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©Miami Dolphins, 2018

Getting Into Sports Design & What To Do Once You’re There

Brandon Moore
May 9, 2019 · 7 min read

“What advice would you give a young designer new to the sports industry?” — @trenches_

I recently came across that tweet. It’s similar to the more often asked, How do you become a Designer in sports? I replied on twitter, but that’s not the platform to answer these questions properly. So, how do you get into sports design, and what do you do once you’re there? I have no definitive answers and I’ve only worked at a couple of places, but I do have some advice.

Breaking In

Getting your start in sports is the same as getting a start anywhere else as a Graphic Designer. It ultimately doesn’t matter how much experience you have or what your degree is as long as that Team feels you are up to the challenge. There are Creative Directors with 20 years of experience that wouldn’t be a good fit at some places and people with degrees from RISD that wouldn’t either. How do you prove you’re up to it?

You have to show you can do whatever it is the Team is in need of. If your portfolio sets an accurate example of the skills and tastes they’re looking for, you’re well on your way. It’s your portfolio that will always show the world what you are as a Designer. Behance, dribbble, IG, or personal site, everything should look the very best you can make it look. Aim to make it look like its worth $1M.

Great presentation is just as important as the actual work itself, and thats a skill you will always need in pitching your work. Mock all of your designs on the appropriate applications. Forget the tote bags and business cards, put your work on things they would actually go on in the real world. Even better if you have photos of your work on those actual things.

Behance is the best portfolio platform for Designers. (I’ll gladly take your money for that, Behance/Adobe) It allows you to build in-depth case studies if you like, but keep the text to a minimum. When I’m looking at other Designer’s work on Behance, I’ll also take a look through the things they have liked or saved. Even if their work is lacking a bit, I can get a good sense of what they’re into and what they admire through the work they’re looking at. I don’t know if that matters to anyone else, but it certainly has been a factor when I’ve helped in the hiring process. I want to know what you think good design is and what you’re curious about.

Not every team is looking for the same thing in a Designer. If you only have football related projects and are applying to a football team, that might be great for one team and a red flag for another. Either way, you need to show a little bit of breadth in your work.

Things a Designer will work on: social media ads (fb, twitter, IG), Google ads, printed flyers, signs, logos, posters, Brand Identities, billboards, motion graphics/GIFs, schedules, books/magazines, shirts, tickets, and more.

Your portfolio will never be the deciding factor, though. Good Creative Directors don’t hire a portfolio, they hire a person. Someone who lacks in skills but fits a certain culture and clicks with the team will always be better than a talented one who doesn’t.

The first thing HR and Managers do is scan your social media accounts to get a sense of who you are. Like it or not, when you work for someone else, you are an ambassador of that company. Careful what you put out there, even about rivals, partners and sponsors of the team you might work for. For instance, if I said “BudLight is a less desirable beverage than the water at the bottom of a garbage bag” while working for a team whom they give money to, that would not look very good on said team. Just, think before you tweet.

Get to know people in the industry. Not just for your own benefit of trying to make it in, but actually be friends with them. There’s a lot of good people working in this industry and I’ve made friends with people I will always want to find a way to work with or try to help best I can. And most people are very willing to do the same, or answer questions to help a young Designer succeed. It doesn’t matter what league or team they work for, everyone I’ve met is very open to talking shop or helping someone out.

When You Get It

As a Designer, I believe it is your job to make your bosses job easier. My aim was (when given the proper time, which isn’t always in the cards) to get a design approved without making revisions. If I could do that, I felt I did my job well.

I also believe you shouldn’t just execute a brief, but find the best solution. To get there, you have to ask a lot of questions. What is this for? What are we trying to do with this? Who is it going to? What are we trying to communicate? How does this align with our goals? What’s our budget for this? Have we done something similar before?

“Idea Is King” is something valued at the Dolphins. As an example of that, if a brief was put in to announce the season’s jersey schedule via social media posts (twitter, IG, facebook) I might think about a more interesting way of doing that which meets our goal of engaging fans online. Which might lead to building out a Spark page for that announcement…

The worse thing you can do as a Designer is having a mindset of “staying in your lane”, following the rules, and executing briefs. The highest value you can provide to your team is executing creative ideas others haven’t thought of yet.

Don’t be afraid to push back and defend your work, but you have to be certain you’re right when you do it. You’ll always get it in return— the logo needs to be bigger, there’s too much white space, “I don’t love it”, “Do we have a better photo?”, “Let’s make this thing” thats stupid, “Can we put the URL on there?”…When you get these questions and this push-back, ask yourself if they’re right and if it will be be better with their suggestion. If they’re not right, voice your opinion and fight for your work.

Most of what I’ve learned as an employee of someone else hasn’t had much to do with graphic design. But, marketing, social media, sales, strategy, video production, leadership, print production, all that I got in spades because I asked, observed, and listened. If you get excited talking about Design, your co-workers probably do talking about their fields as well. If they’re at the Pro sports team level, they probably know a thing or two. Everything you can learn about these other fields that surround yours will make you better.

Everyone is a teammate. Everyone has a job to do and are probably trying their best to do it. If you’re in a Designer position, this may be outside of your influence, but it’s worth working towards getting everyone to fight for you (the team) not against you. Sponsors want to take all they can get— your team has to learn how not be taken advantage of. Sales or Partnerships will want to promise something they can’t deliver— don’t be set up for failure. Young Project Managers will want to deliver whatever they’re being asked for— show them a better way. If you can help all of these people be successful by doing what’s best for the team, they’ll end up appreciating it.

There will be difficult people. Those who try to flank you or your teammates by cutting corners in the process. There will be those impossible to please unless they get exactly what they want. There will be people resistant to change and no words will convince them otherwise. The solution is to communicate well, respectfully, and show them you have their best interest in mind. Don’t spout vague philosophies about design and aesthetics, no one cares, but if you’re all looking at a problem the same way and you can collectively take a baby step forward, that’s progress. Some people need to be shown the way, shown the results of change for the better, then they’ll budge a little more next time.

Most of the time if you have an idea you will have to sell others on it, then do most of the work yourself (shout out to Merlin Mann). Take ownership of a project or an idea you have and make it happen. Start with a pitch or a conversation, present it, then lead it. Don’t just wait to be told what to do, you’ll have plenty of that. But, never start with the aesthetic. Start with filing a need, a gap, a process, or improving upon something. No one cares about making a poster, but if you can make a run of posters and get a sponsor for it (revenue + cover the costs), and give away to fans, now you’ve got something people are interested in; now you’ve got the idea. Then, you can go and make the cool shit.

The reality of working in sports might not be as glamorous as you think. Game Days are work days and you lose your fan privilege. There will be things you see or experience that might ruin the magic that once existed. But, it can also be a great industry to have a career in. The thing that will help you most in your career is helping others. Keep that mindset and know that if you can improve something or take ownership of a good idea and that leads to helping someone else, you are more than filling your role as a Designer. You become an incredibly valuable teammate and that will carry you very far.

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