Dan Simon, head of the Studio Simon brand identify firm, has lots to say on the multifaceted topic of logo design. But when asked to describe what it is that defines a Studio Simon product, he is uncharacteristically succinct.
"That style is born out of necessity," said Simon, speaking from his studio in Louisville, Ky. "A sports logo must be able to be embroidered at small sizes, and that's the guiding force behind everything I do. ... The challenge is to design something that looks as good embroidered on the left chest of a polo shirt as it does on the side of a stadium. That's easier said than done."
But Simon has become adept at doing just this, and the "bold simplicity" that is his stock in trade is prevalent throughout the Minors. Studio Simon has become an industry leader in the field of logo design, rivaled only by San Diego-based Plan B Branding. (The two have become the de facto Coke and Pepsi or perhaps The Beatles and The Rolling Stones of Minor League brand identity).
Studio Simon's influence has certainly been felt this offseason, with the firm responsible for the new logos unveiled by the Lake County Captains, Kinston Indians, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Round Rock Express (among others). And when the entire baseball industry gathered in Orlando, Fla., for the annual Winter Meetings, they did so amidst yet another Studio Simon creation -- the bat-chomping alligator that served as the event's official logo.
A miraculous encounter
Simon went to school for graphic design and started his career in Los Angeles doing work within the entertainment industry. He had always harbored a desire to work with sports teams, however, and his first big break in this regard was the result of a fortuitous encounter.
"My dad was at a wedding reception and ended up sitting next to Marvin Goldklang, who owned the Fort Myers Miracle," explained Simon. "[The Miracle] had just signed an affiliation agreement with the Twins and were looking for a new identity."
Intrigued by this chance conversation, Goldklang hired Simon to create the Miracle's new look. And the rest, as they say, is history.
"I set out to be a sports designer, but not necessarily a leader in Minor League brand identity," said Simon, whose resume also includes several Super Bowl logos. "But [the Miracle] happened to be my first job, and it begat other work which continues to this day, 18 years later."
And over this nearly two-decade time span, Simon has become intimately familiar with the business of Minor League Baseball. Affordable family-friendly entertainment is what the industry is all about, but this uniformity of belief does not lead to a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to brand identity.
"The reality is that different teams have different takes on that. On one end of the spectrum are teams like [the] Montgomery [Biscuits] and Lansing [Lugnuts]," he said, citing franchises that have opted for cartoonish logos completely distinct from the parent club. "But on the other end, and one that I did, are the Oklahoma City RedHawks. ... They had just gotten an NBA team at the time, and considered themselves a Major League city. That was their vision, and they wanted a logo that reflected that."
Therefore, Simon's philosophy is to enter each project with an open mind.
"The people with whom I work, they're the experts. They do this 24/7, and know their team better than anybody," he added. "Working with a client, I ask a lot of questions and do even more listening. When it comes to their goals and visions, sometimes they're able to verbalize it very well, and sometimes they may not feel like they can. But if you know what questions to ask, then people can end up telling you a lot without even realizing it.
"What I tell any prospective clients is that their brand identity creates a set of expectations for fans, the end user. How it looks and what it says to people directly affects their perception of the product, which is the game-going experience. My clients tell me what they want fans to take home, not literally merchandise, but from the experience. The words clients use to describe this are the words I apply to the direction I take with the logo."
Literally going Nuts
Fan perception is crucial to a team's financial success, and Simon notes that "nothing is more important than the fans. Without them, you don't have a business. But it's the team that has to have a vision and has to have goals."
This vision is something that may not be immediately embraced, or even understood, by the fan base. Change can be difficult to accept, and nothing signifies change in the Minors more than an overhauled team identity. Simon cites the California League's Modesto franchise as a client that had to weather a short-term public outcry in order to reap long-term economic gain.
"After 30 years as the Modesto A's, the team wanted to name themselves the Modesto Nuts," he recalled. "Modesto is one of the biggest nut-growing regions in the world, and with that name, they could do all kinds of sponsorship tie-ins and work with an industry that employed so many people in the area. It also opened the door for fun promotions and new mascot characters.
"But when the announcement was made, there was a huge public outcry against it," he added. "The front office stuck to their guns and it was the best thing they could have done. So many of the things they've been able to achieve have been because of that brand identity. ... They weren't able to succeed simply because of a good logo, but the logo did take a questionable name and make it palatable for baseball fans. That's what Studio Simon does."
Indeed, the Nuts logo is one of the most memorable in the Minors. It features the team's legume mascots -- Al the Almond and Wally the Walnut -- brandishing baseball equipment atop the team name.
"If you had asked the fans what they should name the team, after 30 years with a conservative name, you would have gotten another conservative name," said Simon. "And all those things the team wanted to do, they would have then had a very difficult time doing."
Spreading the love
Simon has worked with so many Minor League clients through the years and is diplomatic when it comes to choosing his favorite designs.
"That's like asking me which of my children I prefer," said Simon, the father of two boys. "Like my children, they have different personalities. But there are things I love about all of them."
But when it comes to the feedback Simon has received from fans, two logos stand out.
"Over the years, a lot of people have told they love the Mudville Nine," said Simon, referring to a name adopted by the Stockton Ports from 2001-'04. "Another one is the short-lived identity I did for the New Hampshire Primaries. [The team changed its name to the Fisher Cats soon after.] Every single year at the [Baseball Winter Meetings] Trade Show, people will come up to me and tell me how much they loved that logo."
And that is surely one of the most satisfying things about logo design.
"I've seen people here in Louisville wearing Orem Owlz hats. They're not wearing it because they know I did it, but because they thought the logo was cool," said Simon. "There's no better feeling in the world. ... It's easy to do good work when you love what you're doing. Hopefully that's reflected in the quality of what I do."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com.