In the early '90s, Michael Doret was creating logos for MLB, NBA, Time—even Kiss. It’s hard to call any of the projects bigger than one another—after all, these were all big brands—but thanks to a diehard Knicks blogger, one story has filtered through the sports community to reach all of us in the design world. Doret was tasked with redesigning the logo for the New York Knicks.
He would go on to create a masterpiece. It would be rejected. And the NBA would settle for the neutered version that’s in use today. To any professional designer, it’s a story that may be a bit too familiar. The NBA’s assignment was to create a new Knicks logo that would capture the essence of New York by including a famous landmark. New York has several. The Statue of Liberty was an option, but it was already a bit played out. Madison Square Garden was a natural fit, but how do you work that into a logo? The Empire State Building was the best choice, Doret and the NBA agreed, so for the next several months, he began hand-sketching all sorts of potential logos for the Knicks.
These logos represent a treasure trove of pseudo-retro designs, not-quite-literal throwbacks that may have been too aggressive for the '90s, but are dead on the sensibilities of 2012—a culture obsessed with the quasi-authenticity of plaid bow ties, Instagram filters, and pour-over coffee.
“This is the thing people always note about my work: It does have a nod to, or several nods to the past.” Doret tells Co.Design. “I think that’s the nature of designing the word—doing hand lettering. These logos feel vintage, but you’ll never find anything done back in the day that looks like them. It’s very difficult to design something to be totally, authentically retro or vintage.”
Scanning through Doret’s sketches, I spot a smattering of everything from Art Deco to disco. Although a clever riff on New York’s subway token is an easy make*, the rest is a collection of undefinable echoes of voices from history in art, graphic design, and professional sports. But while I can’t trace the lineage of every logo, I do know that each would sell a boatload of distressed tees. “There’s been a lot of time now for people to absorb this kind of retro stuff. It’s become more a part of the vernacular,” Doret says. “When I was doing this, there was really nobody doing it quite like I was at the time. “
In all these sketches, Doret did manage to land on a logo that the NBA liked. It combined the silhouette of the Empire State Building—which had become a bit of a motif in Doret’s sketches—with the basketball and extrusion of the previous Knicks logo.
The result was like a 3-D art deco makeover, plated on a Superman-esque shield. It’s energetic. It’s nostalgic. And most important, it’s New York. The idea was almost a go, and then the NBA decided that getting the rights to a New York landmark might be problematic. So they asked Doret to rip the Empire State Building out, despite it being the apex of the image, despite it being the foundational tie to the city. So the Knicks adopted the logo sans any New York affiliation. Shortly thereafter, Doret created a modified version with “New York” written over Knicks. It filled some of the missing vertical space, but, well, an icon was changed to text.
“We kind of emasculated it by removing the building and leaving the rest the same,” Doret admits. “In my mind, it never quite works the way it’s supposed to. That wasn’t the intention. Because of the way I work, it would have been better to have started over on this design, letting it grow organically rather than just erasing the building icon and calling it a day.”
Now, Doret’s approved Knicks logo was still a success. It lasted roughly two decades for the organization. And this year, the NBA announced a redesign that’s virtually unchanged, save for a general flattening that’s become fashionable in the touch-screen era. That said, you can’t dig through Doret’s old designs without feeling the pangs of wasted potential, like an Oscar-winning film in which the best scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. But Doret, despite disagreeing with the NBA’s decision 20 years later, is by no means bitter about the experience.
“To me, it’s just the nature of what I do. I’m not a fine artist. I’m not out to make my own statements. I’m solving problems visually,” he says. “At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work for a client for whatever reason, that’s the way it is. That’s showbiz.”
*The Knicks did end up adopting a logo like Doret’s subway token, but he was not credited with the design.