The Quiet Radicals: Sam Davy

Soccer and graphic design might appear to be unlikely bedfellows. But for Sam Davy the two have been like paired magnets, directing the course of his career with their intractable pull.

Article by Jen Nurick

Sam DavyArtwork by Vincent Fantauzzo.

Of all Sam Davy’s early ventures, which included a high-school art project that piqued his interest in brand identity and an honours degree in graphic design at Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University) in the United Kingdom, it was soccer that landed Davy his first design job upon moving from Yorkshire to London. “There was a big indoor five-a-side tournament going on in Spitalfields Market,” he recalls. “One team was short of players. They said, ‘Oh, do you play?’ and I said yes. We got chatting, had a few beers and they said, ‘Come in for an interview tomorrow.’ ”

Some might call it kismet, but Davy, the co-founder and creative director of Park, a social-impact-powered soccer ball brand, says the encounter unlocked something more dynamic: the unifying magic of soccer and its potential to change the world. “I’d played it growing up and loved it, but you start to realise the connections you can build through it,” he says. “It became a real community, a connection point for all these people that, like me, had come to London from other parts of the country or the world to try to make it in design.” The game scored Davy an internship — and a regular turn at weekly matches near Old Street station — that eventually evolved into a job.

Back then, in the late ’90s, when graphic design was a fledgling industry, Davy says there was always push-pull between what he knew design could do for clients and how those clients perceived its value, leaving designers siloed and sidelined. “I felt that design [professionals] should be able to sit at the table next to the salesperson, next to the logistics person, next to operations and finance,” he says, echoing a sentiment of frustration shared by many in the industry. “The undercurrent was always, ‘Clients don’t understand how to commission design.’ ” So when an email from Apple appeared in his inbox, Davy seized the opportunity to galvanise the power of design by going within.

“I had this real feeling that if there was a company on the planet where, as a designer, you could really understand how you could effect change, Apple might be it,” he says. It was a prescient instinct, telling of Davy’s talent for identifying promise amid the noise. This was long before AirPods and iPads, and pre-iPhone, even pre-iPod Mini. Davy was charged with hand-holding both eager and reluctant adopters through a rapidly changing technology landscape, making them fluent in all things Apple. “It was about making sense of all these gargantuan technological leaps,” says Davy, who notes that recollections of an age before we stored memories in the cloud can be muddy. “[We were] trying to create a narrative that was calm and easy to follow.”

Davy served as the global creative director of Apple under Steve Jobs until 2008. A prompt proffered by Jobs at the end of a meeting jolted an entrepreneurial nerve, eventually leading Davy to launch Park in 2018. “How can Apple do well by doing good?” Jobs had asked. It was a question that foreshadowed what would be Davy’s most important launch of all. He realised: “There’s this whole other world out there which is not commercial and it’s not a charity: this space in between, where a business can do things for good.” Davy relocated with his family from the United States to Melbourne, where his ideas percolated on the pitch as he coached his eldest son’s soccer team and moaned each time his son left his gear out in the rain.

And so the seed was planted. Davy would produce soccer balls and for every one sold, he’d pass on a ball to a child in need. Step one: a YouTube search (“How to make footballs?”) led him to a female-owned factory in Nanjing, China, where Park still manufactures its products. The hand-drawn designs on the balls are playful, intended to inject soul into the sport, while an eye motif reifies our ability to see the world’s injustices, inviting us to act. “We can all see it, whether it’s sitting on our street corner or on our newsfeed,” says Davy. “It’s just whether we choose to do something about it.”

A formative trip to Lombok, Indonesia, with the company’s co-founder, Tara Montoneri, in 2016 further fuelled Davy’s mission. The pair encountered a school ground filled with hundreds of spectators waiting for a soccer final to begin. All that was missing? “We opened the boot, got a couple of balls out and said, ‘Here we go,’ ” recalls Davy. The feeling was epiphanic: “We’ve got to do this. This is so serendipitous.” Since then, Park has delivered more than 10,000 soccer balls to kids in need across 36 countries and is working to tackle inequality in the sport from multiple angles, with women’s kits launching next year. “We can stand by what we believe in and develop product for the communities out there that aren’t properly served,” says Davy. “Everybody deserves the same opportunity and that’s what this brand is ultimately about.”

In Park, Davy has synthesised lessons from Jobs, chief among them how to remain laser-focused without losing sight of what comes next. And Davy has done so with a lean team and a scrappy kind of savvy. The brand’s ongoing collaboration with the video game developer EA Sports and soccer’s global governing body, FIFA, is but one example of how change can

be driven, and scaled, when working at the nexus of impact and imagination. Together with C2Zero, an Australian company that fights pollution by buying up and locking away carbon emissions permits, Park developed a digital team of goalkeepers as part of an activation for the video game FIFA 22. For every game played against Park’s team, 100 grams of emissions were locked away. Davy also worked with C2Zero to calculate the carbon footprint of Park’s soccer balls. “We can more than offset our footprint and we can do it in this really interesting way that aligns with the idea of the brand and football, in terms of taking on the bigger guys from a different angle,” he says.

Davy’s idea to change the world with a soccer ball is audacious, but it’s also a clarion call for the Nikes and Adidases of the world to optimise impact as well as performance. After all, the most satisfying wins are those you can share. “We are the enabler,” says Davy. “We’re not the ones out there trying to kick the goal, we’re the ones trying to set somebody else up to kick the goal. “What’s the first thing the coach will tell you?” continues Davy. “It’s that if you’ve got a ball at your feet, look up, see who hasn’t and pass the ball to them.”

Explained this way, it’s clear Davy’s apparent good luck was actually by design.

This is a short extract from our newest issue.

To read the full story, pick up a copy of our new issue in newsagents nationally or subscribe to receive T Australia straight to your letterbox. You will find it on Page 56 of Issue #9, titled “The Quiet Radicals”.