willis looks back at the 1994 World Cup and thinks it should have sparked his interest in soccer like it did for many Americans. Though his love for soccer didn’t develop until the late ‘90s, when he traveled to England for college, he now recognizes the World Cup as a special time on the soccer calendar.

“As far as I’m concerned, the World Cup is an excuse to try, learn and do big new things,” Willis, a 40-year-old from Philadelphia by way of Boston, writes on his Medium site. Taking the 2014 World Cup as “a personal challenge” as well as a marketing opportunity, Willis decided to start a company combining his love of soccer and design.

After online exercises in which he remade the brand for his then-hometown New England Revolution, righted wrongs he perceived with the U.S. Soccer crest, and imagined all 30 Major League Baseball jerseys as soccer kits — he launched Clean Sheet Co., allowing some of his online shirt ideas to become actual shirts.

“My living room was our staging area and fulfillment warehouse,” Willis recalls of the 2014 effort that moved close to 4,000 orders. “I covered my family in T-shirts for a few months.”

He’s back this year with a unifying concept of The Ribbon: drawing from the scarf that many a soccer fan utilizes to show support, which he terms, “a distinct, linear pattern that clearly communicates energy and identity.” For all 32 teams, he has designed a shirt, a scarf, and a poster utilizing the same ribbon design, as well as a poster for each of the eight groups, interweaving ribbons for the teams drawn into the opening round of play.

Willis’ research into what to put on each nation’s ribbon — involving many hours on the Internet and conversations with friends — took him down some surprising pathways. He notes that his favorites have culture in common, implementing something less obvious.

For Colombia, a country actually using a traditional scarf pattern design in its away jersey, Willis used a traditional necklace design from the indigenous Emberá people. For Brazil, Willis saw the mosaic pattern of the sidewalks along the Ipanema Beach and termed it “Obvious, inevitable, and with a bit of an artistic flourish — like a Brazil goal.” Aboriginal dot painting provided inspiration for Australia’s ribbon, done in the team’s trademark yellow and green color scheme.

For countries with distinctive schools of design — like Germany’s Bauhaus movement and Russia’s brand of constructivism — Willis went there. Despite all the possibilities Mexico offered, Willis dove directly toward the concentric circles dominating design for the Mexico-hosted 1968 Summer Olympics.

England provided a particular challenge for Willis, but he solved it via Seville Row and creating a tweed pattern in traditional Three Lions colors. For Denmark, he borrowed from the Panton chair to help distinguish it from fellow Group C red-and-white wearers Peru, whereas for fellow Scandinavians and modern furniture experts Sweden, he zagged where he might have zigged, drawing from Swedish folk art. Being of Swedish heritage, he notes it was a ready reference: “I remember seeing a lot of that in my grandmother’s house.”

So far this year, Mexico, France, Spain, and England — teams you’d expect American fans to gravitate toward as second teams — are the most popular, though the current No. 1 is Iceland. Willis attributes that more to American soccer fans loving their underdog story (and their shared red, white, and blue) than his smart design incorporating snowflakes and ancient stave patterns, of which Willis notes, “They were thought to have magic, or at least superstitious, powers . . . to help with everything from encouraging the affection of a mate to making one’s sheep docile.”

Willis created an additional design hurdle for himself by ordering just eight shirt colors. There’s no yellow, for example, which takes away the most obvious Brazil or Colombia options.

“I had to get a little creative with some teams, using secondary or away colors, or some reason as to why they might use a different color,” he said.

For Brazil, the yellow and green ribbon pops against the royal blue that the team is again using for this year’s away kit.

Despite being pleased with how the shirts turned out, he’s sad to have abandoned one dream he had for Clean Sheet for 2018 — a hoops jersey featuring the “People’s Crest” he designed for the United States that he envisioned as “a real keepsake, a nice heritage jersey for fans.” He had designs done and a factory chosen, but after the U.S. failed to qualify, reasoned that “the atmosphere wasn’t good anymore.” He’s eyeing a 2019 launch, when the Gold Cup — and perhaps the Women’s World Cup — might present more of an appetite for it.

In the meantime, for fans who want to make a T-shirt-level rather than a jersey-level commitment to a team actually in the World Cup, Willis is ready to turn shirts around in a couple days. He’s also looking to make posters commemorating some of the best matches of the upcoming tournament, though he hasn’t quite decided how he’ll employ the ribbons in this one.

And what does Willis think of what the players will actually be wearing?

“There are some ugly ones, but there aren’t a lot of swings and misses this year,” Willis says of the recently-unveiled 2018 edition jerseys. “There’s a lot of plain work.” He does like the widely-praised Germany and Nigeria jerseys, as well as the trend toward gradient blocks, but notes that the designers, on the whole, “seemed afraid to try big ideas.”

“That’s a little bit sad to me,” he adds, “because the World Cup should be an explosion of color. We should look back and say, ‘What were we thinking?’ but then decide 10 years later that that jersey was amazing.”

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