Basketball courts

Graphic design helps UK basketball courts bounce back

Basketball is more popular than ever in the UK, but remains underfunded. Could graphics provide an answer?

“A basketball court is a blank canvas,” says Gareth Roberts. “As long as the lines are there, you can do just about anything.” Roberts is a basketball player turned designer – he played for the England Under-18 team before pursuing a career in packaging design. Four years ago he founded Project in the Paint, with the aim of revamping local courts and getting people involved in sport. “Design has an impact on how people react,” he adds. “And you can play on that knowledge with basketball.”

While basketball is one of the most popular sports in the UK, funding often doesn’t match, according to Roberts. “There are so many under beloved courts in the UK,” he says. Art classes, as they’re sometimes called, provide a solution to this – fix surfaces while attracting new players with eye-catching design. Roberts has designed four courts so far, including two in Chelmsford, Essex and another at a university near Writtle.

Project in the Paint pilot court in Chelmsford. Courtesy of Andrew Strelczak

Art classes have attracted more players and especially families with young children, explains the creator. “They might not even have a basketball, they might have a beach ball or a ball they found in the backyard,” he says. “They just want to be involved in sports, and maybe they’ve never done it before.” Roberts estimates the refurbished courts will last around five years, while they are relatively easy to maintain (UK rainfall keeps them clean).

As art courts have sprung up across the UK – Roberts has advised courts in South London and Portsmouth – interest has been sparked. While the first court was crowdfunded, Roberts was offered funding from Essex councils for more spaces, while an Islington court in London was commissioned by apple brand Pink Lady. He is currently in talks with Birmingham City Council ahead of the 2022 Commonwealth Games.


“I wanted the court to have a story behind it”

Court designed by Coco Lom in Islington

Roberts considers sport to be well suited to imaginative designs. “I’ve always found basketball to be a more interesting sport – in terms of aesthetics – than any other,” he says. “In the ’90s in particular, the clothing and culture around basketball was really vibrant and artistic.” The National Basketball Association (NBA) has well-regarded logos, for example. “It’s second nature that people who play basketball are also interested in color and design,” he adds.

Roberts approached designer Coco Lom for the Islington court, which opened this summer. “I wanted the court to have a story behind it,” Lom says. Per Pink Lady’s briefing, she examined apples under a microscope – looking at pollen and dried apple leaves. She then incorporated these shapes and patterns into the design, while also researching how players navigate the pitch. The pitch is designed to “echo the energy and flow of the game,” Lom adds.

Painting Islington Court

She kept a few considerations in mind when designing the space. The graphics couldn’t distract players, Lom explains. “I made sure not to interfere with important lines,” she adds, and those line markings have been redone as well. The panels and nets were also redesigned and Lom designed custom basketballs. The team also consulted with people with learning disabilities and visual impairments to ensure the courts were accessible to all types of users.

Lom, Roberts and an extended team painted the court by hand. In total, they applied two coats, including a primer, working from a grid system. One aspect that Lom likes most is the flexibility of the redesigned space. “Although this is a basketball court, there is a possibility that other games will be played on the court,” she said, pointing to the circular elements. “I hope the kids and even the adults can go out there and make their own games.”

Lom remembers how bad weather in the UK interfered with the design process over the summer – at one point the court looked like a ‘pink pool’ due to the heavy rains, she says. Roberts is aware that some designers have started working with spray paint in an attempt to speed up the process, although he remains committed to the “practicality”, believing that this gives the courts some authenticity. “You wouldn’t want Van Gogh to come in and have someone apply a blue base coat before putting on their blueberries,” he says. “We should approach our work in the same way. “


“Perfectly placed curved shapes”

One of O’Hara’s art classes

One of the UK’s first art courts was designed in 2018 in Brighton by Lois O’Hara. She was inspired by the work of Project Backboard, an American organization that is reorganizing the courts in the United States. It took her a year to organize and she was driven by the ambition to make spaces “safer” for the local community. “I wanted to make the area safe and encourage those who wouldn’t normally play the sport to give it a try,” she says.

O’Hara believes his signature style – inspired by curves and organic shapes – is conducive to gameplay. “My creative style is very fluid and it’s really gratifying to see children and young adults running around the curved shapes and lines,” she says. “I think my work easily inspires movement because it’s so organic and versatile.” O’Hara explains that she sometimes creates compositions based on where players spend the most time, thus encouraging movement through “perfectly placed curved shapes.”

Courts of Writtle University College, with works by Molly Hawkins. Courtesy of Martin Dyan

According to O’Hara, she’s improved at designing art courts since her first project, learning how to resurface the floor before applying patterns, making them last longer. Most recently, she revealed a changing perspective basketball court in Bradford, West Yorkshire. She also turned to tennis courts and badminton tables.

This boom in popularity is not confined to the UK. Over the summer, a court in Brooklyn, New York, was painted to promote the release of the Space Jam sequel – making the most of the film’s basketball roots (it stars the sports legend LeBron James). But Roberts advises some caution for future trademark courts. “It would be easy for a big brand to come and sponsor a lot and demand their logo everywhere, but I don’t think it’s good to go to an inner city and make a Louis Vuitton lot,” he says. “It seems tasteless to me. “