What’s Earth League: An interview with noted NBA illustrator Ryan Simpson


Ryan Simpson, a noted illustrator of NBA personalities and other iconic figures, debuted a new project called Earth League this summer.

The following is a Q and A conducted between Bryan Harvey and Ryan Simpson about his new Earth League project and the processes behind making art.

BH: So what is Earth League?

RS: The general idea behind the project was to create a sort of “league” of “teams” that, instead of representing and supporting particular cities or players, represent and support important animals and protected/conservation areas around the Earth.

To start, I’ve personally designed some logos and also hired a few other awesome artists and designers to create designs inspired by a few particular animals and protected areas where the animal lives and thrives. These have all been printed on clothing items and are for sale on the project’s site. One-third of any profit generated from the project will be donated to support conservation efforts directly tied to the animals and areas.

BH: The current website features clothing adorned with koalas, rockhopper penguins, and snow leopards. How do you select what animals to transform into logos? What animals might appear in the future?

RS:  So far I’ve picked animals that are all endangered or threatened. I’ve also largely picked based on thinking the animals were cool looking and might translate into a cool logo, or just finding them interesting in general. Next in line is a cheetah, which I’ve been planning to release a shirt and shorts featuring. Beyond that, I’ve started quite a few more animal logo-esque sketches, including a lemur, a sloth, an orangutan, a hyena, a rare toad, amongst others.

Photo Credit: Ryan Simpson
Photo Credit: Ryan Simpson /

BH: While Earth League’s objectives are rather serious and maybe even dire, there’s still a whimsy to the entire project–like, it reminds me of what a kid might imagine a sports league to look like. What fuels that sense of amusement?

RS: Well, thank you. That’s exactly it really, the logos I’ve made so far do all have a classic sporty aesthetic. I do somewhat attempt to make them all feel cohesive, yet distinct—similar to what you would see in the logos making up a real league. But more intentionally, I try to just have fun doing them. That could be why you sense some level of amusement and whimsy in them, they’re the result of me doing something I enjoy, with no pressure or expectations. I do them pretty quickly, in a day or so, and don’t try to worry about painstakingly finessing every detail over a longer period of time.

The logos are kind of an amalgamation of things that I’ve always been interested in: sports, animals, and art/design. As a young kid, even though I had favorite teams like the Hornets and Bulls, I would wear all sorts of stuff from a ton of different teams, just because I thought it was cool looking. Then as you grow up there’s more of a culture/expectation where it’s only “cool” to like and be loyal to one team. That’s another reason I liked the idea of creating a league that is not really tied to that, one where you can be a fan of and support as many “teams” as you want, the more the better.

BH: I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but did what happened with those original koala shorts serve as a motivator or deterrent in pursuing what Earth League is now? I should also add that I have a pair of those original shorts and parts of the koala are still hanging on for dear life.

RS: First of all, that’s awesome and I really appreciate that you supported and joined the original “Koala Crew.” So as you know, I designed that little smiling koala logo and had it printed on some gym shorts last year. This was something I decided to do to try to raise a little money for the Australian wildfire relief effort early in 2020. The project ended up getting an unexpectedly massive response, which was incredible, but frankly overwhelming. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems as though the things you try to do with the best intentions end up going inexplicably wrong. The small local screen printer I hired to print the shorts in Charlotte basically ended up making a mistake somewhere in the process and the prints on the shorts ended up peeling straight off of most people’s shorts.

I will spare you the long, probably boring story, but it was an extremely stressful and difficult situation that landed right at the crux of the pandemic. Over 600 people ended up ordering those shorts and seemingly all of them were likely faulty. Being a solo freelance artist and just a one-person operation, I wasn’t prepared for and didn’t know how to best handle a mistake of that magnitude. It was extremely important to me to ultimately rectify the situation though and the good news is that even though it took a long time, I was able to finally resolve it. New shorts were printed and sent out to anyone who had an issue and claimed them. I’m not sure if you claimed your pair but, if not, a fresh-faced pair of koala shorts is waiting for you.

Photo Credit: Ryan Simpson
Photo Credit: Ryan Simpson /

BH: You’ve collaborated with and highlighted the work of several other artists in the past — will other artists be contributing to Earth League?

RS: Yeah absolutely, I really just like to hire people that I’m a fan of and let them do their thing on subjects that I’m personally drawn to and interested in. I’ve actually already hired multiple artists to make stuff for Earth League — the shirts that are available now are all designed by other artists and designers. The snow leopard shirt was designed by Will Dove, a designer working out of D.C. The koala shirt was designed by Ulysses Design Co., a design duo based in Sydney, AU. The rockhopper penguin shirt was a collaboration between myself and Louis Holmes, who’s an illustrator from France. I’ve also hired a few other artists to do stuff which I’ll hopefully be able to share soon.

BH: I know I mentioned how fun some of the Earth League logos are, and I think one reason that jumps out to me is that a lot of the portraits you’ve done present a much more serious aesthetic. How different is the logo work you do for Earth League from the portrait work you’ve been doing?

RS: That’s interesting, it’s always fun to hear how other people interpret and respond to my work. I haven’t personally aimed to present a particularly serious aesthetic in anything I do, but I certainly can see how some of the realistic portraits I’ve done feel very serious compared to something like a smiley koala logo. As far as the logos go, I did intentionally try to make many of them feel fun and happy. Some are more “serious” looking, but overall the aesthetic of the logos feels pretty light-hearted. I think that’s happened naturally because I personally respond to and enjoy mascot/logo designs of animals that are fun and happy.

Photo Credit: Ryan Simpson
Photo Credit: Ryan Simpson /

BH: Speaking of your portraits, what makes you decide to do a particular individual?

RS: Primarily I’ve picked people I either personally like or people I thought will be popular. To be honest, there’s never been that much deliberation to it. Since I’ve been illustrating and freelancing on my own, I’ve never really had a plan. I went to school for graphic design and worked as a designer at a branding agency for about 5 years. Eventually, I began to get burnt out in the agency environment and I was losing my interest in art and design. I decided to try to start doing some traditional art/illustration on the side, just for fun, for myself, with no expectations or pressure. I literally just started by drawing some basketball players I grew up liking. During the playoffs that year, I did a series of sketches of probably 10 or so current players and shared them on Reddit. That post ended up becoming pretty popular and a lot of people saw it, including an Art Director at Grantland. She hired me to do some illustrations for some articles. Everything since, has just kind of worked out from there.

BH: One thing that always amazes me about your portraits is the level of detail that’s noticeable on them in person, but not on one’s phone or a computer screen. The style is rather minimalist too, though, because the backgrounds are largely color pops. How do you know when a piece is done and there are no more paint splatters or stray hairs left to draw?

RS: That’s a good question. I’ve never really tried to analyze my process that fully but, I guess the answer would be it’s not really something that I’m consciously thinking about doing or have strict rules for. I suppose it’s more of a feeling or intuition. I just work on something until I’m either happy with it, or if it’s personal work, it becomes no longer fun. My interest in art/design has always stemmed from having that sense of fun. As a kid, my interest in it started because I would draw stupid things on notes and pass it back and forth to friends during class, trying to amuse them.

To me, art is also primarily an acquired skill. It’s similar to other skills like, for example, a basketball player who’s a great shooter. To be good at it, it’s something you have to work on over many years. When it comes time to actually “perform”, it seems to be best just to get in a rhythm and not actually think about what you’re doing. Thinking about what you’re doing and overanalyzing every motion can become a hindrance.

Photo Credit: Ryan Simpson
Photo Credit: Ryan Simpson /

BH: Earth League currently offers a variety of shorts and t-shirts and a hat, I think. What are the future goals and ambitions for the line or brand or whatever you want to call it?

RS: That’s right, so far there are three animals, each featured on gym shorts and a shirt. There’s also one koala hat. I’m planning on offering some additional types of things as well, including art prints. Another idea I’ve had, which I think fits the project’s theme/interests, is offering vintage travel or animal pennants. I love the design and aesthetic of old pennants, so I’ve been trying to find and buy some that feature animals and/or a protected area like a national park, and offering those for sale.

I’m not sure what the long-term future of the project is, but I hope it will support itself and I’ll continue to be able to build it, try different things, and release more stuff. Basically, the goal has been and will continue to be pretty simple: to try to do something good, for it to be fun to work on, and to make and offer cool, high-quality stuff. That’s it really.

Here is a direct link to Earth League. You can also follow Ryan Simpson on Twitter @Rtsimp.