Making The House A Home

A look behind the Chicago House AC brand, featuring Design Lead, Liam Murtaugh -- By: Walter Nolan-Cohn, Chicago House AC Director of Marketing & Communications
Published Mar 5, 2021

On Tuesday February 23rd, 2021 the Chicago House Athletic Club was born; a professional soccer club that promises to “bring soccer with a social conscience.”

Set to begin play this August at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, IL, Chicago House AC has a strong commitment to the betterment of the city, and believes that winning goes beyond the pitch and into the community. We share the values of all Chicagoans with a special emphasis on social justice, racial equality, inclusion, serving the underserved, and having fun while doing it. Our club will actively work to make Chicago a better place through philanthropy, service, winning trophies, and inspiring Chicagoans to stand at the forefront of their communities to create lasting change.

A team with such strong morals needs a bold and unique identity to match, backed by recognizable marks that challenge the norm in sports. This is how our brand was born. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chicago House AC design lead, Joseph “Liam” Murtaugh to discuss his brand design and how the club’s name, identity and marks came to be. 

Walter Nolan-Cohn: Liam, thank you for joining me today. Excited to get a look inside the head of the designer behind the Chicago House Athletic Club brand, identity and marks. Tell us a little about yourself and your firm, “NO GRAND” and how you got started working with Peter Wilt and soccer in Chicago.

Joseph “Liam” Murtaugh: I’ve been working independently for about a decade now – little bit here, little bit there. I know Peter [Wilt] from when I was growing up watching the [Chicago] Fire and was involved in the fan community there through the early phases of the team. Peter, at different points while I was still an amateur, got me involved in some of the artistic aspects of how the team was presented. I came up with, frankly, a lot of the iconography that they still use today. One of the big sparking points for mine and Peter’s collaboration was in 2004, when I was really young, he invited me to work with them on an idea that I had to turn the city flag into a jersey that the team would wear. We worked together with Puma on the third jersey for the 2005 season. The idea was to make the idealized version of the Chicago flag with the stars across the front of the jersey as the Fire’s primary away jersey beginning in 2006. Management changes, things change, and it went away. When Peter got involved with the women’s team, he was really interested in making that the core of the identity of the team, the Chicago Red Stars. So I was involved in the naming and the logo concepts and execution with a firm in Denver, CO called “Adrenaline,” which also worked on the Fire’s identity. Those were the partnerships that I worked on with Peter. As the years progressed, I moved to London in 2009 and have been in different stations since then in Germany and a brief time in LA. I’ve had other interactions with him since then, with Madison and a couple of his other teams, but he wanted to get me involved very early on with the process of the new team in Chicago. This was more of a solo partnership for me – I was working with Peter and [Night] Train [Veeck] and having a lot of interaction with the stakeholders over the last four months or so, to develop what we came up with.

WNC: And it looks great! The response and feedback has been very positive overall.

LM: That’s what I’ve heard, and I am very pleased with the limited amount that I have seen personally. People are getting what we were going for, and that means that it was effective visual communication. I’m really pleased that the reaction has been good and I have gotten a few personal messages that have been really nice because it means something to those people, and I appreciate that the most.

WNC: Let’s dive right into the design itself. In your own words, straight from the head of the artist and designer, tell us a little bit about the Crest.

LM: It was important to me that whatever we came up with, it had a very identifiable symbol, something that people could look at and get what it was, right away. This naming process was quite long and involved a lot of people, including the fans, so when we got to the finalists, we still had to stay flexible about which way we were going to go with things. But there was one concept that stuck in my head from a very early phase, which was the concept of reversing the traditional shield shape upside down, which makes a house shape. It’s a very simple idea, but it’s very effective and it’s something that is universally recognizable. It has a universal relevance to world soccer, world football. Paired with that was the desire to connect with the ‘80s and ‘90s style of design related to music, particularly relating to this name. There’s a long connection between the aesthetics of House Music and Chicago that follow through to the factory and warehouse style of design with this hard-edge and really industrial kind of look. That was a major influence and I was thinking a lot about how the letters and the symbols might evoke something more interesting than just slapping a lion on a shield. The issue of any crest or logo of any sports team is, now it’s out of my hands. You work with the group to come up with the most solid foundation possible and also give the tools and references so then the fans, the team, all the stakeholders that will grow and change through time will have this solid foundation to work from. They’ll have it open-ended, not completely resolved, there’s a lot there to play with, and that can be changed. That’s why we chose the colors, the shapes, maybe there’s something in the future that comes from this original design that was never thought of. That was one of the exciting things about the Fire identity when I was growing up.  It was important to me to have a recognizable icon that covered a lot of the various elements of what the club is standing for, not just on a sports level, but also on a social level. The name does that quite well, too.

WNC: You mentioned the connection between Chicago and House Music - how is the City of Chicago reflected in this design? 

LM: There was always going to be a strong influence of local, civic iconography but I didn’t want to implement the [Chicago] flag again. It’s something that has been used, something is very easily identifiable, it’s something that is very integral to Chicago. I played around with it at the beginning, during one of the many designs that no one will ever see. This wasn’t the first idea that came out of the mill. There was always a desire to integrate local Chicago symbols into this design. One of the things that has been under-appreciated for a very long time is the Chicago Municipal Device – the three pronged symbol. I noticed from a very young age that the symbol was usually shown with one of the three arms pointing straight up or straight down. Technically, this isn’t geographically correct if you’re thinking about a North, South, East and West standpoint. I thought, ‘what would this look like if it was geographically correct?’ and ‘what if it was pointing forward, to indicate pride and progress?’The Chicago River is also such a strong symbol of Chicago – the Chicago Fire is obviously a very important event that happened that led the city to what it is today, but the river predates that. There would be no Chicago if there was no Chicago River. There was also a way here to involve Jean Baptiste Point du Sable connection here, one of the first people who settled in Chicago. One of the other things that works well with the three-pronged symbol is the fact that the geometry of it matches up with the stars of the Chicago flag.  You could suggest the shape of the city’s stars and the shape that is embedded in Chicago symbols just through the shape of the crest. Working with those angles and working with that geometry creates those shapes in the logo’s design. It’s a really subtle indication and not everyone is going to get it, but those angles are drawn from somewhere, they weren’t arbitrary or completely made up. I’ve always believed in ‘why invent something new, when there’s strong material to work with?’ Especially with the history of Chicago and what’s already there.

WNC: This team’s mantra from the very beginning has been “Of Chicago, By Chicago, For Chicago.” Why should Chicagoans be proud of this team’s crest, brand and identity?

LM: I think it reflects what’s already there. A successful identity does that. I’m not here to institute something new on top of what’s already there. My job is to invoke what’s present. The community already exists – it’s already strong. We had a lot of conversations internally about having 2020 on the logo in roman numerals cause it’s such a fraught year in the minds of many. I actually think that’s the biggest positive of this team and this identity, is that it was founded in the midst of adversity. When we got down to the team being called “House,” I actually realized that in addition to all of the associations with the music genre and the social programs in the city, this was actually a club that was quite literally founded in people’s houses. We were at home this entire time – and that’s not anything to sneeze at. There’s so much that was so difficult over the last year, yet this happened. So going back to why Chicagoans should be proud, it’s something that was achieved and reflective of the struggles and adversity which we all faced in whatever we were doing and whatever walk of line we were a part of. The city was born out of struggle. House music was born out of struggle – the backlash of disco music in the ‘70s. The people of Chicago know it, and should be proud of it.

WNC: We’ve talked a lot about Chicago; the history of Chicago and how the city is reflected in the identity. Let’s look at the other component of the identity – how is House Music manifested in the identity?

LM: We experimented a lot of ways with that. Some of the first concepts, we were far more explicit with the music connection – I thought that was worth exploring. There are strong elements of House music in the logo design. Going back to the abstract “CH” in the middle of the crest. It has a lot of associations, it’s not supposed to depict one certain element. There’s a deliberate reference to electronic music equalizers, in the changing heights of the shapes. There’s also reference to the aesthetics of album covers, record labels, and really hard-edged geometry that’s often found in the design of electronic music in the ‘80s, and the ‘90s too.

WNC: On to the colors; how did you land on the colors that make up the logos and marks?

LM: The colors; we wanted to be playful with the colors and have something that was fun but was also industrial. That’s a tough needle to thread. We looked at bold purples and acid colors and none of them really worked. These colors are very much of Chicago, they come from materials and architecture of buildings and sculptures in the city. The oxidized, weather steel and bronze; I think that’s very special and particular to Chicago’s history, and the warehouses where House music originated. To represent all of these colors in the crest was a big challenge but we felt that this was the most effective way to do it.

WNC: Why did you choose “Deep Rust” and “Patina Green” as the primary colors?

LM: We were down to six different shades of orange towards the end, finding ourselves debating whether one was too red, or too orange, or too dull, and we knew we wanted to include a shade of orange because it really is an underused color in Chicago sports and quite frankly, sports in general. So many sports organizations position themselves as working-class or rough-edged, but so little invoke directly this industrial color palette. One of the main characteristics that I notice when I spend time in the city is the weathered steel in Chicago, most notably in the Picasso sculpture. I knew immediately that was something that I wanted to explore, and we weren’t sure it would work with what we were doing, but I’m happy that it found a place in the end and it did work so well. It’s very unusual for a sports team’s color palette for a color like that to be paired with the Patina Green color, which comes from the Art Institute lions, or many other sculptures, some in the cemeteries in Chicago that these oxidized colors come from.

WNC: It would have been quite easy to go with a plain, everyday black color for the logo’s background. Why did you choose “Promontory Black” as the background color?

LM: So much of what we see with black out there is just really flat. We’ve been staring at our screens for a long time with this standard, default black. It’s easy to reproduce, it shows up in lots of different ways but it’s not rich enough. I wanted to have something with a richer feel to it, a bit of a texture. It’s a kind of black you see when you look out at Lake Michigan at twilight. I wanted something that had a better interaction with the other colors. We never wanted to default to just straight black and white. The “Alpha Grey” came as the contrast – it’s not quite silver, and it’s definitely not white. “Alpha Grey” has a distinct flavor to it, and it’s also Chicago. Demonstrating that visually was always important.

WNC: This is widely known as a fan-inspired design from start to finish. How did you, and everyone else involved, from a design standpoint, take what the fans were suggesting and work that into the design to make it your own?   

LM: It was really easy. It’s just listening as much as possible and taking everything on. We sat in on a lot of meetings. Peter and Train were really communicative with their feedback; we bounced ideas off each other for months. There were a lot of opinions, and a lot of minds were changed, too. There were a lot of things early in the process that people though might not work, and now they seem really pleased with the result. This is also not a process that can please everybody. You simply have to represent everything you can and make the best case as possible with the fan feedback in mind. There’s no perfect result or ideal solution, you just make the best case you can for all of it, and I’m confident we did that.

WNC: Another thing we keep hearing is the excitement from fans to see these colors and marks on a kit. I hear you may be working on that already…

LM: Oh yeah! Already on the case. Yeah, it’s in the process and definitely stay tuned for that soon. 

WNC: We’ve talked about everything that is blatantly right in front of people’s faces. Fans are beginning to find “Easter Eggs” and things in the logos that may not be right under everyone’s nose. Can you talk about some parts of the logo that fans should keep an eye out for?

LM: I don’t know if I would even categorize it that way. Yes, that is a good way that people probably recognize it as an “Easter Egg hunt,” but all things are intentional. Everything about the marks and the identity is intentional and even though people think they found a mistake or something that was extra… Nope, it’s not. We knew all along – that was the point. I knew even from the beginning there was a discussion about whether or not we had a problem that there was an “H-I” in the negative space in the initials in the crest. And I said ‘no, I think that’s kind of cool!’ It’s weirdly friendly, if people want to read it that way, even if it’s not totally intentional. It softens the hard-edginess of the whole logo. It was also rightly pointed out that it has the “C” forming the “H” and the “I” next to it so it says “CHI” all together – the shorthand for Chicago. We were good with that. You can point out these types of things on logos all throughout the course of time. If you have something to talk about, that’s good. It’s a good result, there’s something there!

WNC: Last question – in your opinion, what’s next for the Chicago House AC brand and identity? Where do you ultimately see this going?

LM: That’s a two-pronged question. The first, and the most correct answer is… I don’t know. [laughs] Now it’s in the hands of the team, it’s in the hands of fans, it’s in the hands of the city. A lot of the really exciting stuff happens after the launch, where people like you get your hands on it and get into it and start modifying it and adapting it for their own purposes. Fans have the ability to push an identity to its limit and take things out and draw things out over many years. This is for the long haul. I think what’s next is defining how these elements work together. A lot of these manifestations in the merchandise and the uniforms and gear and the marketing will ultimately determine that. I’m going to be involved in some of that stuff, and have been already in making this as exciting and distinct as possible. The ideal result is somebody sees the shirt or something with the logo on it from a distance and recognizes it, and with the green or with that orange, we can accomplish that. We want people to immediately say, ‘oh, they’re wearing a House shirt!’ As an add-on to the question, as the idea of the Athletic Club evolves, the identity will evolve too. We talked about this in the naming process and the whole development of the brand, but the marks will take on the spirit of the club, not just specifically relating to soccer or specifically relating to one thing or another. It’s an open framework. There is so much behind it.

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For more information, contact Chicago House Athletic Club at info@chicagohouseac.com, visit www.chicagohouseac.com and follow on social media @ChicagoHouse_AC. “Of Chicago, By Chicago, For Chicago.” | “Our City, Our House.”