Engineers work down one hall. Marketing folks down another. And designers mix between them all to ensure that Wilson Baseball’s in-house design team stays on the cutting edge of every angle of design and diverse in influence. Wilson Baseball includes baseball bat brands DeMarini — known for its extreme sports flair — and Louisville Slugger, a historic baseball brand, requires that diversity as the in-house design team at Wilson Baseball aims to reach a range of customers.
Chicago-based Wilson Sporting Goods has a history that stretches back to 1913. Whether making footballs, tennis rackets or baseball equipment, Wilson has long put a focus on the performance of sports equipment. But it has also placed a premium on design. The entirety of Wilson design stays in house, but nowhere is that team more far-reaching than in the baseball division, which includes the DeMarini brand based near Portland, Oregon, and the Louisville Slugger brand with roots in Kentucky.
“We are fiercely independent with the brands,” says Tom Burns, global baseball product manager for bats. “Both have a unique voice in the space. The great thing about having two brands under one umbrella is playing into their strengths and not mixing the pot too much.”
While Burns has his eye on both brands, he lets each team run their own design show, with Slugger known for its 135 years of traditions and DeMarini a more youthful experience. Sure, the teams share basic learning — how to place a new decal on a bat or the latest in colors — but that larger brand discussion then fades so each brand can make it happen as it desires.
And each brand really shines in their own right. DeMarini was the first to really incorporate an extreme sports type of style to its look. “I guess it is that idea that the batter is sort of an individual on a team,” says Hodad, DeMarini creative director. “I guess if there is a spectrum of team design versus individual design, we are on that individual end of things.”
For Slugger, Martin Cimek, Wilson Baseball global art director, says the goal when building his team was to show the bat as a technical leader in the market, but with a fresh approach. In that regard, Slugger embraces structure. “The design language is the forms and shapes on the bat first,” Burns says.
Wilson likes that they have two brands with contrasting approaches. “Both are making elite bats in the same price point,” Burns says. “Why make both, because there are two different player personalities. Players exist on this spectrum and both brands exist on both ends of the spectrum.”
For DeMarini, the design process isn’t a formal one. Hodad says staff bring him plenty of ideas and somewhere along the way he settles on a core idea, usually one drawing or image he can use as a jumping off point. “Typically, you’ll see elements of design for that season running through most of the bats,” he says.
For Slugger, Cimek looks toward trends, whether what he’s seeing in paint in the car industry or coloring in manufacturing. “You want something on the bat that is fresh on the marketplace, sometimes it is just a matter of a new application of a decal treatment or foils,” he says. “It is always nice to have new things in the toolbox.”
He says creating a strong design theme to differentiate Slugger bats in the marketplace requires finding fresh influences. “When you think about the sports industry, there are a lot of things that point at other companies,” he says. “Both of our teams (DeMarini and Slugger) try to bring out other types of sports and other influences, things that aren’t traditionally thought of.”
As every brand searches for its unique place on the shelf or the field, Wilson wants something unique about the paint or the finish that will come slightly different to the eye. For that reason, they don’t just pick out of a PMS book and call it done. They work with engineers to find a new way to attract attention from three levels: the stands at 50 feet away, the middle view of 20 feet away and the details when in hand. “Both brands take that idea and do it their own way, but the uniqueness of it is really important,” Burns says. “We are trying to forge our own.”
That’s what makes it fun, the hierarchy of design, Hodad says. Sure, a bat has required information that must be there — text to say the size, length, etc. — it must have a logo, but then how does it also tell a story, maybe one of performance? Hodad says that maybe he’ll do color blocking in places to show off the bat is an end-weighted version. Graphics help tell the performance story of the bat, from the darker colors for a heavier weight to speed graphics for a light, fast-swinging bat.
Still, there’s always a little room for “the fun stuff, the art.”
Slugger has really embraced technology in its design, whether a seamless decal or reflective or foil colors. Working in-house has proven essential to making these changes shine. “When you are in-house you can talk to a product-line manager and a marketer and learn how someone is shopping for a bat,” Cimek says. “How someone sees it on the field is super important, but knowing what the consumer is trying to figure out about the bat and how to differentiate the bat with lead colors and placements is super important to tell the story.”
Wilson has embraced color as a key storyteller — extensive focus groups and mining data from their online customizer remain constant supports. With baseball bats so segmented by regulations for different ages and uses, Wilson colorized knobs based on regulatory approval. “You walk up to a bat wall these days and it is pretty daunting,” Burns says. “In the past, color was used as a fresh look and now it has meaning.”
As players advance up the regulatory ladder, Wilson wants to ensure each family of bats relates to each other, making it easier for the consumer to see what the next step of progression is within that family of design.
A key challenge of baseball bat design puts a focus on barrel geometry. “Typically, in baseball you have a lot of different lengths and diameters, so you want to keep that in mind when designing,” Hodad says. “Material constraints are tough too. We have to develop custom paint and clear coats that flex with the barrel and the decal. Just because something cool exists in the marketplace doesn’t always mean it will work on a bat.”
Whether the intense regulated information or the performance attributes, designers must account for plenty when designing the graphics on the barrel of a bat. For Wilson, the answer comes with a diversified in-house team working directly with engineers and marketers to find the right design story.
Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.
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