Grit, power, passion – these are just some of the intense qualities we associate with sport. And for designers, the coming months will offer an exceptional opportunity to tap into the emotions sport conjures up. Even if the O-word is already starting to grate, the London 2012 games, plus the Euro 2012 football championships in Poland and Ukraine, will allow creatives to produce work that explores the sporting psyche of nations.

According to Russell Clayton, strategy director at London creative agency Rosie Lee (rosielees.co.uk), authenticity is integral to any project that takes its inspiration from sport. “The only way to credibly portray sport is to involve yourself in the sport and in the athlete,” he says.

“The design and art direction should be far deeper than just thinking about how the end image will look. It’s about making sure that the viewer can see what’s going through the athlete’s mind.”

Rosie Lee’s rugby imagery for Nike takes a ‘ball’s eye view’ (above). Their self-initiated work (below) focuses on the game’s physicality

There’s no better example of this approach than Rosie Lee’s work for the launch of Nike’s 2009/10 England rugby kit. Aiming to engage the viewer, the consultancy worked with photographer Patrik Giardino to take shots of players as though in an actual match, with the camera seemingly placed where the ball might be in the thick of the action.

Closely cropped, intimate compositions work well to communicate strenuous effort – a design feature Rosie Lee took a step further for its self-initiated project titled Into The Fray. This was another set of rugby-inspired posters, in which a team of players were crammed into shot in an attempt to capture the visceral intensity of the sport.

Rosie Lee creative director Mark Fleming says the compositions were deliberately chosen to highlight the rivalry between players and reflect moments in the game where competition is at its most intense. “For the same reasons we went to great lengths to get every corner and every bit of space filled with the muscle and sinew of the players,” he says. Likewise, the ‘Into The Fray’ logo was set in a solid, bold block with no leading, evoking the bulk of the players and their interlocking bodies.

The stadium, manager and fans were simply absent from these images in order to focus attention on the sportsmen. In a similar spirit, photographer Adam Hinton decided to concentrate on the exhausted expressions of Olympic athletes when working with global ad agency Wieden+Kennedy on Nike’s Make It Count campaign.

Pictograms for London 2012 by SomeOne

Colour, too, is integral to portraying vigour and energy. The earthiness of Into the Fray’s rugby players was communicated by tweaking the skin tones, and football club Tottenham Hotspur’s brand values of ‘flair, style and adventure’ were brought out using colour in their new corporate identity, developed by creative agency SomeOne (someoneinlondon.com). Creative director Simon Manchipp says the new identity is recognisable without being overpowering, and features “a combination of strong white grading, crushing the colours to make them exciting and vital”.

Capturing the energy of sport doesn’t have to entail hyper-real photography. When rebranding the British Basketball Association, SomeOne opted for a more symbolic approach focusing on movement – an approach that they also adopted in their London 2012 pictograms.

“The [basketball] concept came from the science of the game: the way that the experts analyse a game, the way they plan moves and intricate sequences of play,” Simon says.

SomeOne’s brand identity for Tottenham Hotspur

Robust and recognisable

“It preserved some of the thrilling movement on the court and was still robust, recognisable and distinct enough for the determined fan as well as the newly interested spectator.”

Similarly illustrator Alan Clarke, whose Olympic-inspired posters were regarded by some as preferable to the official designs by the likes of Tracey Emin and Fiona Banner, instilled motion into his restrained Swiss-style creations using pattern and suggestion. “I wanted to create a sense of speed and movement through abstraction in the designs,” he says. “I looked at a lot of slow-motion videos of athletes and photography. It was the speed that most interested me, as well as the journey the athletes took.”

TBWA’s Adidas campaign for the 2008 Beijing Olympics taps into the importance of home crowd support

Although sport is very much about the experience on the pitch, track or pool, it’s important not to ignore the wider context of an event. Clarke’s posters, which were created as part of a self-initiated university project, capture location and national pride by referring to the London Underground network using a version of Transport for London’s classic Johnston typeface. Similarly, the environmental iterations of SomeOne’s London 2012 pictograms also reference the Underground, integrating the spidery web of the Tube map into the designs.